space opera n.

a subgenre of science fiction featuring adventure-driven, extravagantly dramatic plots (often including elements of romance) set in outer space; a subgenre of science fiction which uses stock characters and settings, especially those of Westerns translated into outer space; a work in this genre, regarded as being of an unsophisticated or clichéd type

SF Encyclopedia



SF Criticism


  • 1941 ‘B. Tucker’ in Le Zombie Jan. 9 Wilson Tucker

    In these hectic days of phrase-coining, we offer one. Westerns are called ‘horse operas’, the morning housewife tear-jerkers are called ‘soap operas’. For the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn, or world-saving for that matter, we offer ‘space opera’.

  • 1947 E. E. Smith Epic of Space in L. A. Eshbach Of Worlds Beyond 78 Edward E. Smith bibliography

    Great stories must be logical and soundly motivated; and it is in these respects that most ‘space-operas’—as well as more conventional stories—fail.

  • 1948 R. A. Heinlein Letter 6 Nov. in R. A. Heinlein & V. Heinlein Grumbles from Grave (1990) 93 Robert A. Heinlein

    It would be easy enough to cook up another space opera.

  • 1960 K. Amis New Maps of Hell ii. 44 page image Kingsley Amis bibliography

    The other adjacent field competing with science fiction is conveniently described as space-opera, justly recalling the horse-opera which, under a skin of molecular thinness, it so much resembles. In space-opera, Mars takes the place of Arizona with a few physical alterations, the hero totes a blaster instead of a six-gun, bad men are replaced by bad aliens looking just like bad men with green skins and perhaps a perfunctory sixth digit, and Indians turn up in the revised form of what are technically known as bug-eyed monsters, a phrase often abbreviated to BEMs under the psychobiological law that terms frequently used will undergo shortening.

  • 1974 J. Clute Books in Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Sept. 44/1 page image John Clute

    In a space opera, control of the lines of power illuminates the world, making it comprehensible to the hero at the reins, and to the reader.

  • 1974 B. Aldiss Space Opera Introd. 9 Brian W. Aldiss bibliography

    What space opera does is take a few light years and a pinch of reality, and inflate thoroughly with melodrama, dreams and a seasoning of screwy ideas.

  • 1993 Locus June 5/2

    He would go on to produce a number of thoughtful space operas and somewhat more unconventional sf novels in quick succession.

  • 2001 Locus June 70/2

    Worlds are colonized, civilisations fall, rayguns are used—but…Alastair Reynolds is playing a more complex game… He is taking the stuff of space opera and remaking it into something new—something that doesn’t eschew the pulpish romanticism of space opera’s roots, but seeks to transform it into romanticism better suited to modern science fiction.

  • 2021 C. J. Anders The Space Opera Was Dying. Then ‘The Expanse’ Transformed the Genre For a New Generation in Esquire 3 Feb. (electronic ed.) page image Charlie Jane Anders

    Space opera has always carried a lot of baggage, thanks to its roots in imperialism, colonialism and the myth of the rugged explorer who brings civilization with him. It didn’t help that Smith started introducing themes of eugenics into his Lensmen novels, and notoriously racist editor John W. Campbell inserted his ideas of the ‘superior man’ into many of space opera’s formative works.

Research requirements

antedating 1941

Earliest cite

'Bob' Tucker in 'Le Zombie'

Research History
Keith Stokes submitted a 1941 cite from Wilson Tucker's fanzine "Le Zombie" that appears to be the original coinage of the term.
James A. Landau submitted a cite from a 1968 reprint of Damon Knight's book review "Half Loaves"; Mike Christie verified the cite in the original 1959 magazine appearance.
Matt Freestone submitted a cite from John Clute's 1988 book, "Strokes"; Mike Christie verified the cite in the 1974 original magazine appearance.
James A. Landau submitted a cite from a 1974 reprint of Edward E. Smith's essay "The Epic of Space", in Lloyd Eshbach's book "Of Worlds Beyond"; Rick Hauptmann verified the cite in the 1947 first edition.
Matthew Hoyt submitted a 1984 cite from Brian Aldiss, in David Wingrove's "Science Fiction Source Book".
Malcolm Farmer submitted a 1974 cite from Brian Aldiss' anthology "Space Opera".
Jeff Prucher submitted a 1993 cite from John Clute's article in David Garnett's anthology "New Worlds 3".

Last modified 2022-08-30 23:24:56
In the compilation of some entries, HDSF has drawn extensively on corresponding entries in OED.