Adventures in Teaching: Space Opera Course Recommendations?


In the upcoming fall semester, I will be teaching an upper division modern science fiction course on American space opera.  That’s right.  A whole entire course just on American space opera.  Though I have a few ideas for texts to teach, I realize that space opera is a massive field and that I would be remiss not to poke the infinite knowledge of other science fiction fans for works I might otherwise have missed or which might serve my needs better than the things in my head.

With that in mind, I’m looking for space opera recommendations!  As of right now, I’m strongly considering teaching E.E. “Doc” Smith, Joe Haldeman, Tobias Buckell, Alfred Bester, Samuel R. Delany, Lois McMaster Bujold, and C.J. Cherryh.  I have a lot of titles, but I’m not sure what I will choose to focus on just yet.  Given the scope of the course, I may be limited in how much I can actually explore.

So what am I looking for?

1) Short stories, novellas, and novels (no longer than 400 pages) which could reasonably be described as space opera OR playing in the space opera sandbox.  The stories should in some way engage with the course description:

Coined by Wilson Tucker in 1941 as a pejorative, the science fiction subgenre of “space opera” has become a staple of science fiction narrative, most popularly envisioned in film by the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. But far from mere visual spectacle or adventure, space opera’s history suggests a complicated relationship between the subgenre and the contemporary culture in which it is written. From its roots in the often paranoid and sometimes blatantly racist narratives (e.g., “Yellow Peril” stories) of what I.F. Clarke calls “future war fiction,” to its development as a legitimate subgenre in the pulps and the Golden Age via writers such as E.E. “Doc” Smith and Alfred Bester, space opera has always been in conversation with its time. It reinforces contemporary values or, as science fiction is apt to do, it critiques or deconstructs those values. 

This course will explore the development of American space opera from its literary origins in late 19th-century “future war fiction” and the “Edisonades” to its codification as a subgenre in the pulps via writers such as Edmond Hamilton and E.E. “Doc” Smith. From there, the course will trace the legitimization of space opera as a subgenre in the Golden Age and the political blowbacks to its imperialistic and/or “conservative” themes or narrative tropes in the New Wave (Samuel R. Delany, et. al.) and New Space Opera periods (Tobias Buckell, C.J. Cherryh, et al.). 

Readings will consist of serialized fiction, novels, and critical readings on science fiction, history, or relevant literary or cultural theory. Students will be expected to keep up with the readings and to regularly participate in class discussion. Written course requirements will include two short essays, a group discussion panel, weekly discussion questions, and one final essay.

2) Specific requests:
  • Stories which are considered precursors to traditional space opera
  • Stories which helped define the subgenre
  • Stories which pushed against the traditional form (particularly works form the New Wave)
  • Significant works of New Space Opera
3) Short Story Oddities:  though this course privileges American space opera, I may be able to fit relevant works of other non-US movements into the course (British Boom, etc.).
4) Non-fiction:  essays (academic or otherwise) which explore space opera as a genre or which explore specific works of space opera (w/ their space opera-ness as central).
There you go.  Recommend away!

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

18 thoughts on “Adventures in Teaching: Space Opera Course Recommendations?

  1. Sounds like a great class! I wish I could take it. I loved the Lensman books growing up. When I reread them several years ago, I still enjoyed them, but some parts, including his depiction of gender, were dated. His ideas about gender I think were progressive at the time, but now seem outdated. Still, you couldn't possibly teach a class on Space Opera without covering Smith.

    • I had actually considered that. For sure, I want to show a movie, but it may be better to have students read a book and give them the original trilogy as homework.

      What EU book would you recommend?

  2. Alastair Reynolds (British New SO)
    Chris Moriarty (the Spin series, transhumany New SO)
    Maybe throw some M. John Harrison in there to blow their minds?

    Have you looked at Gwyneth Jones DECONSTRUCTING THE STARSHIPS? Good biblio to mine there.

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