Making The Kessel Run
Perhaps the most popular genre in Spec Fi (aside from Bad Vampire Fiction) is what has come to be known as Space Opera. The term goes waaayy back to the Pulp days as a general, derogatory, label for slam/bang space adventure. Nowadays it has earned a better reputation in the literature, helped on by the fact that most movies (especially the 'Summer Blockbusters') are of this sort of action/thrill ride format.
Space Opera is notable for its Grand Strategic viewpoint: vast empires, fleets of massive starships, truly villainous villains, multi-generational conflicts, and danger around every corner. Individual characters tend to be swallowed up in the grand scheme of things, generally playing the role of a protagonist either supporting or opposing the broad theme of the story. In this context, your individual characters tend to become symbolic representations of the story arc.
Excellent examples of this form abound: the most obvious being Star Wars. You have a tiny band of heroes, principally the Jedi, with a motley crew of followers providing various skills, firepower in battle, or even comic relief. Against them is arrayed the vast power of the Empire, with (yes) a fleet of enormous starships, truly villainous villains, sweeping multi-generational conflict, and danger around every corner. The potential for dramatic tension, ominous mystery, and slam-bang action are infinite.
Space Opera differs from Military Sci Fi in that while the themes both deal with war and conflict, the characters in Military Sci Fi are generally regular troops operating under orders with a specific mission in mind, while those in Space Opera generally are not. There is also far more emphasis on bang-bang-shoot-em-up in Military Sci Fi - in effect giving it a bit of a Hard Science Fiction feel.
In a way, writing Space Opera is a cop-out. With its grand sweep and emphasis, it is all too easy to let the small details of interpersonal relations slide. You still need these details if you want your characters to be more than cardboard cutouts, but there is the problem of fitting these tidbits into the story line (the characters can't take time out from a life-and-death struggle to indulge in kissy-face and small talk). These details will also impact your word count (in case you are up against limits on that).
To the good, Space Opera has traditionally been a fan favorite due to its 'gosh-wowie' factor, and writing it is fairly easy. Take your favorite scenes from Star Wars, file off the serial numbers, and there you are. This genre does have the problem, with the recent emphasis on 'intellectual sci fi', that some editors and reviewers may turn up their noses at it. But as a famous author* once told me, "Write what you feel. If it's genuine, it will sell." You may need to search for the market, but quality work is its own truth.*The late Fredrick Pohl
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