Allen Varney, writer and game designer


From the 1920s to "Star Wars," the Force has always been with space opera

Exploding Worlds!

by Allen Varney

George Lucas didn't create Star Wars.

At least not all by himself. When he told his story set long ago in a galaxy far away, Lucas took story elements from as long ago as 1928 and no farther away than "pulp" science fiction magazines. Lightsabers? They're from Weird Tales, 1933. Han Solo? We met him under other names in dozens of 1950s novelettes. The Death Star, the Force, and many other ideas come straight from stories by Doc Smith, Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, and other masters of that extravagant form of SF, space opera.

Space opera is the realm of giant spaceships, colossal space wars, and galaxy-spanning adventure -- of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers -- of the Enterprise and the Battlestar Galactica. Where "serious" science fiction deals thoughtfully with technology and its impact on society, space opera deals excitedly with coruscating energy blasts and their impact on impervious force fields. Heroic inventors and black-hearted pirates -- two-fisted spaceship captains and inscrutably wicked aliens -- moody starmen haunted by visions of alien princesses -- these characters play out good-versus-evil epics that shake the Galaxy.

If space opera's players are Captain Kirk and Luke Skywalker, the form itself is more like Rodney Dangerfield. In 1941 SF writer and big-name fan Wilson Tucker wrote of the "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn." Generalizing from radio soap operas, and from Westerns that were by analogy nicknamed "horse operas," Tucker coined "space opera" -- a term of insult. Even today, as SF fans who enjoyed these stories in their youth grow up and develop more sophisticated tastes, they speak slightingly of space opera. "It's not real SF," they sniff.

Maybe not. But space opera is the mother-lode, the ancient sun around which orbit the many worlds of SF. And today, as strongly as ever, it still inspires authentic wonder.


Space opera, as we talk about it today, began in 1928, when E. E. "Doc" Smith blew the gates to the universe wide open.

Edward Elmer Smith was born in 1890 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and grew up in rural Idaho. His youth was the glory time of American invention, when legends like Edison and Marconi made boys dream of wonderful machines that would transform the world. While Smith reached adulthood and worked as a miner, electrician, and surveyor, astronomers started to grasp that the universe is really big. In 1924 Edwin Hubble (for whom NASA later named the Space Telescope) proved certain blurry patches in the sky to be galaxies like our own, billions of light-years away.

Taking degrees in chemical engineering (1914) and food chemistry (1919), Smith pursued a lifelong career as a food chemist, specializing in doughnut mixes. As a sideline of sorts, he wrote a story called The Skylark of Space: the tale of the first inter-stellar cruise.

Wham! There it was, all at once: the heroic super-scientist (Richard Seaton); his amazing breakthrough ("intra-atomic" energy); the spaceship he builds in his back yard; the demure love interest (beautiful, talented Dorothy Vaneman); the brilliant, black-hearted villain (Marc "Blackie" DuQuesne); and the launch into a shiny new universe of adventure.

Skylark pioneered a new sense of scale -- or rather,


Gosh, space is big! Wow, this ship is fast! This was E. E. Smith's great, almost unique strength. His characters are less than cardboard, their cheeky slang annoying, the science silly, the attitudes provincial and old-fashioned, the lovey-dovey stuff completely lame. (Incapable of writing a believable love scene, Smith asked a friend's wife, Mrs. Lee Hawkins Garby, to help with "the love interest" in Skylark, to poor effect.) But if you want a sense of immensity, of titanic scale and cataclysmic energies, E. E. Smith delivers ten thousand percent.

SF up to that time had dabbled in interplanetary voyages. Jules Verne and other 19th-century authors wrote tales about trips into space, and a German series of boys' adventure stories, "Captain Mors the Air Pirate," hopped all over the Solar System every week from 1908 to 1911. But The Skylark of Space marked the arrival in science fiction of mythic dimension. In the myths of antiquity, every mountain is the highest, each monster the most fearsome, each hero the mightiest. In Skylark and his later books, Smith adapted the idea to measureless gulfs of space, ships of astonishing speed, and vile alien races of terrifying ferocity. He established space opera in, as John Clute put it, "its proper venue, the whole doggoned universe."

Like other great ideas, it seems obvious now -- and encountered appalling rejection then. Smith, who had written Skylark between 1915 and 1920, shopped it around to all the magazines until 1928, when Hugo Gernsback finally accepted the novel for serial publication in Amazing Stories. As soon as it saw print -- as by "E. E. Smith, Ph.D." -- "Doc" Smith became an instant celebrity among the small but devout audience for that new genre, science fiction.


With Skylark Three (Amazing, 1930) and Skylark of Valeron (Astounding Stories, 1934-35), Smith escalated his mythic scale without limit. Where before we went to the stars, now we zipped away to other galaxies with equal exuberance, and we wiped out monstrous civilizations in the name of Universal Peace.

Still, the books had a certain ramshackle quality, a lack of cohesion. Our hero, Richard Seaton, was good and brave and brilliant, but he was a freelancer. Smith realized that a really good power fantasy gives the reader not only limitless power, but solid authority to use it. This came with his next work, the summit of his career: the Lensman series.

There are seven Lensman books, but the main sequence, the core that enthralled readers of Astounding Science Fiction for twelve years, comprises four books, conceived as one giant 400,000-word novel: Galactic Patrol (1937-38), Gray Lensman (1939-40), Second Stage Lensman (1941-42), and Children of the Lens (1947-48).

If you go to a nearby nursing home and awaken an old SF fan, he'll still speak fondly of those early Lensman serials. Imagine it: You read Galactic Patrol and watch young Patroller Kimball Kinnison, aided by the wrist Lens that grants each Patroller superhuman powers, fight the underhanded Helmuth of Kalonia. Then Gray Lensman reveals that Helmuth is an underling, a minor thug of the vastly more powerful and villainous Eich of Jarnevon. To beat the Eich, Kinnison must become one of the select Gray Lensmen. Then Second Stage Lensman reveals that the Eich were just puppets, controlled all along by the Thrale-Onlonian Empire. To defeat the Empire, Kinnison, his lady love Clarissa MacDougal, and a few other Grey Lensmen of various weird races must ascend to the next stage of power.

By this time they're throwing planets around like marbles, evildoers are dying by the million, you're reeling from the cosmic immensity of it all, and then, then, comes Children of the Lens. Surprise! Not only are the Thrale-Onlonians controlled by the insidious Ploor, but Kimball and Clarissa are the last stage of a multimillion-year breeding program by the unseen, benevolent creators of Civilization, the Arisians. The five Kinnison kids, the Children, the apex of human evolution, go forth and exterminate both the Ploor and their secret masters, the Eddorians, thus wiping Evil from the universe.

The Lensman books have dated pretty badly. They're poorly written. Their characters are a joke. You can't even find them on the stands nowadays. If you read them as an adult, you'll be bored. (The Japanese anime adaptation, Lensman, is little better.)

But Doc Smith is the proof of the old assertion, "The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve." To read them with a kid's eyes, the way the old SF fans did, is to suddenly perceive, over and over, limitless new horizons. SF fans call it "the sense of wonder."


Smith's popularity spawned many imitations. Edmond Hamilton's tales of the Interstellar Patrol (1928-29), collected in 1965 as Crashing Suns -- John W. Campbell's The Black Star Passes (1930), Invaders from the Infinite (1932), and The Mightiest Machine (1934) -- Jack Williamson's The Legion of Space (1934), still considered a classic -- Clifford Simak's The Cosmic Engineers (1939) -- the titles alone show how the 1930s presented a kind of arms race, as writers tried to top one another with ever larger domains and more powerful weapons. The race continued until the Lensman series capped them all.

Arms races are inherently self-limiting, though. After you wipe evil from the universe, what next? In Smith's case, his monumental reputation gradually eroded, and his later career brought nothing noteworthy. In the late '40s space opera, having hit the cosmic ceiling, fell back toward more human scale.

In Planet Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories Hamilton's wife, Leigh Brackett, wrote many colorful stories of melancholy, doomed space travelers. Usually one of these guys begins the story brooding in a smoky tavern on Venus or Mars, his eyes haunted, his skin "tanned from the light of many suns." Seizing a last desperate chance to see just once more the exotic alien beauty whose love wrecked his life, he sets off into a story full of heroism, mysterious events, and (about two thirds of the time) a happy ending. Brackett created romances of the spaceways -- not love stories, but romances but in the older sense: heroic quests, full of wonder. If you're looking for the ancestors of Han Solo, look no further. (At the end of her life, Brackett returned to her roots to write the first draft of the script for The Empire Strikes Back.)

Brackett brought the first hint of sensuality to space opera, but there's not a hint of it in the all-business "juveniles" by Robert A. Heinlein, 12 strong novels published between 1947 and 1958 that made more people into SF fans than anything else before Star Trek. Heinlein once described the way he wrote juveniles: "Write the best science fiction novel you can, then take out the sex."

In each brisk, imaginative book a level-headed teenage boy of the future pursues adventure and earns his adulthood. Though not related, the novels gradually expand in scope from first to last: Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) features a backyard spaceship that flies to the Moon; Have Space Suit -- Will Travel (1958), filled with neat ideas, intriguing characters, and humor, brings Earth into a Galaxy-wide federation of races. Check out Red Planet, The Star Beast, or Citizen of the Galaxy to see the benchmarks of 1950s space opera.


Space opera ideas eventually filtered out of the pulp magazines and into the world at large.

Remember that 1928 issue of Amazing Stories with the first installment of Smith's Skylark of Space? It also contained a serial by Philip Francis Nowlan, Armageddon 2419 AD, which inspired a long-running (1929-67) comic strip written by Nowlan for businessman John Flint Dille. In the strip, an Air Force lieutenant accidentally gets shoved five centuries into the future, where he finds domed cities, antigravity harnesses, and an America overrun by Red Mongols. He and Wilma Deering fight on land, undersea, and in space against the villainous Killer Kane. The lieutenant's name is -- you guessed it -- Anthony "Buck" Rogers.

Buck Rogers, whose comic strip died decades ago, survives, after a fashion, in the roleplaying game industry. The Dille Family Trust owns Buck, and one member of the family, Lorraine Williams, is the president of TSR, Inc., publisher of Dungeons & Dragons. TSR has tried many times to market a Buck game, and will no doubt continue trying into the 25th Century and beyond.

"Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" begat "Flash Gordon," which both in turn begat long-running 1930s Saturday-matinee movie serials starring Larry "Buster" Crabbe. These were about all you could find (if you cared to) in movie space opera until the 1956 MGM classic "Forbidden Planet," a sharp retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest on a faraway world, with ancient alien artifacts that summon invisible monsters from the subconscious.

"Forbidden Planet" was a key influence on the best TV space opera to date, the first "Star Trek" series (1966-69). Another forerunner of James T. Kirk was Captain Horatio Hornblower, troubled hero of a dozen high-seas Napoleonic adventure novels (1937-67) by C. S. Forester. ST producer Gene Roddenberry's original high-concept pitch to the TV networks described the show as "Hornblower in space."

(A more literal Hornblower-based space opera is the series of 23 "Rim Worlds" novels by A. Bertram Chandler, published between 1967 and 1984. These craftsmanlike adventures of Commodore John Grimes in the space navy at the galactic rim draw on Chandler's own long service in the merchant marine.)

Now and then "Star Trek" conjured a sense of huge scale, as in the early episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and the second season's "The Corbomite Maneuver." But more often we got the Planet of the Week, or tense submarine-style warfare ("Balance of Terror"). Still, the Enterprise's easy warp travel and transporters were sheer space opera, in that they served not as serious examples of scientific extrapolation but as devices to speed the story along.

Limited by budgets and special effects technology, "Star Trek" could not strut its space-opera stuff until the six movies (1979-91) convincingly portrayed battles between gigantic space cruisers. For ten years after the first series' cancellation, such movies were impossible to make. We have trouble believing this now, but for decades Hollywood showed little interest in space opera. Producers thought -- get this -- they thought it wasn't commercial. It took one film to change their minds.


The easiest part of any space-opera article is talking about George Lucas's blockbuster movies "Star Wars" (1977), "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), and "Return of the Jedi" (1983). Every reader already knows the movies; nobody needs anything explained. The series is space opera for our time.

Readers may not know, though, just how widely and copiously "Star Wars" borrows from its sources.

* The "farm boy makes good" plot comes from Heinlein's juvenile Farmer in the Sky (1950), fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, and many other stories.

* The late Frank Herbert claimed he and his attorneys had compiled a long list of many important similarities between his famous 1964 novel Dune and the first "Star Wars." movie, starting with the desert planet Tattooine's obvious resemblance to Herbert's Arrakis. But nobody ever went to court.

* Doc Smith blew up plenty of planets, and he mentions the Force in the Skylark books, though in a less magical way than it appears in "Star Wars."

* Lightsabers come from Hamilton's 1933 Weird Tales story "Kaldar, Planet of Antares": "The sword seemed at first glance a simple long rapier of metal. But [the hero, Stuart Merrick] found that when his grip tightened on the hilt it pressed a catch which released a terrific force stored in the hilt into the blade, making it shine with light. When anything was touched by this shining blade, he found, the force of the blade annihilated it instantly. He learned that the weapon was called a lightsword...."

And so on. In 1977 fans praised the way "Star Wars" made everything look "used," lived in, familiar. Given its origins, this was only appropriate.

What was new in "Star Wars"? Aside from its exceptionally vivid look, the movie took space opera's mythic scale and added mythic texture. Using the trappings of the form, Lucas told a story straight out of myth -- coming of age, ritual conflict with and acceptance of the father -- the myth of the hero, as analyzed by scholar Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949). The space operas of old, big in scale but lacking human dimension, did not reach beyond the devoted fans of science fiction. "Star Wars" found a mass audience with a story more universal than any universe-spanning Doc Smith epic.

The "Star Wars" influence has been, as Smith might put it, incalculably and indescribably immense. It changed the film industry, pioneered the ongoing revolution in special effects, made movie merchandising big business, et cetera.... You already knew this. The "Star Wars" films have grossed well over a billion dollars and spawned as many words, and you've read all this before. On the subject at hand, all that needs repeating is that "Star Wars," with its vivid vision and human dimension, revitalized space opera and made it more popular than ever before.


Modern space operas still pack the supermarket racks. Wide-ranging novelist C. J. Cherryh's "Union-Alliance" series occasionally veers from hard SF into a complicated kind of space opera, as with Rimrunners (1989). Jerry Pournelle, David Drake, Janet Morris, Lois McMaster Bujold, David Feintuch, and others of like mind produce military SF novels that spice their carnage with issues of chivalry and honor. Scottish novelist Iain M. Banks writes glorious full-tilt all-out jaw-dropping space opera, books like Consider Phlebas (1987) filled with gigantic spaceships, bizarre aliens, and stupendously large orbital habitats.

On the screens, large and small, "Star Wars" is now as much copied as it once copied earlier works. Every new space movie tries to top its special effects -- even the new edition of "Star Wars" itself, which Lucasfilm is releasing next year for the film's 20th anniversary. On TV, shows like "Babylon 5" and "Space" are creating universes that will inspire tomorrow's space opera gurus. Everything looks primed to become ever bigger and better. That's the space opera way.

Austin-based free-lancer Allen Varney has among his many design credits a single space opera: Galactic Challenge, one of his four pick-a-path books from TSR (1995).