Military science fiction vs. space opera


I’ve been thinking a lot about this since The Darkspace Saga (and the prequel Lords of the Dark) is absolutely 100% space opera top to bottom. Amazon’s bestseller charts for space opera are filled with military sci-fi, but in reality a book that’s military sci-fi does not automatically mean it’s also space opera. Here’s why.

What makes a story space opera? First of all, some definitions: science fiction = speculative stories about the future and often has a strong scientific element. Space opera is a play on the term “soap opera” or “horse opera.” Think formula, melodrama,  lots and lots of clichés. Think of space opera as the bastard lovechild of science fiction and soap opera.

So space opera: big, sweeping settings in outer space, melodramatic adventure, campy. It’s the red-headed stepchild of science fiction.

Then there’s military sci-fi, which when written right is the opposite of camp. Unless it’s Heinlein writing it’s serious stuff, with ranks and slang taken right out of modern American military parlance. It usually–but not always–involves blasting some terrible alien threat into smithereens. From Wikipedia, David Weber, military sci-fi author extraordinaire says:

“For me, military science-fiction is science-fiction which is written about a military situation with a fundamental understanding of how military lifestyles and characters differ from civilian lifestyles and characters. It is science-fiction which attempts to realistically portray the military within a science-fiction context. It is not ‘bug shoots’. It is about human beings, and members of other species, caught up in warfare and carnage. It isn’t an excuse for simplistic solutions to problems.”

So, military sci-fi is profoundly serious. No smiles. Big stakes. Lotsa fighting. Lots of emphasis on procedure, rank, and strategy.

Which is quite different from the high camp that space opera is at its roots. Think Flash Gordon; he’s brawny, silly, and is going to save the universe by hitting Ming the Merciless in the head with a football.

I put Star Wars in the space opera category because it’s filled with melodrama (“Luke, I am your father…”) despite the fact that it’s got a strong military component. Now, if the movies were shot from the perspective of Grand Moff Tarkin I think it’d move itself out of space opera and right into military sci-fi territory.

Now there are books and movies that manage to do both–I’m thinking of Lois Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, where there’s lots of fighting but also some pretty neat sci-fi concepts, like cryofreezing and growing humans in tanks and romance. Or Battlestar Galactica, which has strong military overtones but also a substantial civilian component, plus some heavy questions about faith and the nature of humanity, plus melodrama.

But it’s a hard thing to write military sci-fi that’s also true space opera–and do it well. This time, The Darkspace Saga falls squarely in the space opera category, with light military undertones. Lots of kabooms, feels, and only a little teeny bit of kissing. See you at the opera house.

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