Space opera was born at the beginning of the Twentieth Century — and arguably, did more to define the last century than any other genre. For most of the previous century, our most thrilling dreams of adventure were inspired by the stories of starships, aliens and interstellar empires.
A complete history of space opera would be nearly impossible to compile in one short article. But here's our attempt at listing the major highlights in the history of the genre, from 1901 until now.
The introduction to The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, runs through a few different definitions of space opera, including this one from Paul McAuley, writing in Locus: "lushly romantic plots and the star-spanning empires to the light-year-spurning space ships, construction of any one of which would have exhausted the metal reserves of a solar system... stuffed full of faux-exotic color and bursting with contrived energy." And then the editors of The New Space Opera sum it up: Space opera is "in short, romantic adventure set in space and told on a grand scale."
So here's where space opera came from, and how it's grown since then:
1901: George Griffith's A Honeymoon in Space: Considered by some commentators to be the first-ever foray into the genre, the story concerns newlyweds Lord Redgrave and Zaidie travelling to the moon, only to learn its inhabitants have devolved into fish-people. Dismayed, the couple journey to each of the other planets in the solar system, meeting the angels of Venus and giants of Mars along the way. (Interestingly, the couple skip Pluto, which hadn't been discovered by 1900, but has since been dismissed as a planet.) Although forgotten today, Griffith was a best-selling author whose stories outsold even H.G. Wells.
1917: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs:
This groundbreaking novel contains no spaceships but did help to popularize interplanetary travel.
1925: Terrano the Conqueror by Ray Cummings:
Cummings was a personal assistant and technical writer for Thomas Edison (who had previously starred in the proto-space opera Edison's Conquest of Space in 1898).
1928: Edward E. Smith's The Skylark of Space: This novel premieres in Amazing Stories magazine – in the introduction to the book's 1991 reissue, Fredrick Pohl writes: "With the exception of the works of H. G. Wells, possibly those of Jules Verne - and almost no other writer - it has inspired more imitators and done more to change the nature of all the science fiction written after it than almost any other single work."
1928: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The name most-often associated with the genre, the Buck Rogers comic strip was the first to illustrate the concepts of Smith and Burroughs.
1934: The Legion of Space by Jack Williamson: This six-part serialization in Astounding Stories was published in book form years later, and spawned a space opera series that concluded with 1983's The Queen of the Legion. Williamson wore his Shakespeare influences on his sleeve with his thrilling stories of the Falstaff-esque thief Giles Habibula.
1934: Flash Gordon: Basically, the first multimedia event – it was a comic strip and a radio series, and a film serial went into production by the end of 1935.
1934: Triplanetary by E.E. "Doc" Smith: The first book in Smith's Lensmen series is published – a precursor to Green Lantern, and the first series to illustrate space opera on a galactic scale.
1942: Isaac Asimov's Foundation: This series begins as a series of eight short stories, published in Astounding Magazine and eventually collected in book form. The story of a galactic empire that is doomed to fall, Foundation became a trilogy, and eventually a cornerstone of Asimov's unified future history.
1942: "Recruiting Station" by A.E. Van Vogt: This story later became the basis for the novel Earth's Last Fortress. Dr. Lell travels back in time to the present, from a future where Earth is devastated by the war between the insane Glorious and the (relatively) sane Planetarians — and Lell is recruiting thrill-seekers to fight for the Glorious. Van Vogt went on to become one of space opera's most prolific and influential writers.
1943: Judgment Night by C.L. Moore: Moore narrowly misses beating Asimov to the punch of writing about a galactic empire and the somber realization that power must inevitably wane.
1947: Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert A. Heinlein: This is the first of Heinlein's "juveniles," 12 novels published between 1947 and 1958. Writes Allen Varney:
In each brisk, imaginative book a level-headed teenage boy of the future pursues adventure and earns his adulthood. Though not related, the novels gradually expand in scope from first to last: Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) features a backyard spaceship that flies to the Moon; Have Space Suit — Will Travel (1958), filled with neat ideas, intriguing characters, and humor, brings Earth into a Galaxy-wide federation of races. Check out Red Planet, The Star Beast, or Citizen of the Galaxy to see the benchmarks of 1950s space opera.
1949: Captain Video and his Video Rangers: The first in a string of television space operas. In her book, The Space Opera Renaissance, Kathryn Kramer dismissed the series as "the very definition of hack space opera". Future soap star/Commissioner Gordon, Don Hastings, played one of the titular Video Rangers.
Early 1950s: The golden age of space opera novels: With writers like Leigh Brackett, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson and Alfred Bester tackling the genre. Writing for Baen Books, Hank Davis says:
Two notable authors of space opera in the 1950s, were Poul Anderson and Andre Norton, but there were also Jack Vance, James Blish, Harry Harrison, Robert Silverberg (mostly in magazines, though a few novels, often under pseudonyms, were published in the 1950s) and John Brunner.
There's a pretty great reading list at the link.
1956: The Stars My destination by Alfred Bester:
Acclaimed as "the best space opera of all time."
1961: Perry Rhodan:
The most successful science fiction book series of all time debuts, selling over one billion copies in pulp-booklet format.
1964: The Planet Buyer by Cordwainer Smith: The first half of what will eventually become Norstrilia, his defining novel of the Instrumentality Universe, in which humans are nigh-immortal (except that their age has been capped at 400.) Writes Chris Roberson:
I'm continually staggered by the level of invention in Smith's future world. The stories themselves often lack strong endings, but the ideas scattered along the way are decades ahead of their time.
1965: Lost in Space:
The first science-fiction television series to incorporate a family dynamic –a concept pioneered by comic books like Space Family Robinson and Fantastic Four. Fully utilizing the conventions of the soap, each episode ended on a truly baffling cliffhanger.
1965: Dune by Frank Herbert: Writes B.J. Keeton:
Dune presented one of America's first award-winning "space operas." In regard to most science fiction, the tropes of advanced technology, aliens, other planets, and spaceships spring to the forefront. Dune does possess these things, sometimes in abundance, but the differentiating feature of Dune is that it presents these elements as background for the more important – albeit – larger than life and often melodramatic–characterization and plot movement.
And Keeton makes a strong case that Dune's treatment of "space opera" tropes paved the way for Star Wars in 1977.
1966: Star Trek: Both Isaac Asimov and John W. Campbell Jr. endorsed this series when it first aired, with Campbell calling it "the first really adult, consistently high-level science-fiction show that's appeared on TV."
1970: Ringworld by Larry Niven: According to the Science Fiction Lab at Georgia Tech: "Ringworld and the Known Space series had an enormous impact on the science fiction community and helped to revive interest in the space opera genre. While it was published in 1970, it exhibits many of the characteristics that define New Space Opera stories published in the late 90's and early 2000's. Like all stories of this genre, it evokes a strong sense of wonder at the intricately detailed world it describes. ... The inhabitants of the Ringworld who have lost the civilization of their ancestors consider builders of their home to be gods and mistake the travelers as being divinely sent. This religious theme allows Niven to update the space opera genre by introducing artifacts and phenomena that retain a strong sense of mysticism despite the best efforts of science to explain them."
1968: Nova by Samuel R. Delany: This was either the end of an era of space opera, or part of the rise of the New Wave, depending on your perspective. As Brian A. Oard notes, this novel was considered edgy in 1968, but today it feels like "a space opera that would be completely accessible to fans of Star Trek." It's clearly a precursor of some of the more challenging space operas published in the past couple of decades.
1975: Space: 1999: In the November 7th, 1975 edition of The Wall Street Journal, Benjamin Stein described the series as "Star Trek shot full of methedrine. It is the most flashy, gorgeous sci-fi trip ever to appear on TV."
1975: The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison:
As Dozois and Strahan write in the introduction to The New Space Opera: "It was, apparently, intended to kill space opera, or at least be an anti-space opera. What it was, instead, was the work that provoked others to pick up the cudgel and change things again."
1977: Star Wars: This movie redefines what's possible on the big screen and spawns a million imitators, from Corman's Battle Beyond the Stars to television's Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
1978: Blake's 7: Blake's 7-originally pitched as the "Dirty Dozen in space" used morally ambiguous characters and situations and long-term story arcs, and helped to influence Babylon 5 and other dark, gritty space operas that came after it.
1979: Space Battleship Yamato:
This groundbreaking anime series is repackaged in the United States as Star Blazers.
1979: Mobile Suit Gundam: The first show to represent giant robots as "real" mecha.
Widely recognized as the series that opened up Westerners to the anime market.
1985: Ender's Game: Talking to io9 in April 2010, writer-producer Roberto Orci talked about how influential this book was: "Are video games good for you or not? Our own military is now training on video games, and they can pilot remote weaponry from anywhere in the United States or anywhere in the world. So already the idea of we're already controlling weapons of war through games and how that's desensitizing people... [That] is one of the themes of the book [Ender's Game], it was way ahead of its time. I read it in '85 there's Internet in it, there's blogging, there's iPads. It's a really advanced book, and it's still relevant."
1987: Star Trek: The Next Generation: With the rise of this show, television space opera is relaunched. The late 1980s and 1990s see a wave of new space opera shows, including three more Star Trek shows, plus other Gene Roddenberry-inspired space operas like Andromeda.
1987: Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks: Arguably, Banks' Culture series, which begins with this book, helped recharge space opera as a book genre, and gave rise to all of the star-spanning stories of artificial intelligence, advanced civilizations and nigh-immortal space travelers that we've seen in the past 25 years.
1990: Wing Commander:
The first installment of this space combat simulator is released, giving fans first-hand experience with the genre.
1993: Babylon 5: Writes Renaissance Gamer: "In a world before Toy Story, it was the first series to utilize computer graphics technology for its special effects. These early stabs at it are occasionally laughable, but the improvement over time helps to show how CGI took over the science fiction industry."
1994: Stargate: The particularly odd film about interplanetary Egypt is released — in effect, launching the longest-running space opera television series in history, two direct sequels, and an animated spin-off.
1998: Cowboy Bebop:
The self-proclaimed "work which becomes a genre itself" debuts.
1999: Farscape: As Glenn Yeffeth puts it in the book Farscape Forever!, this was "the first scifi series (Buffy notwithstanding) which employs a modern and TV and culture-savvy hero, with whom the audience frequently sympathizes via shared media references." Also, puppets.
2000: Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds: Reynolds writes future-set hard science fiction, featuring believable tech, within a consistent universe, though never recycling the same protagonists. Here's how Reynolds defines space opera: "I see it as big-scale sci-fi, utterly and imaginatively exuberant with lots of dash, brio and panache. Oh yes, and the fates of entire planetary systems should be at stake, ideally." Thomas M. Wagner of SF Reviews writes that "images and bits and pieces of the novel simply would not get out of my head. This is saying something, since, with the volume of SF and fantasy I read, I do not exactly retain an eidetic memory of everything I've read that I can call up in a second or two unless the book literally bowled me over. But in the case of Revelation Space, two and three years later I still could remember the opening scene in the archaeological dig on the lonely planet of Resurgam with remarkable clarity. The dark, eerie corridors of the vast starship Nostalgia for Infinity still brought haunting images to mind."
Early 2000s: The New Space Opera: The book of that name, which we quote from elsewhere in this piece, pinpoints the mid-1990s as the beginning of a resurgence of space opera as a serious book genre. Authors like Paul McAuley, Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, Ken Macleod, C.J. Cherryh, Peter F. Hamilton, Gwyneth Jones, Gregory Benford, Stephen R. Donaldson, Nancy Kress, Greg Egan, Kage Baker, Lois McMaster Bujold and countless others produced "major works of space opera that are literary, challenging, dark, and often disturbing, but also grand and romantic, exciting, fast-paced, set in space, and told on an enormous stage," as Dozois and Strahan put it.
2002: Firefly: Like The Hunger Games, Firefly is set in a post-civil war future where the losing faction scramble to survive. Writes Orson Scott Card in the book Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe: "Television does force shape onto every TV series; you can only bend the frame so far. Firefly was still a TV series. But within that frame, Joss Whedon had brought, not just the appearance of recent print scifi, but also the fact of it. He was writing characters who had not existed before, and putting them in situations that, if they had been in short stories submitted to magazines or anthologies, would certainly have sold and been published."
2004: Battlestar Galactica: As Peter Suderman put it in the National Review:
[Ronald D.] Moore packages his show in low-budget finesse, drenching his grainy, high-contrast images in rusty golds and browns. The Cassavetes-inspired handheld camera work, long a cop-show staple, mirrors the jury-rigged uncertainty of the premise. Battle scenes spark with choked-breath, documentary rawness. Unlike the clean, delicately modernist appearance of Star Trek and its many dirt-free progeny, Galactica's look is designed to invoke the rough-hewn, battle-ready grit and grime of a Navy submarine. All of this adds up to what can only be referred to as realism. Despite the geeky presence of ribbed leather jumpsuits and space fighters, the dimly lit, metallic corridors of the Galactica house a poignant, human reality that belies its fantastic setting. A shining, distant star in the outer reaches of niche cable, Battlestar Galactica burns with a combustive mixture of political turmoil and human drama that is as achingly real and relevant as anything on television.
2007: Mass Effect: Even more than Halo, Dead Space or other major video game series, this game trilogy has helped transform the meaning of space opera. As Kyle Munkittrick writes: "The reason is this: Mass Effect is the first blockbuster franchise in the postmodern era to directly confront a godless, meaningless universe indifferent to humanity." Thanks to everyone who suggested adding this!