Space opera is a subgenre of speculative fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, generally involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced technologies and abilities. The name has no relation to music, since it is by analogy to soap operas (see below). Perhaps the most significant trait of space opera is that settings, characters, battles, powers, and themes tend to be very large-scale. Sometimes the term space opera is used in a negative sense, to denote bad quality science fiction, but its meaning can differ, often describing a particular science fiction genre without any value judgment.
As David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer note in their 2006 anthology of space operas, "there is no general agreement as to what [space opera] is, which writers are the best examples, or even which works are space opera". They further note that space opera has had several key and different definitions throughout its history; definitions that were significantly affected by literary politics. They note that "what used to be science fantasy is now space opera, and what used to be space opera is entirely forgotten."
The phrase "space opera" itself was coined in 1941 by fanwriter (and later author) Wilson Tucker, in a fanzine article, as a pejorative term. At the time, serial radio dramas in the US had become popularly known as soap operas because many were sponsored by soap manufacturers. Tucker defined space opera as the SF equivalent: a "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn".
This usage of space opera as a term for the worst, "really bad" SF, remained in force till about the 1970s. In other words, many works that are today classified as "space operas" would not have been called by that name originally.
Beginning in the 1960s, and widely accepted by the 1970s, the space opera was redefined, following Brian Aldiss' definition in Space Opera (1974) as (in the paraphrase Hartwell and Cramer) "the good old stuff". Yet soon after his redefinition, it began to be challenged, for example, by the editorial practice and marketing of Judy-Lynn del Rey and in the reviews of her husband and colleague Lester del Rey. In particular, they disputed the claims that space operas were obsolete, and Del Rey Books labeled reissues of earlier work of Leigh Brackett as space opera. By the early 1980s, space operas—adventure stories set in space—were again redefined, and the label was attached to major pop culture works such as Star Wars. It was only in the early 1990s that the term space opera began to be recognized as a legitimate genre of science fiction. Hartwell and Cramer define space opera as "colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character and plot action, and usually set in the relatively distant future, and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. It often deals with war, piracy, military virtues, and very large-scale action, large stakes."
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