A while back a guy came into the place where I was working. He had a book (I don't remember the name). The book was, according to him, SciFi. I told him, "Great! My favorite SciFi is the Skylark Series by EE Doc Smith!" He sort of tsked this, saying, "Oh, that's only space opera." I really didn't know what to think of what he said. The funny thing was, I remembering looking at his book thinking, what makes his book SciFi any more than mine.

I started thinking about this incident the other day and am once again curious:

What is the difference between Space Opera and Science Fiction? What identifies each genre specifically?

NOTE: I had originally asked this on meta due to the closed question: What is the relationship between fantasy and science fiction? which is very similar to my question. It was subsequently moved to the main site.

migrated from meta.scifi.stackexchange.com Feb 21 '15 at 0:51

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    This is a main site question, to which I have a wonderful answer of "There is no difference" – Tritium21 Feb 19 '15 at 3:15
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    Space opera has much more singing than other sci-fi. (It doesn’t, but if only that were true.) – Paul D. Waite Apr 23 '15 at 14:36
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    @PaulD.Waite - Would The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya fall into that category? – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Apr 23 '15 at 23:09
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    @Paulster2: that looks like a winner. Maybe Joss Whedon can use his Avengers clout to get an adaptation made for cinema. – Paul D. Waite Apr 24 '15 at 9:04
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    @PaulD.Waite Of course there is Klingon opera... – Jaydee Jul 26 '16 at 14:58
up vote 36 down vote accepted

Science Fiction is the genre heading for a kind of literature which uses extrapolations of scientific, engineering or social theories to posit a point in time where those ideas change society for better or worse (usually worse).

Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginative content such as futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life. It often explores the potential consequences of scientific and other innovations, and has been called a "literature of ideas." (Wikipedia: Science Fiction)

  • Space Opera is a subset genre positing a relatively optimistic future of grand technologies, space faring civilizations both Human and Alien and often a tumultuous relationship between them. Once considered a pejorative, it has slowly become an accepted term.

Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that often emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, usually involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, weapons, and other technology. The term has no relation to music but is instead a play on the term "soap opera". (Wikipedia: Space Opera)

  • Science fiction is the parent genre, space opera is a sub-genre specifically targeting:

    • scientifically advanced future societies built around amazing technologies
    • Humanity spread out through the galaxy (or even multiple galaxies)
    • Some space opera include Alien life forms (but many early ones did not)
    • There are often fantastic abilities associated with space operas in addition to technology, including psychic prowess, advanced mental powers, or unexplained abilities such as Star Wars' Force Powers.

There are questions of what defines a space opera over just a science fiction novel set in space. Is Star Trek considered a space opera? How about Star Wars?

  • Space operas were basically Old West tales in space. Deriving from radio's horse-opera formats, these were adapted tales where the Old West was replaced with Deep Space and the six-shooter became the ray-gun.

  • A space opera tended to have a serial format, far-reaching stories, spanning long periods of time where individuals often alter the fabric of entire cultures or even the entire galactic community.

  • The early space operas such as E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen or Skylark series were considered the seminal works of Space Opera from which most modern space-based science fiction is now derived. Smith's work in space opera started as far back as 1930s and he is often considered the father of modern space opera, with his ideas often duplicated, adapted and paid homage to over the decades. Even comic books were not exempt from his influence as the Green Lantern Corps bears similarities to ideas in his early Lensmen works.

  • Modern Space Opera writers include: Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" saga, Dan Simmons "Hyperion Cantos" series, Vernor Vinge's "Fire Upon the Deep", Lois McMaster Bujold's "Vorkosigan Saga" and the legendary Frank Herbert's "Dune Saga" to name a few off the top of my head.

  • For the record: Both Star Trek and Star Wars qualify as space opera since they both have vast galactic empires, impossibly advanced sciences, diverse alien civilizations and have had individuals alter the fabric of their entire cultures, i.e. Captain James T. Kirk, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Captain Catherine Janeway, and Captain Benjamin Sisko for the Star Trek Universe, and Anakin Skywalker, Emperor Palpatine, Padmé Amidala, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Darth Vader for the Star Wars Universe.

  • Thank you for the very complete answer. Very well thought and communicated. I was gathering that Space Opera was a subset of SciFi, but wasn't sure how it all fit together. Knowing that EE "Doc" Smith is often considered the father of modern space opera is a big plus for me. :D – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Feb 19 '15 at 23:30
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    Perhaps summed up as: "Science fiction" is fiction which examines the effect of currently non-existent scientific or technical advances on humanity from the level of individual experiences to whole civilizations, where "space opera" is simply conventional drama in a futuristic or otherwise science fiction-like setting. Star Wars is space opera. Star Trek attempts to be genuine sci-fi, but wanders back and forth across the line; some stories qualify as sci-fi, a lot of it is just space opera. Back to the Future, although primarily a comedy, qualifies (to me) as science fiction. – Anthony X Feb 21 '15 at 2:40
  • I've always thought of "space opera" as meaning "Ruritanian romance in space." – MissMonicaE Jun 12 '17 at 19:48

Space opera is a humorous term for science fiction, particularly interplanetary or interstellar adventures of the kind typified by the great Edward Elmer Smith, Ph.D. in his immortal Skylark and Lensman series; a term used lovingly by trufans, pejoratively by snobs like the guy you mentioned.

The Science Fiction Citations site defines space opera as:

a genre of science fiction which uses stock characters and settings, especially those of Westerns translated into outer space; a genre of science fiction in which the action spans across a galaxy or galaxies; a work of these genres

The term was coined by Wilson ("Bob") Tucker in 1941 in his fanzine Le Zombie:

SUGGESTION DEPT: In these hectic days of phrase-coining, we offer one. Westerns are called "horse operas", the morning housewife tear-jerkers are called "soap operas". For the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn, or world-saving for that matter, we offer "space opera"

The quotation starts on line 8 from the bottom in this image of Le Zombie no. 36 (V. 4 n. 1, January, 1941), p. 9.

There are lots of opinions and the 'space-opera' term itself has been lost in these classifications and rules. As for me, I consider the best 'space-opera' explanation, that was by Wilson Tucker, who defined space opera in 1941. The words are harsh but true. The clear difference between 'Sci-Fi and space-opera' the same as the difference between 'BBC's or Discovery's documentary and never-possible but scenaric reality-show made for fun'. Sci-Fi gives ideas - HOW the things made, they are based on scientific and logical suggestions of 'how there could be'. In space. At the same time space is just a decoration for the space-opera.

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    Please provide a citation (link, book title, etc.) for the quote from Wilson Tucker. – Null Jul 26 '16 at 15:13
  • @Null I might hazard a guess that the 1941 Wilson Tucker quotation which It-s-my-life is referring to is the one quoted in my answer. – user14111 Jul 26 '16 at 19:13
  • @user14111 Ah, yes, I didn't think to check the other answers. The answerer still should have provided a citation in his own answer, though. – Null Jul 26 '16 at 19:27

Perhaps a good litmus test would be to examine a work and take out all of the science fiction elements. If what you have left resemble recognizable archetypes and premises, you have space opera. The best indicator of space opera is when you have a more mundane genre dressed up in futuristic clothing. On the other hand, if you take out the sci-fi elements and are left with little in the way of story or premise, you have science fiction.

If you take away the sci-fi elements from your space adventure and see that it's a Hero Myth Cycle, political melodrama, or Wagon Train, then you have space opera. If you can imagine the scruffy space pilot behind the wheel of a big rig, you have space opera.

On the other hand, if you are exploring a giant megastructure full of inexplicable alien artifacts, then you have science fiction. Stories like Ringworld, the Space Odyssey series, and Rendezvous with Rama can't have their sci-fi elements swapped with mundane elements and still be the same story, simply because they don't have more mundane counterparts (they may have counterparts in fantasy but that isn't any less mundane). The black monoliths that influence human evolution in 2001 and the trip to Jupiter are crucial to the story. If you took those out (or perhaps put them in the background) and just focused on the characters and their relationships or personalities, then you simply have no story. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep requires androids (artificially created humans). You can't swap them with something more mundane and have the same story.

To clarify (hopefully), space opera transposes westerns, quest adventures, war epics, ect...to outer space. As I said, Han Solo (your scruffy cowboy type) could easily be put behind the wheels of a big rig or a bum trawler boat and be the same character. Boba Fett is a gunslinging bounty hunter...in space. Lando Calrissian could be put on a Riverboat casino in the Mississipi and still be the same character. D.J (from the unmemorable Last Jedi) is every bum hacker or con-man you've ever seen...in space. The Empire and (it's successor First Order) are the Nazis...in space. Obi-Wan is the wise old mentor that gives the young hero his call to adventure...but in space. Captain Kirk is Horatio Hornblower...in space, and that actually was how Gene Roddenberry pitched the show, along with the "Wagon Train...to the stars".

Science fiction depends on the SF elements. The monoliths' plan for mankind and Dave Bowman's journey through the Jupiter monolith and becoming the Starchild has no counterpart in other fictional genres. You can't do that story in the same way, unless you are...in space! Hence the name Space Odyssey. Science fiction also realizes that a real galactic empire will not be anything like the Roman Empire, Nazi Germany, or even the good ol' U.S. of A. SF might actually decide that a galactic empire is impossible due to time dilation resulting from space travel (many SF writers frown on things like warp speed or instantaneous, convienent and cheap hyperdrive). Science Fiction may speculate that by the time the space gestapo got to a planet to bust any resistance cells, hundreds of years passed back in the Planetary Fatherland. This means that the Resistance has had plenty of time to prepare for the arrival of these Space-Facist thugs. Not to mention the fact that anybody back at headquarters would be long dead and the leadership would have turned over dozens of times (provided that it's still the same government at all). Therefore, SF would speculate (like I just did) on what a real interstellar community would be like based, not on handwavium, but on accepted real science theories.

  • I appreciate the answer, but really your answer is as clear as mud to me. The Skylark series which I mention in my question has spaceships and the particulars about how those ships are motivated. Without the ships or the description of their engines, there is no story. Does that make it Sci-Fi? I'm pretty sure from what I've read and understand, it's not. – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Feb 7 at 3:23
  • The story does not revolve around how the spaceships work. The story revolves around the space adventures on which the characters embark. The element behind the spaceship engines could have been called "flutergork" for all anyone cared. But the spaceship is just a plot element to get our characters on their adventures. If you took away the science fiction elements, you would have old fashioned square jawed heroic swashbuckling adventure and the mode of travel would probably be a seagoing vessel. The concept is called "transposition". Or in more common speech "same dance, different tune." – Zem XXI Feb 9 at 1:31
  • Actually, how the spaceship works is integral to the entire story. Without it, there is no story. – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Feb 9 at 1:38
  • Please, don't get me wrong. I know the Skylark series is Space Opera. I'm just not following what you're stating. – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Feb 9 at 1:45

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