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What Is the Oldest Space Opera?


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Initial post: Dec 20, 2010 8:45:48 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 20, 2011 7:50:50 AM PST
What would you consider the oldest space opera? Wikipedia puts the oldest at 1854. I like to write and read space opera, but am not really a historian of the genre, so I was wondering if it goes back any further than that.
Joe Chiappetta
Star Chosen: A Science Fiction Space Opera for the Whole Family

Posted on Dec 20, 2010 8:39:04 PM PST
I studied a bit about Victorian science-fiction in college, and I sort of doubt that there would be much that we would recognize as "space opera" till after the turn of the 19th Century. That said, there are stories, that we would now regard as myths from centuries ago about "space travel", even though at the time they were written, people believed that the air went on forever. Look up Lucian of Samosata; in about 160 AD he wrote two stories about journeys to the Moon.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 21, 2010 3:57:24 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 21, 2010 4:06:07 AM PST
Stephen, Thanks for the comment. I suspected that there might be something like what you are saying from the classical period, but couldn't be sure. I just looked Lucian up and found the book you might be referring to! It's called "True History," or "Trips to the Moon." I even see that Amazon has a free version for Kindle, so I am getting that right away: Trips to the Moon

What I plan on doing is reading it and then comparing it to my own space opera Star Chosen, to see how many early elements that seeped into our culture as influences can be traced back from my book to Lucian's. Again, I heartily thank you.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 21, 2010 3:28:40 PM PST
My own opinion is that the oldest space opera is the Odyssey. Ships on a years-long voyage of exploration, trying to get home but repeatedly thwarted by unexpected problems, alien beings who had to be escaped or overcome, strange places no one had seen before, and beautiful women for the captain to have sex with. The details vary, but the themes are the same. Take any scene in the Odyssey prior to the return to Ithaca and plug in Captain James T. Kirk instead of Odysseus, and it works. To the ancient Greeks, those unknown waters were as hazardous, mysterious and inviting as the depths of space are to us now.

Posted on Dec 21, 2010 4:08:46 PM PST
Thanks John. Your views cause me to rethink my remembrances of reading the Odyssey. It would not surprise me if that was an influence on Star Trek. The Odyssey is one of my favorites, yet I never considered it space opera. Strange creatures, I can certainly imagine in there right away, and all the relationship drama at the end with his wife is classic space opera conflict. However, I can't recall--did Odysseus ever leave the planet or enter into another dimension, or have dealings with other-worldly devices? If so, it certainly would make it easier to accept it as a book falling into the space opera category.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 22, 2010 6:25:24 AM PST
Odysseus only left the planet in terms of going to places totally off the map. Circe's Island, for example, or the island where the sacred cattle grazed. Were those places actually in the real world, or did they intersect with the real world at times? Do gods count as other-worldly devices? Would the sack holding the dangerous winds count? That depends on how you look at it. I think standard space opera concepts all grew out of such things. How many space operas have featured the travelers landing on a strange world and inadvertantly doing something terrible in the eyes of the inhabitants? Or getting their hands on alien technology and misusing it? Or being threatened by aliens with strange powers? Conversely, how many modern space operas have straight out featured the gods as actually aliens with great powers? How our heroes travel varies, where they go varies, but I believe the basic themes have remained pretty consistent across many centuries.

Posted on Dec 22, 2010 10:35:21 AM PST
Neg8iveZero says:
John, you just blew my mind!

Hah, I never looked at the Odyssey as a Space Opera but given it's age, if the same story was re-written today the sea would be replaced with space and the boat with a spaceship, all else would be timeless. There was no way to comprehend space travel to the extent of modern SF in 8th Century BCE, the concept simply didn't exist and could not be imagined... (of course give infinite chimps infinite typewriters... yadda yadda)

I, for one, would agree with you, John. It is almost certain that the sea represented to Homer what space does for our generation; an endless unexplored expanse of unlimited possibilities that interconnects different worlds. You can draw a direct parallel.

Posted on Dec 24, 2010 9:43:54 PM PST
Space Opera was said to have been created by Edmond Hamilton.

Posted on Dec 25, 2010 5:56:52 AM PST
Hi Julia, Based on some of the details referenced by others in this thread, it looks like the bread crumbs of space opera go back much farther than the prolific and talented Edmond Hamilton.

Posted on Jan 20, 2011 7:52:28 AM PST
Just got a copy of Trips to the Moon, which might be the oldest Space Opera. After I read it, I will check back here and give a report.

Posted on Jan 28, 2011 1:05:59 AM PST
griziot says:
Harry Martinson wrote Aniara: an epic science fiction poem, in 1956. Three years later an actual opera was composed by Blomdahl which told its story.

Posted on Feb 15, 2011 5:22:38 AM PST
I just started reading Trips to the Moon from 150 AD, and so far, I can't see how this might be the oldest space opera. I can certainly see things that might have influenced other books, but it is still a stretch to call it the first space opera. Of course, I will keep reading and let the group know if anything in the book changes my opinion. However, the quest for the oldest space opera is still on!
Joe Chiappetta, author of
Star Chosen: A Science Fiction Space Opera for the Whole Family

Posted on Feb 17, 2011 1:48:35 PM PST
Some people have talked about the Odyssey being updated as space opera. That was actually done a few decades ago as a stand alone Hammer's Slammers novel. Don't remember the name, but David Drake actually said that he had based it on the Odyssey. The details are different of course, but the outline is the same.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 21, 2011 8:53:07 AM PST
J. Stuart says:
There was an anime that ran with this premise back in the 80's called Ulysses 31.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 21, 2011 9:22:35 AM PST
I just found Ulysses 31 episodes on YouTube. Looks exactly like you described--a space opera version of Homer's epic. I see the DVD is on Amazon too: Ulysses 31: The Mysteries of Time

That said, I don't see Homer's original story as space opera. Still it is a remarkable story.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 19, 2011 10:35:16 PM PDT
TheoGrouch says:
The David Drake book is "The Voyage."

Posted on May 9, 2011 3:39:22 AM PDT
Gilette says:
Ulysses 31 was excellent.

In reply to an earlier post on May 18, 2011 1:25:40 AM PDT
Wow, you guys have a pretty LOOSE definition of Space Opera. Exactly what is Space Opera? Well, probably the best-known example that fits the label precisely is a little thing called Star Wars. It's all about high adventure, good vs. evil, heroes and villains, events on an epic scale, and of course, outer space. In short, Space Opera is melodrama. But the 'outer space' part is pretty crucial. Thus, Swiss Family Robinson ISN'T Space Opera, while Lost In Space IS, even though in most ways the stories are very similar. Although some people might say Lost In Space wasn't 'epic' enough to qualify.

If you want to know what Space Opera is, go and look at the work of those that originated it: E.E. 'Doc' Smith's Lensman and Skylark series, Edmond Hamilton's stories in the 1930s and 1940s (particularly the Captain Future series), the early writings of Jack Williamson (his Legion of Space series) and even the early work of John W. Campbell (The Mightiest Machine). Ironically, as an editor Campbell was most responsible for turning the mainstream of science fiction away from Space Opera (even though he published Smith's Lensman series in Astounding) and toward what's called "hard SF", where rigorously-applied science became paramount to the stories.

No, The Odyssey of Homer ISN'T Space Opera - because if it is, then I guess The Lord of the Rings (and for that matter, The Wizard of Oz) would qualify as well. And oddly enough, neither is 2001: A Space Odyssey, even though it has the necessary elements of epic-ness and outer space. Where is the high adventure? The struggle of good vs. evil? Very often in science fiction, it's a matter of tone and approach, rather than specific plot elements, that separates so-called 'serious SF' from 'Space Opera'.

And you must remember the term was coined as a derogatory one, from "Soap Opera" (originally, a radio melodrama designed to sell household cleaning products), to "Horse Opera" (a B-movie Western programmer), to "Space Opera" (the 'hard SF' fans looked down their noses at the swashbuckling melodramas as too juvenile). But we know better now, thanks to Joseph Campbell (no relation to John W.) and The Power of Myth.

Posted on May 20, 2011 2:13:41 PM PDT
Dennis, I agree with your definition of Space Opera--well put.

Posted on May 20, 2011 10:21:16 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 20, 2011 10:47:02 PM PDT
Then there is the even more pejorative term "Space Western", which is exactly what it sounds like: your typical Old West shoot-em-up, with the frontier town located on a backwater planet, six-shooters replaced by blasters, horses and stagecoaches by starships, and wild Indians replaced by aliens. Other than the local color and SF trappings, it's exactly like any other Western in plot and characters. I think, originally, this was considered Space Opera as well, but as it developed Space Opera tended to have much more going on in terms of events taking place in several locales with lots of travel back and forth between planets; also, there always seems to be some "unimaginable" weapon or threat (Death Star), sometimes several. But parts of Star Wars are definitely "Space Western"... bounty hunters, shootout in the cantina, and I guess Sand People can be considered "Indians".

I suppose Military SF can be Space Opera as well (most Space Opera seems to have at least some military aspects), but again, it depends on the tone. Sometimes Military SF is to the traditional War Story as Space Western is to Western; i.e. a much more specialized subgenre.

And if a long-running series goes on long enough, it doesn't have to stay in one SF subgenre. The comic strip "Buck Rogers" actually started out as more of a Future War/Military SF storyline before morphing into Space Opera. Ditto for "Flash Gordon", which started as more of a "Planetary Romance" in the mold of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter, Warlord of Mars. It's only when the series began to move away from Mongo, and involve more frequent space travel that it really became Space Opera.

Posted on May 26, 2011 8:37:59 AM PDT
I think of writing some space opera sometimes. Nothing I've written so far qualifies. Not even the unfinished stuff. I've got a setting worked up, and even some hints of characters, but no story.

Obviously _Star Wars_ is space opera, and I'd dare say so is _Star Blazer_ (_Uchuu Senken Yamato_) and _Galaxy Express 999_. The various Star Trek series and movies would be, too, though they stray into some philosophical and allegorical territory that tempered the shoot-em-up aspects. There's a new Buck Rogers movie coming out, supposedly later this year. They'd better get a move on.

Posted on May 26, 2011 11:59:12 PM PDT
Haven't heard anything new on the Buck Rogers movie for a couple of years, now. Last I heard, Frank Miller was supposed to write and/or direct... which strikes me as a particularly odd choice, and not one I'm really comfortable with. I'd like to see Buck Rogers done as a 'retro-art deco' sci-fi picture (something like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), with blimp-like "rocketships" and rayguns and all the rest. Seems to me it needs some sort of highly-stylized treatment to stand out from the pack of Space Opera movies already out there.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 2, 2011 11:16:53 AM PDT
Buck Rogers has huge modern-day space opera potential.

Posted on Jun 2, 2011 9:50:02 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 2, 2011 11:33:44 PM PDT
The problem with Buck Rogers as I see it, is that while in its time it was definitely groundbreaking, trying to do a straight, modernized version just makes it look hackneyed. It would sort of just blend in with all the other bad space operas done in recent decades.

When you get right down to it, there was very little original about Buck Rogers even back in the day; its claim to fame rests solely on the fact that it took SF ideas common in the pulp magazines of the time (which were really only read by a hardcore audience of young SF fans) and presented them visually for the first time to a wide audience that read the daily and Sunday newspapers. Were it not for the fact that John F. Dille, a newspaper syndicate owner, picked up an issue of AMAZING STORIES and thought Philip Francis Nowlan's story "Armageddon 2419 A.D." would make the basis for a unique new type of comic strip, both Nowlan and his story would be a forgotten footnote in SF history. Interestingly, that same issue of AMAZING STORIES contained the historically more-significant story "The Skylark of Space" by E.E. 'Doc' Smith (and the cover illustration by Frank R. Paul that most people think is from "Armageddon 2419 A.D." is actually from Smith's "The Skylark of Space") -- the mind boggles at what might have been, if only...

There's really very little meat there in terms of storyline or characterization (a smorgasbord of SF ideas, sure -- but nothing new to modern audiences). After meeting and defeating the Mongol invaders in the 25th Century (the dreaded "yellow peril" of the 1920s cast in future terms), Buck goes on to deal with an invasion from the Tigermen of Mars, and those silent-movie melodrama villains, the mustache-twisting Killer Kane and his flapper-era vamp femme fatale, Ardala. None of this stuff is going to fly with modern audiences if updated. Sure, there's the "man out of time" angle, but that's nothing new either, and the original comic strip even seemed to quickly forget his origins as the years rolled on and treat him as if he'd been born in the 25th century.

Really the only thing Buck has going for him is his historic significance and name recognition - and at that, mostly nostalgia for the 1980s TV show; most people are too young to remember the original comic strip (which ended in 1967 and was only briefly revived during the run of the TV series) except comic history buffs. And I do sort of dread a return of the "Disco 25th Century".

That's why I say it needs some sort of angle or spin to separate it from the rest of the pack. Doing it as a sort of "retro-future (that never was)" complete with trying to replicate the look of the 1930s comic strip is the only thing I can think of that would make this stand out.

It may seem like I'm being overly critical of poor Buck here, but trust me, I've loved the original strip since reading it as a kid in a giant oversized hardcover collection, THE COLLECTED WORKS OF BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY. The Buck Rogers comic strip was very much of its time, and that's what I love about it. The 1980s TV show, eh -- not so much.

Posted on Jun 3, 2011 7:28:08 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 3, 2011 7:59:07 AM PDT
It seems to me that there are three ways to do Buck Rogers:
1) a straight-forward attempt to do the story as a modern (2010-2015 AD) version of a movie, in which case yeah, other than the name there's nothing special about it;

2) the retro-future thing, which will end up being VERY good or VERY bad, with little chance of any middle ground. This is probably what they are going to do;

3) a modern take on a man from today (born 1980-1995 AD, depending on when the movie comes out) waking up in the 25th Century, and based on CURRENT notions of life in four hundred years, probably some sort of Singularity setup. The movie or movies would have plenty of cybernetics, transhumans, AI, nanotechnology, etc. Could be interesting, but would be utterly unlike anything that has ever born the name "Buck Rogers."

All in all, I agree that they should go for retro-future, maybe incorporate a few ideas from 3), but not much. They should NOT do deliberately cruddy FX; they should do what would have been done in the 1930s-40s if they had had today's FX tech.

I also think a movie based on 3) could be very cool indeed, but not as Buck Rogers.
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