Like many popular terms, “space opera” was coined as an insult. It’s based on “soap opera” (nothing to do with music) and its original meaning was a “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn.”
For the purposes of this list, I’m defining “space opera” as a dramatic adventure science fiction story, with bonus points for occurring mostly in outer space and involving spaceships of some sort. Extra bonus points awarded if someone points to a viewscreen and says, “What the hell is that?”
Despite their poor beginning, space operas have become wildly popular. For example, Amazon lists over 10,000 books in the Space Opera category. In fact, this list could easily be, “The 210 Best Space Opera Books,” but there are only so many hours in the day.
If you find an author you like, check out the rest of their books! Most authors that write space opera write a LOT of space opera.
Fleeing the threat, a family of scientists, including two children, are taken captive by the Tines, an alien race with a harsh medieval culture, and used as pawns in a ruthless power struggle. A rescue mission, composed not entirely of humans, must rescue the children-and a secret that may save the rest of interstellar civilization.
As Alex Benedict investigates a mysterious project his uncle had been working on at the time of his death, he’s drawn deep into the history of a war between human civilization and a neighboring alien civilization. He uncovers secrets that challenge the foundation of the current human government.
A Talent for War is a good example of science fiction mystery. In fact, it’s probably best described as a mystery in a far-future setting. If you’re looking for a wild, spaceship-exploding adventure, this isn’t it. However, if you’re intrigued by what mysteries may appear in ten thousand years and enjoy getting into character’s heads, give this book a try.
Some critics claim this is not McDevitt’s best novel. It is, however, arguably his most famous, and sets the stage for several well-regarded sequels.
Author Lois McMaster Bujold is something of a science fiction legend, having won six Hugo Awards and three Nebula Awards. She often combines intelligence, humor, drama, and a touch of philosophy into quick-moving adventure stories.
Falling Free is the first book of her best-selling and massive (16 books and multiple shorter stories) Vorkosigan Saga.
Leo Graf was just your average highly efficient engineer: mind your own business, fix what’s wrong and move on to the next job. Everything neat and according to spec, just the way he liked it. But all that changed on his assignment to the Cay Habitat. Could you just stand there and allow the exploitation of hundreds of helpless children merely to enhance the bottom line of a heartless mega-corporation?
Leo Graf adopted a thousand quaddies — now all he had to do was teach them to be free.
(Note that some readers consider Falling Free to be inferior to Shards of Honor, the next book in the Vorkosigan Saga.)
Few options remain for Byron. A talented but stubborn young man with a troubled past and rebellious attitude, his cockpit skills are his only hope. Slated to train as a Cosbolt fighter pilot, Byron is determined to prove his worth and begin a new life as he sets off for the moon base of Guaard.
Cassastar, Cavanaugh’s debut novel, is not universally loved. Some reviews liken it to a bad high school essay, while others are impressed by its unique take on the space opera genre and liken Cavanaugh to Robert A. Heinlein.
Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, who would become the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib. He would avenge the traitorous plot against his noble family and bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.
Dune is the world’s best-selling science fiction novel of all time, and often described as the Lord of the Rings of science fiction. If you’ve never read a science fiction book before, don’t start here, but make it your fifth.
It won the Hugo and Nebula awards, even though the New York Times felt that the plot resembled a “grade Z, made-for-television, science-fiction rip-off movie.”
Foundation covers the beginning of the Galactic Empire’s collapse, and one man’s plan to reignite civilization after years of barbarism.
Asimov’s characters tend be one-dimensional, but his stories are so entertaining that it’s easy to forgive that lapse.
Do not read this book around other people, because you will annoy them by laughing so much.
On the world called Hyperion, beyond the law of the Hegemony of Man, there waits the creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it. In the Valley of the Time Tombs, where huge, brooding structures move backward through time, the Shrike waits for them all. On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope—and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands.
The human race has had wormhole technology for over 300 years and has colonized several hundred planets.
Hamilton’s exhilarating new opus proves that “intelligent space opera” isn’t an oxymoron.
– Publisher’s Weekly
Jim Holden is an officer on an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, The Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for—and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew.
Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to The Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.
Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations—and the odds are definitely against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.
(James S.A. Corey is the pen name used by collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck)
This is hard SF – lots of science and what one reviewer called “mind candy,” but not much character development.
The year is 2010. More than a century of ecological damage, industrial and technological expansion, and unchecked population growth have left the Earth on the brink of devastation. As the world’s governments turn inward, one man dares to envision a bolder, brighter future. That man, Reid Malenfant, has a very different solution to the problems plaguing the planet: the exploration and colonization of space. Now Malenfant gambles the very existence of time on a single desperate throw of the dice. Battling national sabotage and international outcry, as apocalyptic riots sweep the globe, he builds a spacecraft and launches it into deep space. The odds are a trillion to one against him. Or are they?
The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce—and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.
Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.
On his 75th birthday John Perry did two things: First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the CDF. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine—and what he will become is far stranger.
An uncontested sci-fi classic, Rendezvous with Rama is also one of Clarke’s best novels, winning the Campbell, Hugo, Jupiter, and Nebula Awards.
A huge, mysterious, cylindrical object appears in space, swooping in toward the sun. The citizens of the solar system send a ship to investigate before the enigmatic craft, called Rama, disappears. The astronauts given the task of exploring the hollow cylindrical ship are able to decipher some, but definitely not all, of the extraterrestrial vehicle’s puzzles. From the ubiquitous trilateral symmetry of its structures to its cylindrical sea and machine-island, Rama’s secrets are strange evidence of an advanced civilization. But who, and where, are the Ramans, and what do they want with humans? Perhaps the answer lies with the busily working biots, or the sealed-off buildings, or the inaccessible “southern” half of the enormous cylinder. Rama’s unsolved mysteries are tantalizing indeed. Rendezvous with Rama is fast-moving, fascinating, and a must-read for science fiction fans.
Alastair Reynolds’s first novel is “hard” SF on an epic scale, crammed with technological marvels and immensities.
One man probes a galaxy-wide enigma: why does spacefaring humanity encounter so few remnants of intelligent life?
Reynolds’s vision of a future dominated by artificial intelligence trembles with the ultimate cold of the dark between the stars.
It is 4034 AD. Humanity has made it to the stars. Fassin Taak, a Slow Seer at the Court of the Nasqueron Dwellers, will be fortunate if he makes it to the end of the year. The Nasqueron Dwellers inhabit a gas giant on the outskirts of the galaxy, in a system awaiting its wormhole connection to the rest of civilization. In the meantime, they are dismissed as decadents living in a state of highly developed barbarism, hoarding data without order, hunting their own young and fighting pointless formal wars. Seconded to a military-religious order he’s barely heard of — part of the baroque hierarchy of the Mercatoria, the latest galactic hegemony — Fassin Taak has to travel again amongst the Dwellers. He is in search of a secret hidden for half a billion years. But with each day that passes a war draws closer — a war that threatens to overwhelm everything and everyone he’s ever known.
Author Stanislaw Lem has the best aliens, mostly because he makes them completely and profoundly, well, alien. Communication with them is often impossible, and the humans that attempt to interact with them are well-intentioned but unsuccessful. Lem’s humans are some of the best in science fiction as well, because they are profoundly human. They screw up, are late, fail to see whole picture, act irrationally, and even the brightest of them can be swayed by vanity and pride.
It’s possible to argue that Stanislaw Lem is the best science fiction writer ever, and Solaris is his most famous book.
When Kris Kelvin arrives at the planet Solaris to study the ocean that covers its surface, he finds a painful, hitherto unconscious memory embodied in the living physical likeness of a long-dead lover. Others examining the planet, Kelvin learns, are plagued with their own repressed and newly corporeal memories. The Solaris ocean may be a massive brain that creates these incarnate memories, though its purpose in doing so is unknown, forcing the scientists to shift the focus of their quest and wonder if they can truly understand the universe without first understanding what lies within their hearts.
Starship Troopers was written while Heinlein was taking a break on Stranger in a Strange Land. Robert and his wife Virginia Heinlein created the small “Patrick Henry League” in an attempt to create support for the U.S. nuclear testing program. Heinlein found himself under attack both from within and outside the science fiction community for his views, so he wrote Starship Troopers to clarify and defend his military and political views at the time.
Hard science fiction with a hell of an idea: what would happen if your light-speed engine malfunctioned and instead of slowing down, you just went faster and faster? Tau Zero does a masterful job of dealing with the consequences of near-light-speed, and the reaction of the humans trapped in the ship.
Brin’s tales are set in a future universe in which no species can reach sentience without being “uplifted” by a patron race. But the greatest mystery of all remains unsolved: who uplifted humankind?
The Terran exploration vessel Streaker has crashed in the uncharted water world of Kithrup, bearing one of the most important discoveries in galactic history. Below, a handful of her human and dolphin crew battles an armed rebellion and the whole hostile planet to safeguard her secret—the fate of the Progenitors, the fabled First Race who seeded wisdom throughout the stars.
Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, Startide Rising is the second book in the Uplift series (there’s a total of six), but popular opinion has it that the first book, Sundiver, can safely be skipped.