Space Opera is a science fiction sub-genre that I don’t read often, but when I do it always satisfies my craving for full-throttled adventure. I’ve been hoping we would see more in the movies, especially now that CGI has advanced far enough to animate truly alien characters. I enjoy the usually uncomplicated conflict, larger-than-life characters and romantic take on space travel and battles. Throw in a strong lead and some romance with a daring heroine, alien princess or otherwise, and what’s not to like?
My first exposure to space opera was as a teen, when I watched Flash Gordon. I didn’t even know about the source material, but I instantly loved the movie. The conflict was uncomplicated by gray areas, though the rivalries among Flash, Timothy Dalton’s Prince Barin, and Brian Blessed’s Prince Vultan provided some room for surprises. Since then, I’ve watched the movie a few more times, sometimes catching it in the middle on cable TV and finding myself unable to turn it off. Rather than the special effects seeming dated, they only seem to add to the experience. Max von Sydow’s Ming the Merciless seemed a better villain than Darth Vader to me at the time. At least when Vader blew up Alderaan, he was fighting against a rebellion. Ming targeted Earth for torment and destruction simply because he could, saying, “I like to play with things a while before annihilation.” Who was daring enough to stand against him? Flash! And now I have the theme song stuck in my head. That’s going to be there for a while.
There was also Disney’s “John Carter”, based on the character in the novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I liked it while I watched it, even though it performed below expectations at the box office. It wasn’t the most memorable movie, but I hope the stories will be revived for viewing one day. I still haven’t gotten around to reading them.
A while back I read two great novels by S. M. Stirling that really grabbed me. Both operated under the premise that the Space Race of the 1960’s became the dominant focus of funding and achievement, giving humanity access to the solar system much earlier than in our own history. The first was “In the Courts of the Crimson Kings”. Set during the waning of a great empire on Mars, advances in space travel allowed humanity to send emissaries to the Red Planet. With limited room on Earth’s ships, settlers on Mars were required to be some of the best people the planet could field: scientists, athletes, and artists combined, not unlike a lot of our current astronauts. Strange technology based on biological engineering made for great atmosphere and surprises. Stirling was also quick to remind readers that Martians, though humanoid, were not human. It was a novel I couldn’t put down, full of swashbuckling adventure and alien mystery.
I also read Stirling’s “The Sky People”, a novel that takes place on Venus and is related to the story I mentioned above. It was even more enjoyable, perhaps due to the addition of dinosaurs. In an opposing twist from “…Crimson Kings”, the Venusians were a less technologically advanced race than the Earthling visitors. In fact, Earth’s technology was closely guarded, lest it fall into the hands of warmongering Venusians. Present in both novels was an ancient technology that allowed psychic powers to those capable of wielding it. The Cold War between America and the Soviets survived the vacuum of space to continue being waged on Venus as well. A fan of some of Stirling’s other alternate history series, I couldn’t help but love his foray into pulpy Space Opera adventure.
I highly recommend both of these novels. Stirling’s love and appreciation for the genre are obvious in his writing. It’s fun, and like most reading I enjoy, it doesn’t come close to classification as literature. It exists purely to entertain. I think I mentioned dinosaurs on Venus, and that would have been enough for me to read it, even if I hadn’t read many of his other works. As for Flash Gordon, it’s probably something you either loved or hated when you saw it back in the 1980’s. I loved it, and somehow I seem to treasure it more every time I watch it. I can’t wait to watch it with my son, taking special note of his reaction to my enthusiasm when I sing along to the theme song. Flash…..AHAHHHHHH!