Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

What Space Opera Means to Me

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 19, 2017

I’m part of the Star Wars generation. One of the first big movies I ever saw as a kid was Star Wars. Not “Episode IV” or “A New Hope” – at the time, it was just “Star Wars.”  I think I was still in 2nd grade at the time it hit the theaters. But … wow. It was weeks before I could see it, but everyone was talking about it. It was a phenomenon. It was on the news, the kids at school were all talking about it. I was one of the last kids to see it as it was “held over” for several weeks at the movie theaters… meaning it was still showing at first-run theaters for weeks after it was supposed to have faded into obscurity.

This was before the days when theaters were divided into tiny subsections. When I finally got to the theater, we were early. The previous show was still running through the final battle. From the lobby, I heard the roar of the TIE Fighters and thought they sounded like a dragon’s roar. Since I’d seen the images of Luke Skywalker with the light saber, I imagined an epic battle between the dude with the sci-fi sword and some dragon taking place.

There were no dragons, but I was not at all disappointed. I left the theater wanting to be Luke Skywalker flying an X-Wing down a metal canyon, shooting down enemy fighters and blowing up enemy space stations as big as a moon. The movie was explosively larger than life, and that the wonderful thing about it. You can call it out for its faults today all you want, but it won’t change the feeling I remember when the orchestra started blaring John Williams’ now-famous fanfare, or when the colossal Imperial Star Destroyer took forever to pass the camera while chasing down the little corvette. I still won’t lose my amusement seeing all the weird creatures on that alien desert world of Tatooine, especially in the cantina. And no terrible revisionist updates will lessen the thrill I felt at Han Solo’s badassery shooting Greedo (first AND last) as Greedo sat there making threats.

Of course, Star Wars wasn’t the end of it. But from that point on, I was hooked on the idea of Space Opera. I devoured the reruns (that’s what they were called back then when they weren’t being broadcast new) of Star Trek, Lost in Space, Doctor Who, and Space: 1999. New shows came in riding on the Star Wars coattails… Battlestar: Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, etc. And I read… from children’s books like Spaceship Under the Apple Tree, A Wrinkle in Time, and Enchantress From the Stars, working my way up through to Heinlein’s “juveniles” like Space Cadet. Or the more grown-up fair, like Keith Laumer’s A Plague of Demons (a book my father had left behind after the divorce… I was fascinated by that cover). Within three years, around the time The Empire Strikes Back was released, I was trying to wrap my brain around Dune.

While Star Wars was the catalyst for me, I later discovered that it worked because it tapped into a much greater mythology, which could be found through innumerable stories, shows, and even ancient legend. While it may not even be the epitome of space opera, what I got out of it as a kid is what I crave from space opera (and science fiction & fantasy in general) today:

#1 – A sense of wonder. It’s easy to lose this as we grow older. But one of the constants of human existence has been our ability to look up at the starry night sky, and wonder what’s out there in the “final frontier.” Stories set in that infinite realm of possibilities above us can’t help but resonate, and tap into that sense of wonder… even if the logical and educated part of our brains keeps saying, “Fiddlesticks! Space doesn’t work that way!” We can get lost in a story, and believe. Because starfaring (or really even planet-faring) remains far enough removed from modern life, we can also enjoy magical technology, and explore its potential.

#2 – Adventure. In reality, space is filled with a whole lot of nothing, punctuated by tiny specks of rocks. In space opera, every planet could be as rich and diverse a landscape as our own earth, but as foreign as an author’s imagination. These worlds are ripe with adventure and the discovery of the unknown. Space is inherently deadly and dangerous to human life, but in the space opera it is also ripe with potential rewards of all kind for the bold.

#3 – Larger-Than-Life Everything. Once you get beyond the confines of our planet, there are no limits to what could be out there. The space ships and space stations can be impossibly big. Super-weapons can take out entire planets. Characters should be big and exciting and interesting enough to match. The vastness of space means you make no apologies for cranking everything up to 11. Or Warp Factor Seven.

#4 – Action. A good space opera starts with a bang, and ends with a bigger bang. In the case of Star Wars, this is literally the case. Every step of the way, the heroes are charging ahead, shooting at bad guys, swinging across chasms,  slicing off arms with lightsabers, sneaking behind enemy lines, making thrilling escapes, and getting into crazy dogfights. The universe of the space opera is a universe of action. The people (and bizarre aliens or even robots are people, too!) are the ones that make the action happen.

#5 – Thrilling Heroics. People may be flawed and won’t always get along with each other. Even galaxies far, far away may not be happy or peaceful. Sometimes the bad guys win, temporarily, and entire planets full of innocent people get destroyed. But ultimately, it came down to poor farm boys and smug rogues with hearts of gold doing the right thing against impossible odds, and somehow prevailing. These are aspirational stories, reminding us of who we want to be and who we ought to be.

These things are what I expect to one degree or another from space opera. It’s not like I use these as a purity test for space opera. These features are more of what I’d say are “necessary but not sufficient” for a good space opera. They are the reasons I love it, and why it resonates with me.

It’s been fun seeing other people running with the whole #SpaceOperaWeek thing, especially with all the #PulpRevolution folks chiming in. But then, it’s always fun to see passionate fans of something you love letting their freak flag fly. I hope you’ve found these blog posts at least somewhat entertaining.

As always, have fun!


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