In their 2003 article How Shit Became Shinola: Definition and Redefinition of Space Opera, David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer defined modern space opera as “colorful, dramatic, large scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character, and plot action … and usually set in the relatively distant future and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone.”
It would be hard to improve on that definition using words (although I could write an entire blog post concerning the exceptions that prove the rule—and maybe I will one of these days), but I can show you what I go to space opera for with a single image.
The Battle of Alexander at Issus
That’s the Alexanderschlacht (The Battle of Alexander at Issus) by Albrecht Altdorfer, which was commissioned in 1528 by William IV, Duke of Bavaria. Altdorfer’s conception of the painting was almost certainly heavily influenced by the defeat of the Suleiman the Magnificent at the Seige of Vienna the next year, and his execution of the commission epitomizes what I look for in space opera, and what Sherwood Smith and I tried to do in our space opera Exordium, which is being reissued in a revised edition by Book View Café on May 17.
Alexanderschlacht portrays the victory of Alexander over Darius III in a battle that was the beginning of the end for the Persian Empire, which fell in 330 BCE with the death of Darius and Alexander’s assumption of his title as king, assuring the Hellenization of the Near East. The work’s composition is thought to echo the four-kingdom eschatology of the Book of Daniel—Babylon (note the distant Tower of Babylon at the left side of the painting, under the crescent moon), Persia, Greece, and Rome), with Alexander’s victory representing the triumph of Greece over Persia, and echoing the hope that the relief of Vienna represented the triumph of Christendom (i.e., Rome) over Islam.
The description of the painting in Wikipedia starts by noting the “impossible viewpoint” of the painting, but that’s precisely what the Alexanderschlacht shares with space opera, and why it can serve as the picture-worth-a-thousand-words definition of the genre. Rather than “impossible viewpoint,” I’d call it the “archetypal perspective:” a close-up and even intimate view of heroic characters against a highly-detailed yet sweeping background meant to illustrate the fundamental struggle between good and evil, light and darkness. That’s what I go to space opera for.
Look at how Altdorfer laid out the action: the incredibly-detailed foreground that highlights the two antagonists: Alexander sweeping in from the West (out of the Sun) at the head of his Companions, pursuing his defeated enemy Darius on his chariot fleeing to the East (towards the Moon), all surrounded by a swirl of cavalry and foot soldiers. All this is portrayed in a physically impossible perspective that rises up past the chaos of battle to portray the Mediterranean Sea, Cyprus, the Nile, the Red Sea, and eventually encompasses three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa) and reveals the curvature of the earth at the horizon, with an apocalyptic sky dominating the whole. (And if you tilted the suspended description panel at the top of the painting back away from the viewer…Star Wars, anyone?)
The painting is dense with symbolism and detail, ranging from unrealistic ones like ladies in court dress at the edge of the battle, to highly-archetypal ones like the Sun and crescent Moon. It’s a visual feast that invites zooming in and out, one that you can return to again and again, gaining something new each time, just like re-reading a big, chewy space opera (or epic fantasy, for that matter: check out my co-writer Sherwood Smith’s blog post on that subject). And really, one need only change a few details in the painting, add some spaceships, substitute blasters for lances, pull back a little farther so the Earth is just one planet in an even bigger panorama, and, voila: space opera.
Basically, I think space opera, like epic fantasy, is simply the way most people see the world on any scale, from the personal to the grand sweep of history: as a story with a goal, a story where every pattern, every detail, points to deeper meaning. The dark side of this perspective is conspiracy theory; the light side, great art.
What do you think?