Space opera is the iconic sub-genre of science fiction for most people. Just mentioning the magic words “science-fiction” brings to mind images of lasers, starships, and colorful (though sometimes flat) characters. I’ve assembled my own personal list of 5 essentials to make a good space opera. Explanations may or may not appear. Starships are definitely an important part, but I couldn’t find room for them in the list.
#5: FTL FTW!
Translation please? FTL FTW is an acronym made of two separate acronyms that stands for the phrase “faster than light travel for the win.” That’s quite a mouthful there. More importantly, what does that mean? Well, one of the key elements of space opera is a big setting. That takes really, really fast travel methods to prevent you’re story from becoming the space version of a road trip without the quaint, er, interesting little towns along the way. A pretty boring trip unless you like watching the constellations change shape.
#4: Giant Super-weapons
These monstrous symbols for man-kind’s ruthlessness and technological weapons improvement bring about high stakes and pulse-pounding adventure while oftentimes thumbing their nose at modern science (or treaties). Perfect for space opera, aye? Seriously though, space opera is all about being big and exciting. Plus, there are brownie points involved from the special effects, sometimes billions of dollars of profit. (Avatar anyone?)
#3: Battered Freighters
Maybe it has to do with the plucky underdog valiantly fighting better, more modern ships, but battered are almost a staple, nay, a cliché of the genre. Albeit, a lovable one, much like those scruffy rogues who pilot them. Or, perhaps, it’s the rogue that makes the ship. Nah, definitely the ship. Star Trek, in my opinion, is not that great of a space opera for several reasons, from boring costumes to not being all that fun for the whole family (a whole different post), plus the heroes were always flying a warship. Where’s the fun in that? Other than the vast firepower available of course.
#2: Cocky Warrior Princess (and their hair-dos)
The politically correct term would be strong, independent female leads. Isn’t that a bit boring? This archetype is almost as old as space opera itself, possible originating in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novel A Princess of Mars. Not to mention, Princess Leia’s iconic cinnamon bun hair-do has been forever ingrained as a cultural celebrity moment.
Aliens take the number one spot because of the color, variety, and imagination added to a story. Make them good, bad, ugly, slimy, or shimmering energy beings. Just make them unique and exotic. Nothing make’s a boring bar, excuse me, cantina scene more interesting than some two-headed aliens, a scary furry thing, and some other wildly creative aliens hanging about. Robert Heinlein’s space operas were good, but they were a bit bland with the best aliens being primitive frog things on Venus. Not much to go on there.
Conclusion: The rule of cool either works really well for space opera, or was invented for space opera. Remember this list (but be creative) and you’re space opera will have a chance at becoming as memorable as Star Wars.Maybe.