The Foundation Series, The Nights Dawn Trilogy, Star Wars, Dune, The Expanse, these are probably some of the names you remember when you talk or think about science fiction and space operas in general. They are brilliantly told stories of fantastical adventures in far space.
The stories vary from hard to soft science fiction, Star Wars veers more into fantasy than the others. While The Expanse, Foundation, and Dune series take a more critical aim at society and politics. For the most part, these stories are told in similar ways. They have, in turns – been inspired, copied, and repeated throughout popular media not just in literature but across numerous mediums. That brings us back to the title and point of this blog – why write a space opera? Most of the series I listed at the start span thousands of pages, numerous books and are the product of countless hours of research, plotting, and writing. Writing a space opera on the level of the previously mentioned series is a herculean task for even the most accomplished and experienced writers.
Which is why I would say don’t.
You don’t need to aspire to be the likes of Issac Asimov or Frank Herbert. You don’t need to craft a ten book, ten thousand page story to write a good space opera. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this sub-genre is that it has only a few rules, and only one hard and fast one: the stakes have to be high. In Star Wars, Luke is out to defeat the galaxy-spanning oppressive Empire. In The Expanse the fate of the solar system and humanity are at stake. These stories deal with big ideas and big threats, its like the adage about Texas but in fiction format. Everything is bigger in a space opera. This works on a visceral level and can be extremely exciting – but I feel the true strength of the space opera lies in the worlds which can be crafted and the personal stories that provide the contrast to the significant existential threats that characterize these tales.
A good space opera is several different stories told at once, simultaneously a story about the macro-level events that occur in the universe you’ve created. But also the micro-level events in the lives of the people who inhabit these universes. By creating interesting and unique worlds and then raising the stakes and magnifying the consequences of the decisions of the characters in these stories, you help answer the most critical question most readers have when they start a story – why should I care? We care about Luke not only because he is a well-acted, well written, and sympathetic character, but also because if Luke doesn’t succeed, then the death star keeps blowing up planets!
So… Why write a space opera?
Because a space opera can be almost any kind of story, you want it to be. A romance, a comedy, a mystery, all of these types of genre fiction all rolled up into one beautifully chaotic mess. A space opera doesn’t have to be a labyrinthian tale told over several years and thousands of words, just a story where the stakes are high and in which the characters you craft have a fundamental impact on the world and really – who doesn’t want to read a story like that?