The Evolution of Space Opera

RestoreeThe first space opera I read was Restoree (1967) by Anne McCaffrey. I was twelve.

Restoree is not your typical space opera. If anything, it’s one of the earliest versions of a feminist space opera that I encountered as a child. While most space opera in the 1960’s and 70’s featured brave men gallivanting through space, fighting aliens, and rescuing women (who, of course, fall madly in love with them), Restoree turned space opera on its head.

As a twelve year old girl, reading about a woman in space who was both intelligent and strong, made me question the world around me. I was of the generation that cheered when Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire, was chosen to go into space. I watched the launch live and along with my classmates, mourned when the space shuttle Challenger exploded killing all seven crew members. Too young to have known much about Sally Ride, McAuliffe was one of my generation’s role models.

If I’d had a dollar for every time I heard the phrase “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” I’d be rich. When I was still a computer teacher, I found the majority of my colleagues were female—unless they taught science, math, or computer science. Then they overwhelmingly male. As a student in a high school AP math class, I was asked to “sit in the back because girls can’t learn math.” As a computer teacher, my opinions were often invalidated solely because I was female. Having a female teacher chosen to go into space meant something—even then. So when I say that McCaffrey’s choice to write with a strong, female protagonist rocked my world, I mean it.

In Restoree, Sara is abducted by amorphous aliens who eat human flesh. Before she can be eaten, she’s captured by humans who “restore” her skin and set her to performing menial jobs. Instead of being weak, Sara recovers from her ordeal and rescues a man being held against his will. On her website, McCaffrey stated that the story was a “once-off jab at the way women were portrayed in science-fiction.” She objected to such treatment because she “would have been in the fighting” herself.

McCaffrey went out on a limb by writing a space opera that poked fun at what traditional space opera was at the time. While Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) studied equality, the novel isn’t so much space opera as general science fiction. Not many women were braving the realm of space opera back then.

The Skylark of Space (1928) by E.E. Doc Smith is considered the first space opera and featured male protagonists and antagonists. The main purpose of the two females in the story was to serve as kidnapping victims in need of rescue.

Even Asimov’s Foundation (1942) runs afoul of this. Dors Venabili is the friend, protector, and eventual wife of Heri Seldon (the main character), but she remains a character comprised of stereotypical tropes. Instead of being the main character, she’s the wife. She gains the nickname “The Tiger Woman” for being brutal in her protection of Heri, like a mother would be. While she’s a stronger character than many, she’s certainly not representative of equality.

The majority of sci-fi was a boys club, and space opera was no exception. Even the early 1980’s still found the field largely male dominated with writers like C. J. Cherryh using initials to disguise her gender. Andre Norton wrote novels under Andre, Andrew, and Allen—all male names—rather than her birth name, Alice Norton. Even films and TV shows such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who were written by men and featured male protagonists. The female characters served as companions or side-kicks and often bore aggressive or overtly-sexual personalities.

Stephen Donaldson’s attempt to write non-sexist space opera falls short in The Gap Cycle (1991). The female protagonist would rather be rescued than lead the battle. In James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes (2011), the male characters speak about women as if they aren’t aware of what’s being said about them. In fact, their sole purpose in the novels is to serve as sexual objects to the male protagonists.

In all this misogyny in space opera, does equality exist? Is it possible to write the melodrama, romance, and adventure of space opera without being sexist in the process?


The evolution of our society has brought about a similar change in fiction—though we have a long way to go to see true equality. In Stephen Baxter’s Flux (1993), our protagonist, Dura, is both a leader and a rescuer. A Door into Ocean (2000) by Joan Slonczewski dives into the very definition of gender identity and equality. David Weber’s Honorverse series (1992) focuses on a military heroine on a level field with her male counterparts. Tanya Huff’s Valor series (2000) is another excellent example, as is Catherine Asaro’s Primary Inversion (1995).

No one wants a book that is one-sided, be it towards men or women. We’re people first, and as we begin to truly explore the universe, we must be cognizant of this fact. Writers should focus on writing realistic characters that both genders can connect with, without relying on stereotypes to do it.


Raven Oak is the author of the epic fantasy novel, Amaskan’s Blood, due out in January 2015, and the upcoming space opera, The Silent Frontier. She spent most of her K-12 education doodling stories and 500 page monstrosities that are forever locked away in a filing cabinet.

After twelve years as an English and computer teacher in Texas, she retired from education to pursue writing full-time. She lives in Seattle, WA with her husband and their three kitties, who enjoy lounging across the keyboard when writing deadlines approach. Raven is currently at work on the sequels to both Amaskan’s Blood and The Silent Frontier.

More information about Raven Oak and her novels, including pre-orders and excerpts, can be found on her website at:

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