01 April 2011
What does that mean? As you might have inferred already, the expression came about on the analogy with "soap opera," and it refers to the more melodramatic sorts of sci-fi. It also refers to the large scale on which a plot works -- a space opera might portray a war between two galaxies, or a multi-generational saga spanning millennia, or both.
The following will give you a feel. This is the opening paragraph of A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY (1999).
"The manhunt extended across more than one hundred light-years and eight centuries. It had always been a secret search, unacknowledged even among some of the participants. In the early years, it had simply been encrypted queries hidden in radio braodcasts. Decades and centuries passed. There were clues, interviews with The Man's fellow-travelers, pointers in a half-dozen contradictory directions: The Man was alone now and heading still farther away; The Man had died before the search ever began; The Man had a war fleet and was coming back upon them."
One hundred light years and eight centuries -- a mere niche in space, a flicker in time, on the scale of space operas. Further, the object of this manhunt is a single man, which tells us something about longevity in the distant future when this is set. Indeed, routinely long lives are a common feature of space operas, not necessarily for any reason more complicated than this: it allows a single protagonist to experience several long-lasting flights hither and yon.
From the above paragraph, reading between the lines just a bit, we can begin to grasp some points about the world to which we've been introduced. There was a war or revolution in the past, and "The Man" was on the losing side, which is why he went into hiding. He continues to be sufficiently dangerous that his sympathizers can with some plausibility claim he has raised a new war fleet. At any rate, the established powers -- his successors -- are looking for him.
We immediately have questions. Should our sympathies be with him or with his pursuers? Is he more like Eichmann in Argentina, or Jean Valjean, condemned over a stolen loaf of bread? Related: what do they plan to do when they find him? Assume he has no warfleet -- assume he is a man living an unremarkable life in an unremarkable place when they find him. What then? Summary execution? A trip "home" (wherever that is) for trial? Something else?
I won't spoil it. If your interest is piqued, the book is here.
That is the meaning of the term "space opera."
Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.