Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Leigh Brackett on Space Opera

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 16, 2017

Tor.com and Barnes & Noble are calling this “Space Opera Week,” and several other blogs are following suit. Why not? Guardians of the Galaxy 2 recently came out, there’s a new teaser out for the next movie in the Star Wars saga, the harder-SF TV show “The Expanse” seems to be a huge success for SyFy, and it’s a popular little niche genre for indie books. Space opera appears to be doing just fine.

The term was originally coined in 1941 in SF fanzine “Le Zombie,” where Wilson Tucker wrote, “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.’” As fans do, they took this derogatory appellation and ran with it, turning it into a badge of honor.

Which leads me to a favorite quote from Leigh Brackett, and author I didn’t really know existed until about three years ago, although I’ve loved movies she’d co-written screenplays for (The Empire Strikes Back and The Big Sleep). I’ve since been on a delightful adventure discovering her classic science fiction. In the introduction to The Best of Planet Stories 1, published in 1975, she wrote:

“Space opera, as every reader doubtless knows, is a pejorative term often applied to a story that has an element of adventure. Over the decades, brilliant and talented new writers appear, receiving great acclaim, and each and every one of them can be expected to write at least one article stating flatly that the day of space opera is over and done, thank goodness, and that henceforth these crude tales of interplanetary nonsense will be replaced by whatever type of story that writer happens to favor — closet dramas, psychological dramas, sex dramas, etc., but by God important dramas, containing nothing but Big Thinks. Ten years later, the writer in question may or may not still be around, but the space opera can be found right where it always was, sturdily driving its dark trade in heroes.”

The struggle was real, even back then. Space opera got no respect. But 75 years after the snobbish invention of the term and generations of detractors, Leigh Brackett is still proven right.

Filed Under: Books, Geek Life, Short Fiction - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • Cuthalion said,

    The irony of a magazine called Le Zombie complaining that a genre is “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn” is absolutely hilarious in retrospect. (I suspect they meant Zombie as in entranced, but the shift in meaning makes it great.)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    LOL — I didn’t even think about that. You’re right.

  • Modran said,

    I didn’t know it was supposed to be derogatory oO

  • deuce said,

    When Brackett mentions the “dark trade in heroes”, she’s referencing a famous quote from GK Chesterton, an author also admired by Robert E. Howard.

    For anyone interested in an excellent non-PC look at the origins and evolution of zombies in Western fiction, I recommend Terence Hanley’s series of articles on the Tellers of Weird Tales blog:


  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Nice! Thanks, Deuce!