A couple of weeks ago, I asked the question "Why do you think science fiction is a lot less broadly appealing than fantasy as a genre for roleplaying games?" I got a number of thoughtful replies, but the one that still sticks in my mind is this one, which references Jeff Rients's even earlier post on the "genre of D&D." In that post, Jeff described D&D as "You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula." The reason that description rings true is that Dungeons & Dragons was inspired by an older understanding of "fantasy," one I typically call "pulp fantasy," since you saw a lot of this stuff in the pulp magazines and in the work of authors who got their start there.
Pulp fantasy is a very expansive notion of fantasy that encompasses everything from Burroughs's Barsoom and Amtor tales to The Wizard of Oz to Howard's swords-and-sorcery to, yes, Tolkien's Middle-earth -- and more. The genius of D&D is just how broad its notion of "fantasy" is and perhaps the way in which subsequent iterations of the game have deviated most from its origins is the way that their conceptions of fantasy have contracted, becoming ever more self-referential and staid rather than embracing the bold lunacy that enabled Dungeons & Dragons to become, almost literally, the vehicle for any type of fantasy adventures its players could imagine.
There's never really been a science fiction game that's successfully adopted a similar approach to its subject matter, unless one counts Encounter Critical and, perhaps unfortunately , EC is a game a lot of us can't imagine playing straight. (Yes, that means I am a bad person: you have my permission to say so) Actually, I lie. FGU's Space Opera undertook this Herculean task and I think, all things considered, it didn't do a half-bad job. Most of the complaints about Space Opera are (rightly) directed at its rules system, not its kitchen sink setting where the United Federation of Planets, whose Navy is Roddenberry's Starfleet and whose Army is Heinlein's Mobile Infantry, squares off against a Galactic-Empire-meets-the-Third-Reich, in a galaxy inhabited by Vulcans, Kzinti, Lensmen/Jedi, Bugs, and just about any other sci-fi species/culture imagined between 1930 and the late 70s.
Though I no longer own any Space Opera materials -- how I wish I did! -- I remember well the conflicted feelings of awe and disgust I felt when I first read them. On the one hand, the game really was a solid attempt to create a "mega-setting" where Luke Skywalker could team up with Captain Kirk to fight Cylons on Arrakis, but, on the other, my narrow little mind, so obsessed with verisimilitude, just couldn't accept the idea of such a setting. I am sure I was not the only one who thought this way. The desire to have "everything make sense" is strong in a lot of gamers, especially those with sci-fi proclivities. Rather than deny this or suggest that one ought to simply "get over it," I'd prefer to think that all that's really needed is a better mega-setting, one whose "seams" don't show as much as they do in the Space Opera setting, whose borrowings (and outright thefts) from a variety of sci-fi media never managed to achieve that weird Gestalt that D&D did.
I honestly have no idea where I'm going with this. I've been thinking a lot about science fiction lately, especially science fiction roleplaying games, and what I've noticed is that they're getting ever more narrow and specific in their focus. Admittedly, this is true of just about all RPGs (and all entertainment, for that matter), but the problem somehow seems to me more acute in the area of science fiction roleplaying. It's pretty clear why this is so. The question now is: can it be addressed?