Back cover of Galaxy
#1, October 1950
Space opera is defined as an adventure science-fiction story.
The term "space opera" was coined in 1941 by fan writer and author Wilson Tucker as a pejorative term in an article in issue 36 of Le Zombie, a science fiction fanzine. At the time, serial radio dramas in the United States had become popularly known as soap operas because many were sponsored by soap manufacturers. The term "horse opera" had also come into use to describe formulaic Western films. Tucker defined space opera as the science fiction equivalent: a "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn". Fans and critics have noted that the plots of space operas have sometimes been taken from horse operas and simply translated into an outer space environment, as famously parodied on the back cover of the first issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the stories were printed in science-fiction magazines, the stories were often referred to as "super-science epics".
Beginning in the 1960s, and widely accepted by the 1970s, the space opera was redefined, following Brian Aldiss' definition in Space Opera (1974) as – as paraphrased by Hartwell and Cramer – "the good old stuff".:10–18 Yet soon after his redefinition, it began to be challenged, for example, by the editorial practice and marketing of Judy-Lynn del Rey and in the reviews of her husband and colleague Lester del Rey.:10–18 In particular, they disputed the claims that space operas were obsolete, and Del Rey Books labeled reissues of earlier work of Leigh Brackett as space opera.:10–18 By the early 1980s, space operas were again redefined, and the label was attached to major popular culture works such as Star Wars.:10–18 Only in the early 1990s did the term space opera began to be recognized as a legitimate genre of science fiction.:10–18 Hartwell and Cramer define 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 often deals with war, piracy, military virtues, and very large-scale action, large stakes.:10–18