space opera
The trappings of space opera are beautifully illustrated here.

The recent arguments over the merits of Interstellar (is it good SF, is it crappy, is it too serious, is the science BS, etc, etc) has been ringing in my ears this week.  One poster even tried to label Interstellar as space opera.  Which reminded me of a post in IO9 a few months back about space opera and its merits.  Part of the discussion revolved around what, exactly, is considered space opera.

I mean, I thought that it was pretty much a given what “space opera” is considered to be.  Star WarsBuck RogersLensmanDune.  But then a few posters called that view “old school” and tried to suggest other movies and books that qualified as space opera.  One, in particular, that was mentioned to me was S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, part of the Expanse series.  Author George R.R. Martin himself called the book “kickass space opera” (it’s on the cover).

Leviathan Wakes
Science fiction.  NOT space opera.  I don’t care what George R.R. Martin says.

I’d heard of Leviathan Wakes, and had it on my “possible to-read” list, but had never committed to it.  But as it was now pseudo-recommended to me as, essentially, “the new space opera,” I decided to give it a read.  And having finished it, all I can say is that it’s not “space opera,” in any sense.

Does this mean some people (including GRRM) don’t know what “space opera” is?  Or that the basic definition of “space opera” has changed?  I say it’s the former.  If people are calling books like Leviathan “space opera”… they’re wrong.

I know.  I just said George R.R. Martin is wrong.  Seriously, bear with me.

Space opera is a particular kind of science fiction that is more concerned with the drama than the setting, and uses the concept of science and the future as a flat backdrop for the story.  Star Wars (the three original movies, specifically) is a perfect example of space opera, in its overriding theme of revolution, small bands of rebels with very little chance against a massive and powerful evil empire, and the magical savior that makes their ultimate victory possible.  The story takes place in space and on various planets, but there is no connection to real science: Ships can travel faster than light, move in space as if there is an atmosphere, shooting at each other and creating fiery explosions; gravity is easily controlled; aliens that look nothing like humans can nonetheless breathe the same atmosphere and converse in English (or just auditorially); weapons include blasters and light-sabers, and a mysterious mystical thing called The Force.

Contrast this with Leviathan Wakes, in which: Humans (and humans only) travel about the Solar System in trips that can take weeks to months, because no one can travel faster than light; acceleration to high velocities means people must take drugs to keep their hearts from bursting; unless ships or habitats in space decide to rotate to create artificial gravity, there is no gravity; weapons are lasers, projectiles or missiles; radiation can kill you; resources have limits; radio messages travel no faster than the speed of light; nobody has super-strength, mind-reading abilities or power rings; and the big deal of the story is the discovery of the first indication of life from anywhere else in the cosmos.

The difference is clear: Star Wars is full of pretend-science, clearly unreal and (quite probably) downright impossible technology, creatures and physics—the impossible made possible by handwavium, which they literally do when applying The Force upon susceptible minds (“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”).  This is what makes Star Wars “space opera.”

Leviathan Wakes is full of real science and technology that obeys the laws of physics and our knowledge of the universe.  Leviathan is set in the kind of world that authors like Arthur C. Clarke, Ben Bova and Frederick Pohl write about.  The kind of future that you and I, if we could live long enough, could actually live in.  Sure, you can debate the accuracy of some of the technology they feature—it hasn’t been invented yet, after all—but it’s all based on sound scientific principles.  Despite G.R.R. Martin’s accolades, Leviathan is serious science fiction… not “space opera” at all.

Of course, I know some people who believe that science will eventually accomplish everything we can imagine.  I can hear them saying: “It’s all in the future, and we can’t know what’s impossible, therefore, all of that science is possible.”  Since they see all science as ultimately possible, they see no distinguishing features between, say, 2001 and Dune.  So, they assume, the difference must be in the story: Only space opera has “romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, usually involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, weapons, and other technology.” (Wikipedia)

Not so.  Those same high-minded concepts are cornerstones of all kinds of “serious” science fiction, from The Andromeda Strain to Voyage from Yesteryear, from Coyote to Firefly (and including Interstellar).  There is no difference in the kind of stories told in science fiction and space opera.  Both genres feature good challenging evil, melodrama, romance, comedy, excitement and action.

There is nothing left but the science—the element that is either a realistic landscape that impacts how the story is told, or a cheap curtain that contributes nothing to the story besides background color.  Just like soap opera, Space Opera completely ignores science and the world around it, and creates stories that lack realistic grounding.  Science fiction often cannot tell its story without science’s realistic grounding; it creates a story that does what it does, while being chained to reality and its rules.

So, let’s get these definitions straight, or we’ll never be able to agree on what’s what and what we like.  To put it succinctly: Science fiction is the science, stupid; Space opera is the stupid science.