Space operas boldly go to the heart of the human soul

My father still lovingly recounts the first time he saw Star Wars back in 1977 (later retroconned as Star Wars: A New Hope). When the movie opened with the star destroyer crossing the screen in pursuit of Princess Leia’s ship, a chill ran my father's spine. He later said he knew he was seeing something totally new and exciting.

And he did, along with millions of people around the world. Never mind that Star Wars wasn't close to being original and new, having been inspired by both earlier films like Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress and the entire written genre of space operas. Which had itself been partly inspired by westerns.

But none of that mattered to filmgoers.

I was a young child when Star Wars debuted, so I don’t remember the film’s hype. But I do remember my father’s excitement after he saw it. He and my mother decided to see it again, and this time they took me.

And there began my love affair with science fiction, as I wandered away from my parents while they stood in line for the screening. I didn’t have a destination in mind but eventually I wandered into a dark theater and found an empty seat and sat down and watched Star Wars by myself.

Or, I watched the first half of Star Wars. Somewhere in the middle of the movie my parents and the theater staff found me. Now that I have children I understand how scared my parents were at my disappearance.

I don’t remember what happened after they found me. Perhaps I’m blocking the trauma of their screams and any punishment I received. But from then on I was a Star Wars fan. I played with every Star Wars toy I could find. Star Wars action figures filled my days with dreams of distant, star-filled galactic horizons. A diecast Millennium Falcon, which I flew by hand as a child across the fields near my house, has landed on my desk and begs to be played with as I write these words.

Only after seeing Star Wars did I begin reading literary science fiction and discover that the film not only wasn’t overly original, but that George Lucas had borrowed his themes and motifs from a number of genre sources. Among these was what is likely the first space opera as readers would recognize the genre, The Skylark of Space by E. E. "Doc" Smith, published in Amazing Stories in 1928.

There are a number of earlier stories which can lay claim to being space operas, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ highly influential Barsoom series, featuring his famous hero John Carter of Mars. But E.E. Smith introduced something different with Skylark: true interstellar travel and space ships combined with adventures on other planets. He continued this trend with his influential Lensman series of stories.

He also introduced mediocre writing and poor science, with the space engine at the center of his Skylark adventures powered by copper which is magically transformed when connected to an unknown “element X.” But if the heart of the ship’s space drive made no sense, the heart of the story resonated with readers. They ate it up.

As did other authors, who began playing in the space opera sandbox of stars, mixing romance with the clash of civilizations and interstellar drama and action. Authors such as Leigh Brackett (known as the “Queen of Space Opera”) and C. L. Moore filled the pulp magazines with these exciting stories.  As did A. E. van Vogt, who published the well-known novel The World of Null-A. Even Isaac Asimov space opera’ed away with his extremely influential Foundation series. These space operas and many more set the stage for the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

But space operas didn’t only exist as written stories. The genre has long been a multi-media spectacle, with the Flash Gordon comic strip and movie serials exposing generations of kids and adults to rocket ships and lasers. Even George Lucas was a fan. Before making Star Wars, Lucas evidently tried to adapt to the big screen the Flash Gordon comics strip and serials but couldn’t secure the rights. As recounted by Oscar-winning director Francis Ford Coppola, who went with Lucas to try purchasing the rights, Lucas was very depressed at losing out on the Flash Gordon space opera before declaring, “Well, I'll just invent my own.”

And he did.

In the 1960s and ’70s space operas fell out of fashion in the written science fiction genre, possibly as a result of the New Wave movement and other SF trends. Not that space opera vanished. Instead, the genre was merely biding its time, with novels by Poul Anderson, C. J. Cherryh, Gordon R. Dickson and others still captivating readers.

Then Star Wars showed the world how much people loved space opera, and a new group of authors like Iain M. Banks, Stephen Baxter, and many more started creating what’s called New Space Opera. From there even newer authors have run with the genre in totally unique directions, such as Ann Leckie with her Hugo and Nebula winning Ancillary Justice series and Jack Campbell with his Lost Fleet series.

It’s fitting that at the end of her life the Queen of Space Opera Leigh Brackett wrote the early script for The Empire Strikes Back. While there’s debate about how many of Brackett’s words and creations remain in that Star Wars sequel, I like to believe her spirit — and the spirit of the worlds she created through her stories — gave the film its heart and soul.

And that heart and soul is why people respond to space operas. We know the stories are melodramatic and unrealistic. We know the special effects are there to dazzle us, be they effects on the big screen or mentally created by words on a page. But that doesn’t matter. Space opera stories are fun and exciting and resonate with the deep urge inside humanity to see what exists beyond the horizon. Or in the case of space operas, beyond the next world or galaxy.

Last year my family saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Yes, the film is a copy of the original Star Wars: A New Hope. Yes, the story makes a pointed effort to manipulate the emotions while also dishing up big steaming helpings of nostalgia for the original film.

But I don’t care. My entire family enjoyed the movie. I’m particularly pleased that my youngest son loved it. Up to this point he'd refused to watch most of the older Star Wars films, saying the series was silly, cliched and out of date.

Yet he embraced the new film and has already seen it twice.

Each new generation finds their own space operas. That’s another thing I love about these stories.

Note: This essay was originally published in the Czech SF/F magazine XB-1.