The Magic of Space Opera
– when Science Fiction came of age
Seventy years have passed since Isaac Asimov penned the first of his Foundation stories. Tens of thousands of years in the future, humanity has colonised far beyond the Solar System and has established a galaxy-wide empire, dependant for trade and communications on faster-than-light travel. One single planet, Terminus, is beginning to exercise control over the whole, both militarily and psychologically, according to the principles of psychohistory, a science invented by Asimov’s most durable human hero, Hari Seldon.
It is a comfortable vision for those of us living in the twenty-first century, not because the Foundation galaxy is some kind of cosmic paradise – it is anything but – rather that, with our wars, famines and plagues, it is remarkable that our species has managed to survive long enough to colonise one other planet, let alone millions.
For as long as human beings have known there are other worlds out there, they have dreamed of breaking free of earth’s gravity to visit them. And that is a long time indeed if we include the moon, the sun and the other planets of the Solar System in the premise.
Asimov was surely the first writer to create a fictional universe that was at once outlandish and (almost) credible, and one of the few in his day to explore technologies that, while fantastical, were grounded in real science. Not only did he create a new science of his own – something that no other author had ever done but his fiction also gave us robotics – a word he is credited with inventing, its three laws, the positronic brain and the hyperdrive. Though it would take a decade for Asimov to polish his stories ready for publication in novel form, it was a decade in which space opera came of age and developed as a serious sub-genre of science fiction.
The term space opera was originally meant in a derogatory sense, making fun of the cheap and sensational tales that appeared in the pulp magazines and short story digests of the early 20th century. Though science fiction was popular and had a loyal and dependable market even then, many in the mainstream of fiction, both writers and critics, regarded it with disdain. No serious author wrote sci-fi, especially not fiction that depicted space travel!
It is true that some early authors of the genre are household names today. The fame of Jules Verne, HG Wells and Aldous Huxley rests primarily on the quality of their science fiction. In 1870, Jules Verne published Around the Moon, a sequel to his earlier novel From Earth to the Moon, one that talked a lot about space travel but only managed to take off at the end of the book. His other sci-fi tales such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth are among the best ever written.
In 1901, HG Wells’s The First Men in the Moon was the first science fiction novel to describe an anti-gravity space ship. His War of the Worlds, published in 1898, one of the great classics of the sci-fi genre, and the later Star Begotten, were stories about alien Martians, their culture and their dying world.
Other writers too, famous for their expertise in other genres, including literary fiction, dabbled and managed to produce work of quality, even if few if any readers remember their sci-fi today. The list includes Edgar Wallace and Arthur Conan Doyle, both of them better known for their detective stories, and CS Lewis, who achieved fame as a theologian and a children’s writer.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, remembered best for the invention of Tarzan of the Apes, was a prolific writer of stories set on Mars and Venus, published in both pulp magazines and in book form. Burroughs was born in September 1875. After three decades of failure as a public schoolboy, private in the US army, cowboy, shopkeeper and several other occupations, he began writing stories. He had read some of those published in the pulp magazines of his day and concluded that he could do better. He did, and in 1911 his first story Under the Moons of Mars was published in the All Story magazine.
But it was Tarzan of the Apes, published in 1912, which became a bestseller and secured Burroughs’ future. Over the course of his writing career, he produced around a hundred novels in several genres, a large proportion of them science fiction or fantasy. Around twenty were what today we would call space opera, stories set on the Moon, Mars or Venus.
Whilst Verne had told wonderful adventure stories and created some memorable characters, such as Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues, it was HG Wells who came nearer than anyone to turning space opera into literary fiction. Rice Burroughs, popular and inventive though he was, was never truly scientific in his approach. He has no science background and made no claims to be a scientist. Wells used science as a springboard for his novels, and scientists as his protagonists. His science is sometimes flawed if we measure by the knowledge of today, but his explanations are never outrageous and we can acknowledge in his predictions his remarkable sense of foresight.
In War of the Worlds, Mars, an ancient planet, is slowly becoming too cold to support life. Wells’s narrator excuses the Martian invasion, horrific though it is, as “their only escape from the destruction … that creeps upon them”. The search for a material impervious to gravity in The First Men on the Moon, and the accidental invention of cavorite are told with such attention to detail that the reader can almost believe that such a substance exists. Short stories like The Plattner Story, The Time Machine and The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes explore the fourth and other dimensions in intriguing ways that appear original even in an age with better understanding of the time paradox.
For all that, science fiction until the late nineteen-thirties remained disreputable and somehow unworthy of the term literature. Moreover, until 1940, much of the writing that passed as space fiction was a parody of other fiction genres, such as the Western. Nevertheless, it was magazines like Amazing Stories, which first appeared in 1926, and Astounding Science Fiction, from 1939, that helped launch the writing careers of not only Isaac Asimov but also Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke and Alfred (AE) van Vogt, writers who would come to prominence from the nineteen-fifties onwards, and whose creative minds would give science fiction and the space opera genre new respectability.