Literary Space Opera: Does it or can it exist?


I’ve been mulling over the idea of writing a space opera, tentatively titled The Reorientation War.  One of the things that strikes me about space operas is the epic scope; much like epic fantasies, space opera offers an immense field in which to play.  For me, that means a lot of people, a lot of places, a lot of social, political, and physical conflict, and a lot of action.  And with The Reorientation War, I’m hoping to sidestep the hero paradigm and opt instead for a more brutal, realistic vision of how an interstellar human empire might function.

But through the course of considering space opera as a genre, I’ve started to wonder about form.  Is there such a thing as literary space opera?  Or do writers of space opera adopt the adventurous landscape established by early SO writers, and, thus, take on its contemporary “popular prose” style?

The reason I ask these question is because I consider literary fiction to be more formally oriented than other genres.  That is that literary fiction, for me, places an extraordinary amount of attention on the language and the interrelationship of parts, which may or may not leave room for a linear plot.  Since much of space opera seems oriented towards plot-oriented conflict, it seems to me that much of the SO genre is potentially antithetical to the “literary.”

A great deal of what we associated with SO borrows liberally from the same sources as Star Wars
and Star Trek.  Traditional hero models.  Traditional plots.  That’s not to say that these are uninteresting or uninspiring elements — heroes, to me, are valuable commodities in literature.  Rather, what I’m trying to suggest is that the distinction between literary and non-literary is utterly formal, in which non-literary work tends to borrow from those mythical sources we’ve come to know and love.  This is precisely because those forms — the hero and his journey — work.  We love heroes.  We love quests and journeys and excitement, and we equally love galactic empires and space battles and the intrigue that SO has tended to offer.

But can you still write an SO novel if you’re missing some of these elements?  If you’re not telling a story about heroes, per se, but about complex human relationships in a setting of empire a la Star Wars, can the story you are writing still be considered SO, or does it become something else entirely?

Honestly, I think it remains SO, but only because I think what I am associating with SO here is inaccurate, in part because there is this thing called New Space Opera and in part because SO is a complex genre.  But I still can’t think of any SOs which one might call literary.  Perhaps I missed them.  If so, let me know in the comments.  Because now I’m throwing the question at all of you…


To clarify some of the above:  I am not talking about literary as “respectable.”  I think that’s a bogus and elitist definition of any genre, popular or otherwise.  Non-literary fiction — that is, fiction which is more plot oriented and pays less attention to the language and interconnected structures via metaphor, etc. — is just as valuable and fascinating as literary fiction.  I would not call Tobias S. Buckell or Nalo Hopkinson “literary writers,” but I would consider their works just as, if not more, valuable as/than anything written in any other genre.

(I blame Adam Callaway for all of the above.)

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

7 thoughts on “Literary Space Opera: Does it or can it exist?

  1. As well you should.

    A lot of people point toward Iain Banks and the Culture novels as "literary space opera," although I highly disagree with that. SO can certainly handle literary elements thrown at it, but I don't know if many people have done it well to this point. Orson Scott Card in his Ender Quartet uses some of the trappings of SO to create a literary masterpiece, but it is not an SO per-say. Paul McCauley's The Quiet War has some trappings of lit fic, but is more concerned with the SO. And "New Space Opera," or whatever, is bs. There is only one SO. The only thing new about it is the level of abstraction, which is taken to the nth degree.
    You could be a pioneer in literary-oriented SO. Just saying.

  2. I disagree on Ender. That's not really a "literary" set of stories (Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow. I don't know of any others in that series that exist and I will not believe you if you tell me there are more…).

    But I guess what you're getting at is that SOs sometimes use elements of literary fiction (insofar as such a genre exists), but rarely are they full literary.

    And, yeah, I could pioneer literary SO. Ha. Right 😛

  3. They most certainly are, and become more so as the series progresses. Speaker for the Dead is quite literary in its exploration of humanity, religion, and mortality.

  4. I'm not sure that the Culture novels as a whole qualify as literary space opera, but I'd be interested in what would disqualify the Use of Weapons.

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