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Genre as Argument: Space Opera

Tweet of the Day: The Land in Between


It is hard to say what argument, if any, this genre makes, since pinning down a definition of what space opera is hard enough. In the broadest sense, Space Opera is “X in space” whether X is a pirate, a cowboy, a knight or an explorer or all of the above. However a closer look reveals a more nuance argument that many, including some of the grand masters of the genre probably missed.

All except one: George Lucas.

Even when he got it wrong.

A little history is in order, children. George Lucas was a working on Star Wars, the franchise that would turn the term space opera from a bad joke into a respectable sub-genre. In doing so he studied Joseph Campbell’s A Hero With A Thousand Faces, a collection of essays that detailed Campbell’s concept of the monomyth, or a grand unitary myth that binds all human mythology/history. In the book, Campbell drew parallels between different mythic traditions and saw a grand pattern he named, “The Hero’s Journey“. Lucas liked the idea and ran with it. The rest is pop culture history.

But what does that have to do with the genre’s argument? Simple, space opera argument is not about the nature of man, at least not directly, it is about the stories men tell themselves and each other. And that nature, like the nature of man itself is unchangeable.  While the stories are created at different times, written in different languages and populated with (apparently) different characters, they are, at heart, similar or the same, since they express our fundamental desires, dreams and expectations. Therefore you can have space cowboys, space explorers or space pirates. You can have space magic in the form of The Force or psychic abilities or advance technology. The heroes, the villains, the conflicts, all follow a certain pattern of storytelling we are comfortable with because….

The stories are a reflection of who we are, as a species.

But that sounds a bit depressing, isn’t it? Is there’s nothing new under the sun? Are we doomed to an endless re-hash of of the same tired narratives until our collective time in this universe comes to an end?

Not exactly. Because there is a second part to the argument: the fundamentals are the same, but the combinations are endless. Space opera is not so much about any specific story, but how we tell that story. It is in the telling of stories that we pass on knowledge, expand our imaginations and become heroes in our lives, directly or vicariously through our cultural heroes and our additions to the grand myth of humanity.


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