Space Opera Thrillers
by Jim Meeks-Johnson
A space opera thriller could be a diva holding forth a hundred miles above the Earth—that sounds thrilling, but that’s not the kind of opera I’m talking about today.
Yet space opera takes its name from Italian opera. Grand in scale and highly entertaining, opera in the Baroque period of the 17th and 18th centuries dealt with noble subjects like gods and virtue. But during the Enlightenment, opera got vulgar. No, not disgusting—just common—dealing with everyday problems of ordinary people—like love, money, and life’s tragedies, but maintaining the grand, entertaining style of earlier opera.
By the 20th century, “horse opera” referred to Westerns, and “soap opera” referred to long-running TV dramas sponsored by soap companies. In 1941 Wilson Tucker introduced the parallel term “space opera” to refer to “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarns.” And the name stuck.
Calling a story space opera was originally pejorative, but most of that negative feeling is gone now. Space opera is an accepted genre, albeit as the low-brow sibling of science fiction.
This is because true science fiction focuses most of its energy on exploring an idea rather than telling an entertaining yarn. Science fiction characters can be bland, and the story can still be an inspiring exploration of an idea. Space operas can ignore inconvenient scientific facts to tell a good tale. Of course, a story can do both, but in the end, science fiction is true to the idea, while space opera is true to the tale’s entertainment value.
For example, the original Star Trek was science fiction. Each episode explored an idea as the Enterprise hopped from planet to planet, with each world embodying a different idea. The newer Star Trek series like Discovery and Strange New Worlds have used the Star Trek universe to tell entertaining stories in the Star Trek universe. Spaceships fly the characters around as the story focuses on the crew’s relationships, the clash of empires, and special-effect-laden space battles—the epitome of space opera.
However, for me, the quintessential space opera is Star Wars—epic space battles as the forces of good hold back the forces of evil. Characters ride spaceships around the galaxy as cowboys rode horses around the old West. And plenty of shootouts at high noon—in the form of light saber fights.
How do we make a space opera into a space opera thriller? Add a protagonist walking into a palpable, unknown danger that gets worse as the clock ticks on to a world full of spaceships and gunfights!
Arguably, Star Wars does this in The Last Jedi as Luke Skywalker is hunted by the forces of the dark side (thriller) while trying to stop the death star from destroying another planet (space opera setting and action). Thriller plot elements are in many stories to a greater or lesser extent because they make great entertainment. And at some point, a story goes from being a space opera with thriller elements to being a thriller set in space.
For example, compare Star Wars to the movie Alien, with its intense suspense as the alien stalks Ripley (thriller) on a futuristic spaceship (space opera setting). The story’s heart is the suspense around her survival and the unknown nature of the creature after her. Alien is unquestionably a thriller. And it’s in a futuristic spaceship (space opera setting), but there are no space battles (space opera action). So while it is a great space thriller, it doesn’t quite have everything found in a prototypical space opera thriller.
Consider Iain M. Banks’s Culture Series. The books are plotted like thrillers and set in a larger universe full of powerful spaceships. Another noteworthy space opera thriller series is Charles Stross’s Singularity Series, which reads like a political thriller, but is set in a future full of spaceships and artificial intelligences.
However, these and most other space opera thrillers are marketed simply as space operas with a tense plot. Only a few series identify themselves as intentional space opera thrillers.
One of these is the Insurgency Saga by T.E. Bakutis, who follows three characters (one in each book) as they challenge the institutions of big corporations and governments. It’s a Heinleinesque fight of the little guy against the institutional powers of the far future.
The Eagle’s Debt Saga by Jason Winn is reminiscent of the TV thriller 24, but set a few decades in the future. And in my own Entangled Galaxy Series, alien assassins stalk the main character as she fights space battles and navigates galactic politics. So all of these qualify as space opera thrillers according to the criteria I have used in this article.
It’s not a long list because space opera is traditionally an adventure tale where the adversary is known to the protagonist—like Klingons or clone troopers.
But nothing tops a good thriller, so check out one of the space opera thrillers mentioned above for fast-paced action and nail-biting tension in worlds full of spaceships and impending doom.
And if you are looking for singing in orbit, good luck. You will have to find that thrill elsewhere.
About the Author
Jim Meeks-Johnson is a futurist and science fiction writer best known for his space opera thriller series, Entangled Galaxy, and his thought-provoking short stories such as The Mojo Economy and The Science of Alchemy.
At age ten, Jim was hooked by science fiction when he ventured into the adult section of his local Carnegie Library and found Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. He went on to earn degrees in mathematics and psychology, specializing in data science and conducting research at Indiana University Medical Center, where he co-authored numerous non-fiction articles and textbooks before launching his career as a fiction writer. He occasionally blogs at meeks-johnson.com.