On Space Opera: The Heart of Genre, Forgotten by Scholars

Leave a comment

A few years ago, I taught an upper division literature course on American space opera. There were a couple reasons I chose that angle over many other possible science fiction topics I could have taught:

  1. It gave me an excuse to teach Ann Leckie, Tobias S. Buckell, and Star Wars.
  2. The course was marked as “American literature,” so I had to stick with U.S.-American writers. I snuck some other stuff in, though.
  3. It was a subject that I particularly loved (but, as I discovered, which scholars had largely ignored up to that point).

It’s that last piece I will talk about here.

For many people who have studied science fiction at the graduate level OR read academic research on the genre for kicks, the idea of “space opera” as the silly genre that nobody takes seriously is probably familiar. Darko Suvin, one of the major lit theorists in SF, basically dismissed the entire genre in his presentation of the concept of “cognitive estrangement,” though I recall that this was a result of his definition rather than an explicit dismissal.1 Plenty of other theorists of the genre have done the same, either intentionally and directly or by simply defining the genre, as Suvin essentially does, by excluding certain kinds of SF expressions. The result, whether intentional or otherwise, has been the near exclusion of the largest and most significant subgenre of science fiction from academic and critical discourse. While it is mentioned here or there and individual texts are certainly analyzed and recognized, there are only a handful of barely notable written works on the genre.

Don’t believe me? Look at the references section on the Wikipedia page for space opera. Most of the work that explicitly focuses on space opera comes from encyclopedias and non-fiction collections.  There are a handful of works that focus on specific themes or concepts in SF/F that happen to be related to SF. The rest? Writing from outside of traditional academic discourse:  blogs, newspapers, review websites or magazines, convention organizations, and so on. There’s also an OED entry, which is fun. And don’t get me wrong:  Gary Westfahl’s edited collection, Space and Beyond: The Frontier Theme in Science Fiction, and The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction are important books, but they are not explicitly about the development of space opera, its influence, all of its themes, and so on, though both have sections that briefly do that work.2 Effectively, a lot of the work of exploration space opera involves reconstructing the subgenre from adjacent work. I’ve used I.F. Clarke’s “Future-War Fiction: the First Main Phase, 1871-1900” (Science Fiction Studies) for this purpose. There are, of course, exceptions. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction happens to have a pretty solid page on the subgenre, and that is effectively an academic site of a kind. There’s even Jerome Winter’s Science Fiction, New Space Opera, and Neoliberal Globalism: Nostalgia for Infinity, which most people have only read because they got a review copy or their library forked out $120+ for a copy. Beyond that, the field is largely quiet.

The fact that much of the work on space opera comes from outside traditional academic discourse does say a lot, though. The broader science fiction community has largely accepted space opera into its ranks, so it isn’t surprising that a lot of people in that world would write about it. But it also reveals that this should be a significant field of inquiry for scholars. Basically, I ask the same questions today that I asked back when I was building my space opera syllabus:

  • Why have science fiction scholars ignored or dismissed this subgenre?
  • What does it say about the emergence of SF studies that a lot of the so-called “silly” work was dismissed?
  • What does it say about SF studies today that very few people are doing the work of unpacking the history of the subgenre in full detail while the subgenre remains extremely influential?3 We have entire books on science fiction, fantasy, dystopia, ecocritical SF, utopias, and so on. Yet space opera is, in my mind, arguably the single most influential subgenre of science fiction in history.
  • How do I do this work myself when the expectations of the academic world are that I do work in my specialization, which is largely dependent on the job you hold at any given time OR the job you hope to get? This is a problem I struggle with a lot. I currently teach digital rhetoric. I can still work in science fiction studies, but it means I am expected to conduct work related to digital technologies and/or communities, etc. Literary ethnography on space opera doesn’t really fit into that. If I do the space opera project anyway, I may be perceived as not fulfilling my academic duties OR not fitting the role I’m meant to fill. More importantly, I don’t know how a space opera project would be perceived even if I were to get a science fiction job somewhere else. If the field still dismisses space opera as a field of inquiry, would I really be doing myself favors even among the science fiction studies crowd?4

As a field, we probably need to do a lot of growing up. There’s no reason to dismiss any of the genres involved in SF/F anymore. If they have cultural value, academics need to be able to consider them in full detail. And that means making space for people to do that work, rejecting perspectives that dismiss certain kinds of SF/F as “not serious enough,” and supporting and encouraging scholarship on those “not serious” components of the genre.

Or I’ll just have to do it all myself and damn the consequences.

What do you all think about this? Am I missing crucial works of scholarship on space opera? Is the exclusion of the genre from significant study as big a problem as I think it is? Let me know in the comments.


 

  1. Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter which way we view it. The result is the same.
  2.  The closest we get to this sort of work are essays, and there just aren’t that many of them. P. Monk’s “Not Just ‘Cosmic Skullduggery’: A Partial Reconsideration of Space Opera” (Extrapolation, 1992) and Gary Westfahl’s “Beyond Logic and Literary: The Strange Case of Space Opera” (Extrapolation, 1994) are both important examples.
  3.  Star Wars is still the biggest name in town, but other properties such as Star Trek and The Expanse continue to be big hitters. Space opera in Japan is also pretty big, though I can’t say if it is as strong as in the mid-2000s when I was far more active in the anime world. I miss it…
  4. Honestly, it’s probably not that big a deal…

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.

Leave a Reply