It's an epic saga of rebellion and romance.
—Trailer for Star Wars: A New Hope
A space Opera is a work set in a far future space faring civilization, where the technology is ubiquitous and entirely secondary to the story. It has an epic character to it: The universe is big, there are lots of sprawling civilizations and empires, there are political conflicts and intrigues galore. Frequently it takes place in the Standard Sci Fi Setting. In perspective, it is a development of the Planetary Romance that looks beyond the exotic locations that were imagined for the local solar system in early science fiction (which the hard light of science revealed to be barren and lifeless) out into an infinite universe of imagined exotic locations.
Space opera has a lot of romantic elements: big love stories, epic space battles, oversized heroes and villains, awe-inspiring places, and insanely gorgeous women.
Expect to see a dashing hero cavorting around in sleek, cigar-shaped Retro Rockets, Green Skinned Space Babes, Crystal Spires and Togas civilizations full of Space Elves, Wave Motion Guns capable of dealing an Earthshattering Kaboom on a daily basis, and an evil Galactic Empire with a Standard Sci-Fi Fleet, including an entire universe full of beat-up mechanical objects capable of being resurrected with Percussive Maintenance.
Note that this is quite different from the original definition of space opera, which was a derogatory term. It was a variant in a long line of terms for substandard genre fiction: 'horse opera' was bad Western fiction, whereas a 'soap opera' (so named because they began as hour-long ads for soap) was a hackneyed drama. The phrase was coined in 1941 by Wilson Tucker to describe what he called "the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn". (It's said that before 1975 or so, the only author who ever intentionally set out to write a space opera was Jack Vance, who wrote a novel about an opera company in space.) Weirdly, this means that today many works which were originally touted as examples of 'serious' science fiction, such as the Lensman series, are today held up as prime examples of Space Opera. As more authors and writers came to embrace the space opera style, the term has largely lost its negative connotations. Assisted by writers who regarded all tales of action and adventure in space as bad, and so tried to label it all "space opera" in a pejorative sense; they succeeded with the label, but not with keeping it pejorative.
Planetary Romance is an older variant, which is basically Heroic Fantasy In Space—or on a Dying Earth of some sort. While works such as John Carter of Mars and various fantasy novels set on a planet are Planetary Romance, characters like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon essentially codified the Space Opera concept in the popular imagination by the late 1930s.
Star Wars is probably the most famous modern example of space opera. (Indeed, The Empire Strikes Back was an important moment in changing "space opera" from an insult to a more neutral genre descriptor, due to the involvement of writer Leigh Brackett.) In Star Wars, technology is either magic (the Force) or slightly faster versions of today's gadgets (blaster rifles, hovercars, space ships) and the characters would be right at home in a fantasy novel (evil emperor, Farm Boy, princess).
The genre is useful for long story- and character-arcs but also expensive to film. Unless you do it in animated form, like dozens of Anime series.
The opposite of Space Opera would probably be Hard Science Fiction. In recent years, however, there has been a trend towards incorporating hard sci-fi elements into space opera, as in Starship Operators, the 2000s Battlestar Galactica, Firefly or especially Revelation Space—in fact, "New Space Opera" has gained some currency as a term referring to works that combine fast-paced adventure plots with some degree of hard SF rigor.
See also Two-Fisted Tales, Pulp Magazine, and Wagon Train to the Stars. In many ways, this is the science fiction equivalent of High Fantasy.
Note that while many more famous space operas go to the "ideal" side of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism, more recent ones are harder and more cynical: Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and Firefly being most prominent in Live Action TV.
- Legend of the Galactic Heroes, a Space Opera on a scale like no other.
- The Gundam franchise
- The Macross franchise (including Robotech
- Soukou no Strain
- Cowboy Bebop
- Crusher Joe First novel written by Haruka Takachio right after he saw Star Wars.
- Space Adventure Cobra
- Outlaw Star
- Angel Links
- Heroic Age
- Space Battleship Yamato
- The Five Star Stories
- Ginga Sengoku Gunyuuden Rai
- Martian Successor Nadesico, placed here on the list for the pun of it.
- Voltron (the vehicle one) / Dairugger XV
- Science Ninja Team Gatchaman
- Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, particularly the Non Indicative First Minute, but also later on.
- Stellvia of the Universe
- The works of Leiji Matsumoto.
- Tytania, the closest thing to an anime Dune and written by the same author as Legend of Galactic Heroes though it is an independent story.
- Glass Fleet
- Crest of the Stars
- Starship Operators, hardest Space Opera anime bar none.
- Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki has many Space Opera elements despite taking place mostly on Earth, while spinoff Tenchi Muyo! GXP and the second half of Tenchi Universe are clear-cut examples.
- Dragon Ball gradually worked its way into this, starting with Dragon Ball Z. Though the series initially concentrated on Earth-based stories, the Saiyan Saga was where things began to exhibit a more galactic scope.
- Irresponsible Captain Tylor...albeit slightly off
- Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers are the Trope Codifiers, and both feature lots of Retro Rockets and a Galactic Empire of some sort. Star Wars started after Lucas couldn't get the rights to Flash. King Features, realizing their mistake, made the Flash Gordon film after Star Wars came out.
- Flash Gordon is also a Captain Ersatz of Buck Rogers—see Literature below.
- Marvel Comics turned cosmic part of their Shared Universe into one giant Space Opera, since 2006. Starting with X-Men: Rise And Fall Of The Shi'Ar Empire and Annihilation, we got one epic story after another - Annihilation Conquest, War of Kings, The Thanos Imperative and adventures of many cosmic-themed heroes, like Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy between them.
- The whole Jodoverse - but particularly The Metabarons.
- Green Lantern has a foot firmly placed in Space Opera, especially for Crisis Crossover comics like Sinestro Corps War where Sinestro himself set the war up so he wins either way.
- X-Men ventures here occasionally, such as for The Dark Phoenix Saga.
- Dan Dare
- The Ballad of Halo Jones
- Star Wars, as mentioned in the main text.
- The Chronicles of Riddick
- Flash Gordon. The film came out after Star Wars.
- Star Wars was originally going to be a George Lucas Throwback of the original Flash Gordon serials.
- Battle Beyond the Stars
- The Star Trek films, except for The Voyage Home, which was a comedy set on then-modern Earth.
- The Fifth Element, a Space Opera with an opera in space!
- The Last Starfighter
- The Ice Pirates
- Spaceballs (although technically, it's a parody of space operas...)
- Starchaser: The Legend Of Orin
- Alien (which also utilizes the genre of SF horror)
- Titan A.E.
- Dune—features a galactic jihad in a Feudal Future containing Spacing Guilds and spice mines.
- Queen of Outer Space
- The Warlord: Battle for the Galaxy
- Transformers: The Movie. some edits even have the Opening Crawl.
- Star Odyssey
- The Lensman series by E. E. "Doc" Smith is generally given as the defining example, along with its predecessor and spiritual twin the Skylark of Space.
- Buck Rogers, an early and influential example, is probably the Trope Codifier in pulp fiction.
- John Carter of Mars and other Planetary Romance novels contain elements of Space Opera, making it an Unbuilt Trope.
- Foundation, by Isaac Asimov, an extremely influential series inspired in part by Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and which in turn partly inspired Star Wars.
- Perry Rhodan series (over more than 2500 books that span from 1971 to 5050).
- Hyperion, Dan Simmons
- Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, complete with an in-story Space Ballet.
- Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series actually does consider seriously how changes in technology would affect culture, even language.
- The Culture books by Iain M Banks, although again it does have a society changed by technology - in particular near-perfect medicine and a lack of the need for money due to massive technological advances.
- Lacuna is firmly in the "New Space Opera" (space opera with hard science) genre.
- Larry Niven's "Known Space" universe.
- The Rowan series by Anne McCaffrey.
- Most of Peter F. Hamilton's books, though technological advances have significant societal and cultural impacts.
- The Saga of Seven Suns
- Stationery Voyagers is a definite space opera, though it alters between this and an unabashedly political Supernatural Soap Opera.
- And of course, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's opus Battlefield Earth.
- David Weber has an extensive one in Honor Harrington. As well as pretty much everything else he's written.
- Walter Jon Williams trilogy Dread Empires Fall is space opera on the fairly hard science side.
- Alan Dean Foster's Humanx Commonwealth series. It adopts many Speculative Fiction tropes but plays them for Space Opera themes.
- Stephen R. Donaldson's The Gap Series is literally this, as it's Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung cycle In Space. Newer editions of the first volume have a cool author's note explaining how the dramatic elements (and thus, tropes) of Opera work in a sci-fi setting.
- Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought series.
- David Brin's Uplift.
- C. J. Cherryh's enormous Alliance Union universe. Probably the "hardest" of all Space Opera, with Faster-Than-Light Travel being the only deviation from known physics.
- Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder. Probably even harder than Alliance Union, with no Faster-Than-Light Travel whatsoever.
- Parodied and lampshaded in Jack Vance's Space Opera, which is a space opera about - yes - a touring Opera company.
- Many of Vance's works - such as The Demon Princes- are more straightforward examples.
- Parodied by Harry Harrison in his Bill the Galactic Hero and Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers.
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy derives a lot of its humor through parodying space opera conventions. The unrealistic elements typical of the genre are either Lampshaded or replaced with even sillier ideas.
- The Space Captain Smith series by Toby Frost.
- Simon R. Green's Deathstalker books.
- The Deathstalker series is both a parody and an homage to more traditional Space Opera's and exaggerating or taking various tropes to their most extreme conclusion.
- Karin Lowachee's Warchild Series.
- Julie E. Czerneda's Species Imperative.
- John Barnes Occitan series.
- Philip Reeve's Larklight series, which combines Space Opera with Steampunk.
- Stephen Baxter's Xeelee Sequence may well be the ultimate example in terms of scale, as well as being much harder sci-fi than the average space opera.
- Margaret Weis' quadrilogy The Star of the Guardians.
- The Conquerors Trilogy by Timothy Zahn
- Edmond Hamilton: Big love stories? Check. Epic space battles? Oh Yeah! Oversized heroes and villains? You might say that; Awe-inspiring places? Yep. Insanely gorgeous women? Heck yes! And they usually rule the universe - or at least a star kingdom to boot.
- The Stardoc series has elements of both this and Medical Drama.
- Space Vulture, a George Lucas Throwback to the original pulp Space Opera, by Gary K. Wolf and Archbishop John J. Meyers.
- The Commamder Toad picture books by Jane Yolen are a parody of space opera.
- Michael Flynn's Spiral Arm series
- John C. Wright's Hermetic Millenium
- The Sirantha Jax Series by Ann Aguirre.
- Technic History by Poul Anderson
- Also numerous other works, including The Peregrine, Star Fox, For Love and Glory, and many outside the Technic History series.
Live Action TV
- Star Trek (all series). Though there is (some) serious consideration of how technology and science would change society. Coincidentally, there was, in fact, a Star Trek Opera performed on stage in NY.
- Battlestar Galactica (both versions) but at opposite ends of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism
- Power Rangers Lost Galaxy is one of the clearest examples in the franchise, but Power Rangers in Space started to drift this way before the season ended.
- Firefly, which has the unusual distinction of being both a Space Opera and a Horse Opera.
- Babylon 5
- The Stargate Verse, even though that barely escapes fitting the definition; the Earthly or Atlantean base with a Stargate connection functions exactly like a spaceship for most story purposes. It's more of a Planetary Romance.
- Space Cases
- The Amory Wars, a metafictional Space Opera comprised of five Concept Albums by Coheed and Cambria.
- Ayreon is this trope.
- Iron Savior is this too. Their first five albums (and a EP) are almost entirely the story of the titular starship.
- Warhammer 40,000 is a Space Opera setting, although it's about as cynical, grim and dark as you can get. Actually, it's that, turned Up to Eleven.
- BattleTech. The RPG, as distinguished from the series below.
- Traveller was pretty much the first RPG set in the Space Opera genre, and set the standard for those that followed. It's in the "semi-hardened" category of Space Opera and an incredible amount of work went into the Backstory including fairly realistic science and social science.
- Traveller is a fairly flexible game that has a Space Opera like Backstory and can be played at the Space Opera level. Much of the point is that the Traveller Universe is a Framing Device of sorts, which means local circumstances can be adapted to taste quite a ways.
- The forgotten board game Imperium was used as a source for some of the Traveller universe. It depicts a young and expansionist republic on earth, conquering a Vestigial Empire in space. There are a number of other Space Opera board wargames, but this one is notable for historical reasons.
- Fading Suns
- There was an entire RPG named Space Opera.
- The Cathedral setting in Big Eyes, Small Mouth is intended for this kind of adventure.
- Asura's Wrath has some of this. It's mixed with South Asian Mythology.
- The Halo series
- The Mass Effect series. The writers actually put quite a bit of consideration into how the futuristic technology in it works, though (although, admittedly, writers have done this in a lot of other series classified 'space opera', such as the aforementioned Halo) .
- Star Control
- Many a science fiction TBSG (turn based strategy game) - most prominently Master of Orion II
- Wing Commander
- Star Fox mixes Funny Animals with Space Opera.
- EVE Online
- Free Space
- The Metroid series, although this slides more towards After the End Planetary Romance in the context of individual games.
- Metroid Prime: Hunters and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption are straight Space Opera, however, as they are the only games in the franchise that internally take place on multiple planets.
- Total Annihilation
- Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War
- Galaxy Angel gameverse
- Advent Rising
- Infinite Space
- Colony Wars
- Ratchet and Clank, a space opera with a hefty dose of Looney Tunes thrown in.
- Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel.
- The Star Ocean series, when you aren't exploring underdeveloped planets.
- Spore's Space Stage.
- Mechquest and Warp Force by Artix Entertainment.
- Schlock Mercenary
- Legostar Galactica, which is essentially a satire of Space Opera.
- Angels 2200
- This story arc in The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob is explicitly identified as a Space Opera, complete with spaceship battles, love dodecahedra, space politics, starfish aliens, giant monsters, space dragons, a card carrying villain, and the requisite beautiful princess.
- Last Res0rt
- SPARK of Tyranny (Chapter 1) is a Space Opera with an Anti-Hero Type II/Type III Captain and his Ragtag Bunch of Misfits, struggling against the behind the scenes machinations of the Kilon Federation, which has created a Vichy Earth.
- The Endless Night
- Orion's Arm a transhumanist Space Opera.
- Artemis Neo
- Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers
- Exo Squad
- Captain Simian and The Space Monkeys
- Wing Commander Academy
- Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles
- Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors
- Bucky O Hare and The Toad Wars
- Ulysses 31