More Than Just Silver Underwear: The History of Space Opera

The term “Space Opera”, used to define a certain branch of Science Fiction, was coined by Wilson Tucker in 1941. It was not meant to be a compliment. The term “Soap Opera” has found its way into the larger public domain of common phrases, but it too came from this sort of labeling as did the “Horse Opera” for Western. The Soap Opera was a romantic radio melodrama in which the sponsor was stereotypically a soap company or other product that would appeal to housewives. The Horse Opera was also considered the lowest form of the Western, filled with romantic interludes and other non-purist devices, just as the Space Opera was supposedly the lowest common denominator SF piece.

The Space Opera has its roots in the early magazine serials at the beginning of the last century. Not everyone was trying to change society in the Wellsian manner. One such writer was George Griffith, who outsold H. G. Wells in England but is sadly forgotten today except by historians. Griffith wrote his share of political SF too (much of which was anti-American in flavor, a bad idea since America was destined to be the birthplace of the SF magazine) but one serial in Pearson’s Magazine called “Stories of Other Worlds” (collected in 1901 as A Honeymoon in Space) was the prototype for the Space Opera in the decades to follow. The series follows two newly-weds as they tour the Solar System in a spaceship called the Astronef, as couples used to travel the Continent in the 18th and 19th Century.

Lord Redgrave and his new wife, Zaidie, travel first to the Moon, where they find a dead city and the last of the Lunarians devolved into weird fish people, then onto Venus and its winged inhabitants, the inspiration for stories about angels. (These winged aliens are the first of a long line of flying men that runs from the stories of Edmond Hamilton, Henry Kuttner and Leigh Brackett to the character of Angel in the Uncanny X-Men comics.) Mars offers up a race of tall, ugly men, one of whom falls for Zaidie, and has to be shot down by the couple. The outer planets challenge the pair with deadly storms and gigantic sea monsters, before they return to Earth. Since Pluto hadn’t been discovered in 1900, they did not go there.

The series establishes certain motifs (later to be called clichés in the 1950s) that will occur over and over in the Space Operas of later decades: traveling from planet to planet, personification of the ship (which will reach its zenith with Anne MacCaffrey’s “The Sing Who Sang”(1969), force or weapons used on locals, harrowing escapes, monsters and most prominently of all, a definite hero and heroine. (Consider for instance the classic SF tale “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding, September 1941). Who is the hero of that tale? It doesn’t matter for the idea is the star of the show.) Griffith’s tales did not lead to an immediate explosion of Space Opera stories. Others added to the mix in the Munsey magazines like Argosy and All-Story, who published “off-trail” stories (for Science Fiction still had no title yet) by authors like Garrett P. Service, George Allan England and Homer Eon Flint. The “planetary romances” of Edgar Rice Burroughs would also add color and more adventurous settings to SF.

It would take the SF Pulps beginning in 1926, under Hugo Gernsback, to really give Space Opera soil in which to blossom. Gernsback’s brand of SF was not just an entertainment, for the Belgian immigrant publisher had a love of gadgetry and electronics. It is out of these inventor-oriented publications that the first all-Science Fiction magazine arose with Amazing Stories. Despite Gernsback’s less-than-literary attitude, he did publish the first Space Opera hero after George Griffith. Amazing Stories was the birthplace of Buck Rogers, who began as Anthony Rogers in two novellas by Philip Francis Nowlan. Buck’s first stories were not set in space but in a future America overrun by Asiatic overlords, the Han. “Armageddon 2419” (August 1928) and “The Airlords of Han” (March 1929) follow Rogers on his quest to free America from this “yellow menace” with the aid of flying belts, his band of rebels and the beautiful Wilma Dearing. It was only after Rogers became “Buck” in the comic strips (renamed after a Saturday matinee cowboy) that he moved into space. The fact that the rest of his adventures took place in comic books and in Buster Crabbe serials did nothing to endear Space Opera to more literary SF fans.

Gernsback developed many important authors such as Stanley G. Weinbaum and Ray Cummings, but it was E. E. “Doc” Smith who blew things apart with several influential series, first with Skylark of Space (that began serialization in the same issue as Buck Rogers, August-October 1928) and later the Lensmen series. These super-scientific novels are badly written from a technical point-of-view, with cardboard characters and stilted dialogue, but their effect on SF can only be compared to Star Wars‘ debut in 1977. After Smith, all the rules changed. Shown the way, other authors took Smith’s ideas, particularly that space adventures could go beyond the Solar System, and tell an exciting tale of action out amongst the stars.

Gernsback lost ownership of his pulps so it fell to another publisher to find the true entertainment value of Science Fiction. This editor was Harry Bates, who worked for the Clayton chain. Bates needed to fill a fourth spot in a quota of magazines and the type of magazine he devised was a Science Fiction magazine. The Clayton Astounding was born! The chain took a cookie-cutter approach to most of their fiction and Bates applied that same method to his new pulp. Fully named Astounding Stories of Super-Science, Bates threw off Gernsback’s crusading fervor and selected the stories as if it were detective or Western magazine. The Space Opera had finally arrived, in stories with quick plots, plenty of action, simple ideologies and plenty of monsters.

Critics reviled the Clayton Astounding, coining the expression B. E. M. (Bug-Eyed Monster) for the aliens depicted on the covers, usually clutching a semi-clad blond in slimy tentacles. Here was George Griffith’ motifs solidified into an identifiable genre. Much of what the Clayton Astounding published was not brilliant but amongst the dross were important gems such as the Hawk Carse series (Science Fiction’s first literary mystery: who was Anthony Gilmore, the author?) also the John Hanson stories of Sewell Peaslee Wright, that read today like so much Star Trek, as well as stories like Jack Williamson’s “The Sargasso of Space” (September 1931), the first story to feature a working version of the spacesuit.

The second version of Astounding, known as the Tremaine Astounding, gave us another important Space Opera classic, Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space (1934) and its sequels. It is no surprise that when Jack saw the scene in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker enters Princess Leia’s cell he said to himself, “I invented that bit.” Much of what will be Star Wars in 1977 can be seen earlier in Williamson 1930s Space Opera. Williamson’s friend, Edmond Hamilton must have had a very similar experience, for he had written many of the original ideas that would become commonplace.

The last version of the magazine was John W. Campbell’s Astounding that took SF in new directions, creating a more mature and literary form of SF, with the giants of the 1940s like Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and A. E. van Vogt, an important evolution but not quite as much fun as the Space Opera precursors (though Campbell published the Lensmen stories of Smith). The focus of SF moved away from adventure on strange worlds and became “The Literature of Ideas”.

What the Clayton Astounding did between 1930-1933, other pulps would continue. Thrilling Wonder Stories, Fantastic Adventures, even Weird Tales, (C. L. Moore’s popular Northwest Smith tales appeared in WT along with Edmond Hamilton, J. Schossal and Nictzin Dyalhis classics) and others offered up fast-paced SF without didacticism or literary pretense. One of the last and greatest of these was Planet Stories, which published along with Space Opera, its weird sister ‘Sword & Planet’ tales. Here the best of the non-Campbell writers, Poul Anderson, Basil Wells, Raymond Z. Gallun, and queen of them all, Leigh Brackett gave us rollicking adventures in a decade that seemed dominated by nuts and bolts. (Strangely also, Planet Stories gave us The Martian Chronicles of Ray Bradbury, who never would have conceived his Mars without Leigh Brackett and her adventures there.) Another important magazine was Captain Future, with most of the novels written by old-space hand, Edmond Hamilton. Captain Future, Kurt Newton and his strange companions, Grag the robot, the android, Ortho and the great brain, Simon Wright, fought on the side of goodness and the galaxy.

Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon filled newspapers and movie screens, but soon after they also appeared on Radio, shows directed mostly towards kids. It was in 1932 that Buck came to Radio in daily 15 minute snippets to be replaced eventually by a 30 minute show on Saturdays. Buck was voiced by Matt Crowley, Curtis Arnall, Carl Frank and John Larkin. In 1935, The Amazing Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon began as a Radio adaptation of the comics with Gale Gordon as Flash. (You might remember him better as Mr. Mooney on The Lucy Show.) Another serial ran in 1936.

Comic strips like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century quite naturally lent themselves to being collected and then new comic book adventures appeared after these were all gone. The 1940s and 1950s seemed to offer endless titles set in space with comics like Lars of Mars to Space Action. The coming of the Comics’ Code in September 1954 made little difference. Men in spaceships continued in four colors right up to the present day with the latest rendition of Buck Rogers in recent years.

The Pulps died in the 1950s, but Space Opera went on, first in the Radio programs but television quickly borrowed from Radio with Tom Corbett Space Cadet (1950-1955), Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949-1955) and Space Patrol (1950-1955). The silver underwear and spaceships on strings in the 1950s became more sophisticated in the 1960s. Gene Roddenberry changed it all again with Star Trek (1967-1969), being the most successful Space Opera franchise of them all until Star Wars.( Perry Rhodan, in Germany anyway, gives it a run for its money.) other shows followed, like Space 1999 (1975-1977), Battlestar Galactica (1978-1980) even Buck Rogers (1979-1981) in the 1970s and 80s, Babylon 5 (1994-1998), Space: Above and Beyond (1994-1995) and Farscape(1999-2003) in the 90s, Firefly (2002-2003) and a new Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) in the 2000s and today with shows like Dark Matter and the hugely popular, The Expanse. Space Opera TV was so common after 1977 that The Muppets could parody it with Pigs in Space.

The silver underwear of Flash Gordon seems a long stretch from the mega-blockbuster that is Star Wars, but it was these old serials that George Lucas remembered from his youth that was part of his inspiration. (The other was the films of Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kirosawa.) Star Wars changed all the rules for films (TV, comics, toys and fandom too.) Space Opera was back and bigger than ever! Films poured out of Hollywood for decades from knock-offs like Battlestar Galactica (1978), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), even Disney’s The Black Hole (1979), to a revival of the Star Trek franchise that is still going today. These days a new Space Opera show or film is greeted with acceptance, sometimes even with blasé ambivalence. (Yes, I mean Andromeda (2000-2005).

The Space Opera never really disappeared after 1930. Fashions come and go in Science Fiction, as with all things. The Campbell Astounding crowd look down their noses at the entertainment SF as outsiders do to the entire genre, calling it “That Buck Rogers Stuff”, but the elements of Space Opera are too rich to ever be relegated to the dust bin or the museum. One of SF’s biggest bestsellers, garnished with all the awards as well, is Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965). This dual trilogy of novels contains politics, environmental issues, and literary pizzazz aplenty, but it is still essentially a Space Opera. (You can almost imagine the Lady Jessica standing in a sietch, about to take the Water of Life, breaking into a soliloquy or an aria.) It is the Space Opera elements of the books (which is filled with talking heads but works all the same) that keep Dune moving, giving it the energy it needs to roll over you, and crush you (in a pleasant way) with its titanic themes. There is nothing else like it in literature except J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Space Opera, like epic fantasy, is not a set of clichés but a sense of wonder and fun that makes imaginative fiction the bright star it is.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.