Space Opera is a sub-genre of space fantasy SF. Space Opera uses the trappings and props of SF but doesn't follow science fiction SF's adherence to hard science and the scientific perspective; instead, these trappings and props provide the backdrop for powerful emotions and high adventure on a cosmic stage. Examples of Space Opera include the Star Wars saga, the Classic Star Trek and Babylon 5 television series, and E. E. "Doc" Smith's The Lensman novels.

I find it difficult to argue with The Everett's definition of Space Opera except that it appears to be a bit more restrictive than I'd define it.

To me a Space Opera is any story containing the following elements:

These elements must of necessity ignore the impossibility of faster-than-light travel, or invent some mechanism for it. Because of this, these stories de-emphasize hard scientific fact at their cores. This isn't always a bad thing.

A large percentage of Science Fiction stories qualify as space opera, according to this criterion. Many of these are of high quality, but an author must be careful to keep from slipping into writing according to a formula.

Some high quality space operas include:

"Space Opera" is also the name of a SF role-playing game released in 1981 by Fantasy Games Unlimited, as a companion to their Space Marines tabletop strategy game.

As with other FGU games (e.g. Bushido and Chivalry and Sorcery) the system is almost ridiculously detailed. For instance, there are two full pages describing the rules for throwing an object to another player. The rule books are also extremely badly edited and type-set. Some important rules are hidden in sections apparently dealing with a completely different topic, others seem to be missing alltogether. There is a lot of information about carreer paths for the PCs and about the skills they learn, but very little about how these skills work in the game. All in all Space Opera is totally unplayable without heavy modifications.

Still, the rule books and the companion volumes (Several Star Sector Atlas-books, Seldon's Compendium of Star Craft I and II, Ground and Air Equipment, and others) are good sources of ideas for a game inpired by Doc Smith's Lensman books, Star Wars or Starship Troopers.

The Space Opera system has been out of print since the mid-80's and FGU no longer produces any new material, so there is not much chance that you will find this game in a store. Apart from some nostalgia felt by the people who actually tried to play the game, it is probably better off dead.


I just found out that FGU still exists and has actually reprinted "Space Opera" in a new single book edition. There is no indication on their home page that the material has been re-edited in any way except for this merging of the two rule books. If anyone owns both the old and the new editions and knows about any changes, please tell me, so I can update this writeup.

Space Opera was a science fiction role playing game published in 1980 by Fantasy Games Unlimited. It was written by Edward Simbalist, Mark Ratner1, and Phil McGregor. Space Opera was written in response to the original Traveller and its perceived short comings. Edward Simbalist also produced the medieval role playing game Chivalry & Sorcery, a fantasy role playing game with a highly complex combat/skill system that tried to stay truer to its medieval roots than the Lord of the Rings/Conan inspired D&D. Role playing game designers, like mail bombers, tend to stick to systems and methods they are comfortable with, and Space Opera matched Simbalist's design philosophy.

Traveller was, of course, a wildly popular sci fi role playing game but many viewed its popularity was owing more to it being, for a while, the only (sci fi) game in town than the appeal of its system and its scope. To those who cut their teeth on a D&D system, with experience points, levels, lots of probability matrices, rule options, and monsters, original Traveller seemed rather minimalist. As well, those wanting to recreate Star Wars in mom's basement found Traveller a hard system to adapt. The Traveller universe was a pretty lonely place, with humans being the only intelligent species. Alien races were absent, alien worlds seemed to be populated by indigenous life no more complicated, or dangerous, than a tomato plant. THE RAVENOUS SPACE CUCUMBERS OF TRAKEN IV KILLED MY AUNT AND UNCLE! THEY AND ALL THEIR GREEN SEEDED KIND WILL PAY! Those wanting to battle wampa ice creatures, well, they had a huge whack of work before them. And forget about droids.

Another limitation of the original Traveller was starship development in the core rules didn't much go beyond constructing scout and merchant ships. Those with visions of clashing fleets of Imperial star destroyers, Blacksun battle wagons rushing in at ramming speed, cloaked no-ships slipping past enemy pickets to deliver a full spread of phase-quark torpedoes upon the Ishtari Hive's flag carrier, and nimble Lord High Executioner Class meson frigates charging through massive fusillades of sun-hot plasma delivered up by asteroid-based Gorgon area defense cannons to score a desperate hit on the Royal Fleet Yards of Mon Hothamon, well, you were pretty shit out of luck with your little set of Traveller books and your crew of mustered out Space Marines armed with surplus needle guns and a free B-Grade space liner ticket to Rigel 7. Didn't you look like king asshole?

Space Opera resolved to give gamers a system and universe which they could mould into any popular sci fi milieu, be it Star Wars, Larry Niven's Known Space, Dune, E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman, Battlestar Galactica, or, if you were so damaged, Galactica 1980. It would also create a system D&D players were familiar with and wanted: different races, experience levels, character classes, psionics, and the like. As well, it would be a "complete" system. Ha! What role playing system is ever complete? There's always another book to buy... I know. By complete I mean you've got everything you really need: character construction, aliens, monsters, droids, and large starship construction/combat.

Critics who liked Traveller's lean approach with its emphasis on talking or wandering around things like a space station to figure out the space station is really a tesseract, well, they found the system bloated, complicated, and too technical. But then, for many, that's part of the appeal of a sci fi RPG. People want to jump into repulser driven desert skiffs with a dual mounted plasma repeater behind the rumble seat. The wide open expanses of the Great Ordungian Sand Ocean are a place where any team of Royal Lasikian Space Marine (Elite Class) would be foolish to cross without anything less than two fire linked plasma repeaters watching their six. And you wanted hard stats and rules for performance enhancing drugs. Space Opera had them too.

Space Opera, like many role playing games of its day, was published in a boxed format. The box contained two 92-page booklets. Book 1 covered character generation and psionics. Book 2 covered equipment, starships, combat, and "universe building". Oh baby.

Character creation was rather complicated. Attributes ranged from 1-19. Attributes included Physique (body size/mass), Strength, Constitution, Agility, Dexterity, Empathy, Intelligence, Psionic, Bravery, and Leadership. In addition one generated three aptitudes attributes that determined how well a character learned certain skills. These attributes were General Technical, Mechanical, and Electronic. One also determined your home world's gravity and environment. All these contributed to ability score adjustments.

Finally, one picked a race. In Space Opera one could be a human, transhumans (a veiled Vulcan race), Pithecine (a monkey/wookie like race), Canine (dog men), Feline (kzinti duh although in later game supplements the cat race got saddled with the totally stupid name "mekpurr", a kind of sophisticated technology using feline race), Ursoides ( in real bears not hairy gay men), Avians (bird men, hello Flash Gordon!) and Saurian (warm blooded space lizards... this was before the V miniseries so maybe these were for gamers itching to play a sleestak).

After that, one did a process not unlike Traveller's military/mustering out process. You picked a service, made some rolls to determine your character's career, and then you mustered out with cash and surplus equipment plus all important skills.

Combat was generally a four step process. You first determine if your character scored a hit with his chosen weapon. Things like range, size of the target, movement, and amount of cover come into play. If one scored a hit, then one rolls to determine hit location. After hit location, one then determines if the attack penetrated the armor. Finally, damage is determined.

Space Opera is no longer in print, it went out of print with the demise of Fantasy Games Unlimited. The company itself kind of, sort of, still exists. Founder Scott Bizar runs a hobby shop in Arizona under the same name. At one point he tried to re-release Space Opera without the consent of the original authors. The original authors, needless to say, were rather pissed and mystified by his actions. The original authors Edward Simbalist, A. Mark Ratner, and Phil McGregor were not green horns and retained their rights to the game, although not the name of the game itself. Bizar, in an attempt to prevent his rights from lapsing, did an unauthorized reprint. In the mid-90s, long after Fantasy Games Unlimited got out of game publishing, Simbalist et al asked Bizar if they could buy the full rights to the game so they could republish it on their own (Simbalist was able to secure the rights to Chivalry & Sorcery and get it re-released by another company). Bizar said "sure, you can have the full rights for $100,000." They laughed at that as you could write your own RPG from scratch for far less. They felt $10,000 was a more realistic fee for a 15 year old game.


1Mark Ratner's participation appears to have been minimal. His game miniature rule set Space Marines was used as the basis.

Catherynne M. Valente has penned a range of works and won numerous awards and accolades. Her 2018 novel, Space Opera, channels some version of Douglas Adams in a twisted tale of an interstellar song competition. The riff: for reasons related to a past space war and the need to establish sentience, representatives of each civilization in known space gather regularly for the musical Metagalactic Grand Prix. First-time competitors must not place last—or they will be eradicated, all traces of their civilization will be erased, and their bodies will seed their planet, in the hopes that the other species living their might do better should they ever evolve into something claiming sentience.

Guess which allegedly sentient species has to prove itself noteworthy this time around?

Our champions? The surviving members of a has-been glam rock band.

Universal has purchased the movie rights, and the book has been nominated for a 2019 Hugo Awards. Having encountered some of Valente's intriguing shorter work, I naturally wondered if the book could measure up to the hype.

Valente, certainly, excels at bizarre and vivid imagery. She, like Life, "loves nothing more than showing off. Give it the jankiest glob of fungus on the tiniest flake of dried comet-vomit wheeling drunkenly around the most underachieving star in the middle of the most depressing urban blight the cosmos has to offer, and in a few billion years, give or take, you'll have a teeming society of telekinetic mushroom people worshipping the Great Chanterelle and zipping around their local points of interest in the tastiest of light browned rocket ships" (3).

Similarly, this writer orchestrates a strange pop-SF symphony from wordplay, absurd situations, and jokes. Inevitably, even the most discordant reader will find something funny. And the talking cat? That should have been a derivative disaster. Instead, the "enormous four-year-old Maine Coon-Angora-somebody’s-barn-cat-possibly-a-stray-albino-panther mix" who is "entirely unbothered by suddenly achieving the ability to speak" emerges as one of the best things about the book. The cat's a grade-A-a-hole, and I suspect I would have preferred a story about its adventures in space.

The cat's a minor player. Our hero, Decibel Jones, a washed-out hedonist variation of David Bowie at peak Ziggy, has a contextually credible background and I found him passably interesting. Most of the characters don't rise to the level of those simplified but memorable beings who inhabit Valente's acknowledged inspiration, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Valente's novel, for all its labyrinthine sentences, bizarre extraterrestrials, and digressions into past Metagalatic competitions, takes a remarkably straightforward route to a variation of the ending most readers will expect.

Decades ago, when a certain Voltaire-and-Vonnegut-reading, Kubrick-and-Python -watching teenage smartass first encountered The Hitchhiker's Guide, I thought I had found the Holy Grail, in moulded plastic. A much older me really wanted to like this book. And I had a few laughs. But honestly, the shorter works of Valente's I've read impressed me a good deal more. I can't dispute Valente's gifts and potential as a writer. I just don't share the fannish enthusiasm and Hugo-love over this particular book.


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