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Welcome to part five of “Morgan Talks About Her Favorite Niche Genres,” better known as “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Sci-Fi Subgenres.” The next two subgenres are my favorites partially because they can be so fun while bringing surprising gravitas when needed. Even the names “space opera” and “space western” sound silly, but don't be fooled—they can also make you cry. Below you will find a classic and popular example of each.
Love, space battles, grand heroes and villains, exotic locations—space opera has it all! The key words for space opera are melodrama, grand scale, colorful, and cheesy. The genre has some of the most groan-worthy works in science fiction, (think female aliens in miniskirts kind of groan levels) but when it’s done well, it’s done beautifully well. If you were curious, Star Wars is considered a very good example of space opera.
(Did I write these blog posts as an excuse to talk about my favorite author? Yes. Yes, I did.) Miles Vorkosigan is in love, but nothing is ever simple with the clever, witty, and sometimes manic man. Between imperial wedding planning, an infestation of “butter bugs,” family interference, political tensions, and his own tendency to overthink things, Miles has his hands full. Think Jane Austen meets Shakespeare meets nerve disruptors, flight cars, and interplanetary tensions. Lois McMaster Bujold brings her brilliant, subtle, engaging writing to this romantic farce of a science fiction story.
Two soldiers from opposite sides of a galactic war fall in love and have a child, but as a result, are immediately and ruthlessly hunted by both sides. A tale about love, war, childhood, parenting, space travel, and aliens, the adult graphic novel series Saga truly lives up to its name. Between 2013 and 2017, Saga won 12 Eisner and 17 Harvey awards, and its first trade paperback collection won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story. But be warned: the story is incredibly addictive, and the series is currently in the middle of a hiatus.
Like it says on the tin—westerns in space. The genre doesn’t always require there be literal cowboys, but it does use traditional western themes and tropes. Strong self-reliant main characters explore lawless frontiers and take you on exciting adventures with good ol’ fashioned fights and occasionally moral quandaries.
Gene Roddenberry originally pitched Star Trek to television networks as a “Wagon Train to the Stars” (Wagon Train being a popular western television show). Star Trek, the original series, follows the voyages of the starship Enterprise as they explore space, the final frontier. This groundbreaking show is renowned for exploring the frontiers of television as well, having a multicultural, multiracial cast and including one of the first ever interracial kisses on TV. If you’re looking for something traditionally western, there are actual episodes where the crew get to wear cowboy hats and have gunfights.
Despite its catastrophic airing order (episode two aired first and episode one aired three months after the show was cancelled), Firefly has become a sci-fi staple. In the show, humanity has travelled well into the stars, terraforming planets and creating a wild west style new frontier. Malcolm Reynolds, a former rebel on the losing side of the war, is the captain of a run-down freighter called Serenity. He and his crew try to make a living on the outskirts of the system, staying out of way of the controlling government that they failed to defeat in the disastrous rebellion.