Last month, Paul Weimer suggested I write about the connections between epic fantasy and space opera. Initially, I didn’t know how to approach the topic. Paul, you see, is far better read than myself, particularly in the literary history of science fiction and fantasy. What could I say about the topic that Paul couldn’t say better? Well, I’m going to take a stab at it!
There was also another problem: which period of these two genres are we talking about? If we’re looking at the early years of space opera and epic fantasy, then the connection is apparent, but diffuse. Both epic fantasy (what might have been better termed as heroic fantasy in its “root” period) and space opera in the first half of the 20th century shared roots with the adventure fictions that preceded them. Space opera arose, more or less, out of the planetary romances of writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, proto-space opera writers like E.E. “Doc” Smith (though some might disagree with that assessment) and late-19th century “future war fiction” (see I.F. Clarke; I would argue that space opera gets its political undercurrents from this movement). Both forms (space opera and planetary romance) are hard to distinguish, since they often share in the same melodrama, with “space opera” typically playing within a much wider canvas (though not always), and both forms share a common root in the late 19th century adventure stories and the pulps that followed.
Epic fantasy, too, can be traced back to 19th century adventure stories, and early forms of epic fantasy (probably just called fantasy or heroic fantasy and certainly bearing little resemblance to contemporary epic fantasy today) were not unlike early forms of space opera: melodramatic adventures set in exotic locales, grandiose in scale. and featuring one or more heroes at center stage. Tolkien is the obvious modern “father” of epic fantasy, but even The Lord of the Rings was preceded by heroic fantasy writers such as Robert E. Howard, Evangeline Walton and Eric Rücker Eddison or other fantastists such as Richard Wagner, George MacDonald, etc. — anyone with a passing familiarity with these writers can see the connections. Epic fantasy, of course, diverges quite a bit from space opera: its heroes are mostly pitted against some variation of absolute evil; the world or “world as we know it” is usually at stake, rather than galactic civilizations; magic serves as the operative “speculative” element rather than science; and the conversation an epic fantasy has with its time is less pronounced or more abstracted (having come from a genre whose speculations are not rooted in the real).
These are simplistic explanations, of course. If you want to know the full history of either field — science fiction or fantasy — you need to read a few books on the subject, and that’s certainly true of me, since fantasy is not my academic field. Regardless, even if we start from such fundamentals as the roots, it becomes clear that though the genres start from very similar places (divergent in parts, of course), their paths to the present were drastically different.
Space opera began to move away from its planetary romance roots by the time the Golden Age rolled around, embroiling its future narratives in complicated allegories of contemporary politics and economics and developing grandiose “universes” in which larger questions about humanity and its culture could be asked and sometimes answered. This is not to suggest that space opera discarded the melodramatic space adventures of its roots. Rather, space opera gained three faces best exemplified by Star Wars (1977; dir. George Lucas), Star Trek (1966-1969; created by Gene Roddenberry), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; dir. Stanley Kubrick): it became the high-flying epic adventure of its roots (similar in style to early epic fantasy), the wide-canvas exploration of human ingenuity and identity, and the philosophical interrogation of the human self.
Epic fantasy, however, didn’t begin to transcend its generic roots until the last 20 years or so; it has, for so long, been mired in repetition, imitation, and simplified heroic tropes, even as writers within epic fantasy have tried to push against such things. We can point to exceptions, of course, but one would be hard pressed to argue that the face of epic fantasy has been anything but writers struggling to swim out of the wake of Tolkien for much the 20th century. Now, I think epic fantasy is experiencing a resurgence of what might be called “critical engagement,” not as “exceptions” but as the “face.” From Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire (2014) to Joe Abercrombie’s grimdark First Law trilogy (2009-2012) and on and on and on, epic fantasy (and fantasy in general) appears to be having a new Golden Age (much like space opera has had with the New Space Opera movement), brought on by decades of slow, deliberate pushes against the Tolkien model — not because Tolkien’s model is bad, but because it is so often repeated to lesser effect.
I hope this is a real trend and not some figment of my imagination. Science fiction and fantasy are my great literary loves, but I think it’s the perception of fantasy as the “less serious” genre which has left it out of academic conversations, except in those rare cases where one must talk about a fantasy without talking about it being a fantasy. I’ve certainly seen things changing within academia overall, though science fiction still remains the critical focus. But if I’m right that fantasy is pushing back against its roots, not to “diss” those roots, but to advance the genre as a whole towards more original (or at least less derivative) narrative practices, then fantasy will become as much a part of the academic discussion as science fiction. For me, that’s a good thing, because it makes talking about fantasy less like talking with a push and more like having a conversation with a forest.
Of course, I could be very very wrong here. If so, please put forth your own argument in the comments!