Thursday, April 8, 2010

If I set the story in the future and put in spaceships, it’s SF, right?

I like a good Space Opera as much as the next reader. But when is a story a space op and when is it SF?

The term “space opera” first appeared in the late 40’s, early 50’s to refer to radio and movie short serials set in futuristic venues. The term, of course, referred to a soap opera in space, though the space opera was heavy on adventure and light on the romance. Think Flash Gordon and the original Buck Rogers serials. Later on, the term was applied to literature as well, to any adventure novel set in a space faring culture, light reading meant to excite and entertain.

SF, science fiction, has always been held up as the older, more serious sibling to space op. All of us who read SF know the clichés about it needing to answer a “what if” question. Not all SF is so simple, of course, but truly to be called SF, there should be an exploration of something slightly deeper than who gets to sleep with whom in the end or which military faction wins. Those of us who cut our teeth on Douglas Adams and Keith Laumer know that the “serious” part can be left by the wayside and still be SF, but the necessary core remains, either with the story exploring some aspect of human interaction with the universe or with each other.

So…Arthur C. Clarke? Isaac Asimov? Ursula Leguin? SF, hands down. Elizabeth Moon? Much of C. J. Cherryh? Space Opera, no doubts, no mystery. Not everyone fits into such nice boxes, of course. Lois McMaster Bujold, for example, writes stories which appear to be space opera, until you scratch the surface and see the cultural entanglements and the consequences of tech built into many of the plotlines. Relationships become as important as tech, the journey to self-awareness as vital as world building.

This, I believe, is where SFR comes in. As Science Fiction writers, we are free to explore the universe, our culture, our own selves, without the constraints of a normal novel. We can reach beyond the constraints of traditional romance, unfettered by rules and convention. As Romance writers, we bring SF to a human scale, whether it is serious stuff with a purpose (I hear Carl Sagan saying ‘star stuff’ – I still miss him) or the adventure-laden fare of the space opera. The universe is limitless, both the external and the internal.

As you’ve probably realized, I enjoy both ends of the spectrum – but which do you prefer? SF or Space Opera? Or do you devour both with equal zeal?

Join me on Sunday afternoon for a fun chat with the ladies over at Red Rose Publishing’s Blog Talk Radio Show. 2:00 pm EST.

Sandra C. Stixrude

Author of:

Marya: Anchorage Book 1 Available Now at Red Rose Publishing


  1. Great article, Sandra. I'd say I have a well balanced diet of all flavors of SFR. The niche (or would that be a sub-sub-niche?) doesn't matter to me so much as a good balance of romance, technology, culture or other elements. I loved Shards of Honor/Barrayan (Cordelia's Honor) but found myself yearning for the relationship with Vorkosigan to be more fully developed.

    One thing I'm not a fan of is camp. I loved anything spacey and techie as a kid (even Fireball XL5) but I never was much impressed with the old Buck Rogers-style silliness.

    And yeah, I miss Carl Sagan, too. He was the voice of the universe...and all those Billions and Billions of stars.

  2. Well, by this definition then, I write space opera. I think I prefer to read space opera, too. I'm all about the characters. I *like* books that just throw in space ships. *grin*

  3. Hi Sandra--Gosh, it's good to see you and your informative articles here.

    You know, I just love science fiction pure and simple. I also love romance. So I tend to write relationships inside the SF, of course. Space opera? Well, even in shorts my SF tech has to be spot on, or I'll research and revise until I get it right.

  4. Definitions are tough, and they fall more and more by the wayside (where they writhe in the tall grasses and make little baby definitions) as cross-genres abound...and as we're more and more influenced by the visual media. Space opera used to be a bit of a derogatory term... like horse opera or soap opera. Then readers found them fun and pshaw'ed those who decried fun, and space opera when fun-ded and funded... gained a following and a worthy reputation. Certainly Cherryh ::genuflect genuflect:: has penned some seriously awesome books that tax the gray matter and yet still get the heart a-fluttering. Eliz Moon's VATTA'S WAR series rocks, as do Tanya Huff's VALOR books (and we get into military SF-space opera there).

    See. This is what happens when you left definitions fall by the wayside and writhe in the tall grasses. Military SF-space-opera-romance and... and...

    But no, just adding starships doesn't make it SF or even space opera, any more than adding a horse as a character makes it a western.

    Genres are ringed by reader expectations. If you walk into a KFC you expect chicken not chop suey. If you pick up an SF novel in any of its cross genre variations, it still has to deliver that intergalactic chicken. It still needs those elements that make it SF or you're going to have readers going home hungry, expectations unmet (or rather, you won't get to the readers because editors will toss the MS back at you... good editors, that is.)

    **Relationships become as important as tech, the journey to self-awareness as vital as world building.**

    Totally true.

    ** we are free to explore the universe, our culture, our own selves, without the constraints of a normal novel. We can reach beyond the constraints of traditional romance, unfettered by rules and convention. **

    Beg to differ, IMHO and IMHE. Rules and conventions (ie: genre expectations) still apply. That doesn't mean we can't serve chicken chop suey in the KFC. But we have to understand the kind of chicken the KFC devotee demands and not ignore that. You can entice them into the chop suey realm but first you must deliver the chicken along with that or you'll lose them as readers altogether. IMHE and IMHO.

    Have I mixed enough metaphors and analogies yet? Anyone hungry? ~Linnea

  5. So the question becomes, should we aim to meet the Romance reader's expectations, or the SF reader's expectations? That's the tough part, because it is really tricky to do both, and do we really really have to, or can we play to one audience over the other?

  6. Great discussion. You’re right, Jess, getting the right balance is tough. I fear ultimately we do have to choose one over the other. It always seems to come back to where the book gets shelved.

  7. I'm not a reader of sci fi. I HAVE read the 'classics' - Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut etc but my interest in reading is driven by a fascination with character relationships rather than scientific detail. I really don't want three pages on how a magnet could be used to transport matter through a black hole and sing a song at the same time. But I do like to see characters in 'different' situations - in space, on a spaceship, dealing with aliens - so long as it doens't slide too far into fantasy.
    From the books I've read, I've seen how hard it is to get the balance right. But from my own more contemporary stories, I've also seen you can't please all the readers all the time.

    barbara elsborg

  8. Well, that's what I get for going to bed early... thank you everyone for the lively and insightful comments!

    For Linnen - you are quite correct. We cannot, must not, throw the readers' expectations out with the bathwater. The rules that I refer to are the rules of traditional Romance. Show of hands: How many of you have had rejections from 'traditional' houses because you wanted a less traditional relationship? Or a less traditional plotline? (No single gender couples, no male leads who aren't entirely Alpha, no 'distractions' from the relationship, no third parties, no, no, no...)

    With SF and space opera (and, oh, I love them both) we are free to explore all the Forbidden Zones. It's so much more fun. :)

    And for Barbara, Jess and Charlie - yes, balance is tough, in any Romance. In an Erotic Romance, when does the sex overshadow the story? In a contemporary suspense, when does the relationship take away from the intrigue? We always have to struggle for growth within and becuase of the story arc, driven by the story arc, no matter the genre, sub genre or sub sub sub genre.

  9. Hello there
    I hope I'm not too late to jump in. I enjoyed SF at one time and haven't read any for a while, having been sidetracked by a whole slew of Indian authors writing about India and the changes going on there. But, this discussion has opened up the old desire again. At one time I tried to write a little SF/SFR-ish 'flash fiction' now I have the itch to try again. Thank you.
    Rohini / Zohra Saeed

  10. Definitions are ALWAYS tricky.
    I always thought (perhaps erroneously) that Space Opera was invented by the SF community to separate their "stuff" from "fluff". Those who poo poo romance in Sci Fi are the ones who believe Sci Fi should have some socially relevant plot and deep point.
    The simple plots such as Good Vs. Evil and Freedom Vs. Oppression were just too shallow for the more "literary" types.
    I got into a debate about this with my Literature professor who insisted that "Dune" wasn't "Classic" because it was written a decade earlier not more.
    I wonder if it's now on his "Classic" list since it's 30 years old.
    I write erotic sci fi romance because I believe the future of humanity will probably be more open to sexual mores and differences.
    I have a planet that's based entirely on the D/s relationship.
    I have one planet that has openness about human sexuality but alien relationships? It's tricky.
    Yet there are some that consider that I don't write "real" sci fi because I include graphic sex. *shrugs* That's fine.
    As long as readers get that there's a message there and that it isn't "Sex, Sex, Sex" I'm good.
    I write whatever the little voices tell me to. LOL!

  11. Ah, the little voices in our heads, Jennifer - they make us crazy and keep us sane. ;)

    There are those who will belittle any type of fiction - you'll find detractors everywhere. But variety, in both fiction and its readers, is what makes the universe so darn fascinating.

    Thanks for chiming in and thank you Zohra for the kind words!

  12. I love a good space opera (I've written a couple myself). Great post!

  13. I grew up with Star Trek...a REAL Space Opera. The next one I loved was Andromeda and can't get enough of space drama.

    Much of an author's creativity comes from the stimulation of what they watched as children, I believe.

    Great Blog, Sandra. See you on Blogtalkradio on Sunday!

  14. I ran James A. Schmidt a few years ago when they reprinted his shorts stories/novellas as collections. What I liked about his stories was that he didn't try to explain how something worked, it just did. Just like in a contemporary, we wouldn't explain how a car worked. He also liked to throw in endings with a twist.

    Linda Burke w/a L.L. Rosser


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