The 21 Best Space Opera Books

Space Opera

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.

1
A Fire Upon the Deep
by Vernor Vinge – 1992
Thousands of years hence, many races inhabit a universe where a mind’s potential is determined by its location in space, from superintelligent entities in the Transcend, to the limited minds of the Unthinking Depths, where only simple creatures and technology can function. Nobody knows what strange force partitioned space into these “regions of thought,” but when the warring Straumli realm use an ancient Transcendent artifact as a weapon, they unwittingly unleash an awesome power that destroys thousands of worlds and enslaves all natural and artificial intelligence.

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.

2
A Talent for War
by Jack McDevitt – 1989

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.

3
Falling Free
by Lois McMaster Bujold – 1988

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.)

4
Cassastar
by Alex J. Cavanaugh – 2010

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.

5
Dune
by Frank Herbert – 1965

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.

Did you know Dune was inspired by a trip to Oregon?

6
Ender's Game
by Orson Scott Card – 1985
Criticized for its violence (and possibly popular because of it), Ender’s Game shows children on a military space station, training for the war against the evil alien Buggers.

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.”

7
Foundation
by Isaac Asimov – 1951
Psychohistory is one of Asimov’s best inventions: using a combination of history, psychology, and statistics, one can accurately predict the behavior of large groups of people.

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.

8
Gateway
by Frederik Pohl – 1977
There’s a really wonderful tension in stories about screwing around with alien technology you don’t understand, and Pohl uses that to full effect in Gateway. The characters are vulnerable, the scope is cinematic, and it’s just a lot of fun.

9
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams – 1979
This is one of the funniest books written in the English language. It begins with the destruction of Earth, and things go downhill from there. Spaceships are boarded, aliens encountered, planets visited, and none of it is quite what a nice, normal human would expect.

Do not read this book around other people, because you will annoy them by laughing so much.

10
Hyperion
by Dan Simmons – 1989
Few science fiction books can claim to use the same structure as The Canterbury Tales and still be kick-ass sci-fi, but Hyperion pulls it off.

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.

11
Pandora's Star
by Peter F. Hamilton – 2004

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

12
Leviathan Wakes
by James S.A. Corey – 2011
Humanity has colonized the solar system—Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond—but the stars are still out of our reach.

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)

13
Manifold: Time
by Stephen Baxter – 1999

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?

14
Old Man's War
by John Scalzi – 2005

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.

15
Rendezvous with Rama
by Arthur C. Clarke – 1973

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.

16
Revelation Space
by Alastair Reynolds – 2000

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.
-Publishers Weekly

17
The Algebraist
by Iain M. Banks – 2004

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.

18
Solaris
by Stanislaw Lem – 1961

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.

19
Starship Troopers
by Robert A. Heinlein – 1959

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.

20
Tau Zero
by Poul Anderson – 1970

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.

21
Startide Rising
by David Brin – 1983

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.


 

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34 thoughts on “The 21 Best Space Opera Books

  1. Actually, it’s not based on ‘soap opera’. It’s based on ‘horse opera’. Space opera was around long before tv arrived in the late 1940’s. Western pulp writers turned their attention to a new field called ‘scientifiction’. Horses became rocket ships, gun into blasters. E.E. “Doc” Smith was writing space opera in the 1920’s and is often referred to as the father of space opera.

  2. Really? A list of “Best Space Opera” that doesn’t include either of Doc Smith’s classic series (Lensman and Skylark), nor either of David Weber’s (Honor Harrington or the Dahak/Empire books [_Mutineer’s Moon_]?

    I didn’t expect to see my own Grand Central Arena here, but I DID expect to see at least the obvious choices.

    1. I am in total agreement with your disagreement and disgruntlement over their disgusting dereliction! When I discovered the Lensman series by EE “Doc” Smith in the mid-60s at the age of 10, I reached a certain nirvana about literature that’s fired my imagination for many decades. And no one does Horatio Hornblower in space better than Weber and his cohort of fellow co-writers…

      1. Please refer to Wikipedia, to see how profoundly Smith influenced Heinlein and many others in their own sci-fi, and like Asimov, in reality – “the tank” idea for a war-room, many other concepts. And if you read the series, remember they were penned in the freaking 1930s!

  3. So…I’m looking forward to future years where “essential” actually reflects the changes this genre has undergone in the last couple of years or at least acknowlegdes that “essential” doesn’t mean “almost exclusively white and male”. I love the books by Scalzi and Corey, I enjoyed the onces by Heinlein, but seriously, this list is waaay to narrow-minded and is just the usual and lazy name dropping.

  4. Personally, i like Vinge, Hamilton, Simmons and Scalzi the best out of this list, but there are many more authors who could easily be included here.

  5. I’m pretty much a nobody in the writing world. But, when my space opera “Space Crazy” made it to #4 on Amazon, I was pretty darned happy. I can only aspire to write even better and create more books that will be enjoyed.

  6. I’m looking forward to perusing your recommendations (several of which I’ve already read). But I wanted to make a few comments about your definition of “space opera.” This is my favorite non-work related genre, and I read it to relax. But my attraction to space opera comes from my Navy background. I grew up in a U.S. Navy family and have always loved ships and the disciplined life of the sailors who operate them. I think what defines good space opera is the precedent set by C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. Hornblower went to space a few centuries later as James T. Kirk, and the best of the genre remains true to those naval origins even though now the ships navigate intergallactic space rather than intercontinental seas. Good space opera, in other words, is good naval drama. This is just my opinion, of course, but anyone who can recommend (or write) a good naval drama that takes place somewhere in the vicinity of the Andromeda galaxy has my rapt attention.

    1. This is a really interesting and perceptive take on space opera. I’ve never thought of it as being naval-based, but I think you’re onto something. Very cool!

  7. It’s always going to be debatable but agree that E E Smith should be included here for the works he put out. I mean he started writing these nearly 100 years ago, and still they resonate. Everything that is good in space Opera can be found in his books. I think we can probably come up with many others excluded but that’s down to our own tastes and prejudices on what fits under the definition of the term, “Space Opera.” I’m happy with all of those books being on this list. I would also recommend a couple of new writers to the fold with Dave Bara’s ‘Impulse’ and his new series within ‘The Lightship Chronicles,’ and also Joshua Dalzelle’s Black Fleet Trilogy – Book One ‘Warship’ and ‘Call to Arms’ (just released) are available and recommended. I love the term ‘Space Opera’ and all of its connotations associated with it. as a matter of interest, if you like talking about it I set up a FB page dedicated to this subgenre for authors and fans and you’re welcome to check it out at https://www.facebook.com/groups/spaceoperanetwork/?fref=ts

  8. I placed Alex J. Cavanaugh’s Cassafire on my blog shortly after its release. Its one of the first in his trilogy series. I’m not surprised Cassastar has sold out so well. Well done Alex!

  9. Having just worked my way through Iain M Banks’ Culture series i’m surprised to see none of those works of art made this list. That said, i’m relatively new to Space Opera so i’ll work my way through these books and see if they live up to the high standard set by the likes of ‘The Player of Games’ and ‘Excession’.

    1. The player of games is one of my favourites. Use of Weapons by Banks is just as good though and is an great twist on the classic space opera.

  10. Have space sute will travel sparked my ten year old mind in ’57 lifted my mind out of the thinking box to become a story teller among my fifth grade peers, & buddies, my Scout Troop. Became a 6th grade glutton feeding on every thing I could find at my level in science, mythology, + so much more. Why? Sci. Fic. Opened an imagination hunger that learning gave to my story telling, there was more to it; but that’s how I recall it . That dumpy retreating kid went from the depressed outsider dunce, to having goodschoolyard statis. “space opera” changed my sad life, changed my head into a highschool philosopher.
    Sadly, collage, & becoming a writer of Sci. Fic. didn’t happen; got drafted to Nam. Messed me up!

  11. You seem to have overlooked a few writers and their works:

    Ann Leckie, Leigh Brackett, Linda Nagata, Joan Vinge, C. S. Friedman, Andre Norton, R. M. Meluch, Judith Tarr, C. J. Cherryh, Julie Czerneda, Sharon Lee, Justina Robson, Nancy Kress, Catherine Asaro, Elizabeth Moon, Sarah Zettel, Elizabeth Bear….”

    Can’t quite put my finger on what all these authors have in common with each other, but with only one of the authors included on your list…

    And it isn’t even that you’re just overlooking the 21st century. Some of these names are as venerable and even formative for the field as the ones on your list.

  12. Heavens, can’t believe that neither of my favourites are mentioned here, top on the list 1) Spinward Fringe, numbered in ‘Broadcasts’ by Randolph Lalonde and definitely top of my list. 2) Frontiers Saga, numbered in episodes, by Ryk Brown a very close second best. Agree with Old Man of War comments. First book – great, but as a non-girlie girl, thought book 3 was a bit too soppy and skipped book 4, Zoe’s tale. Holding out for book 6 to see if 5 is worth reading. Dark Space, Jasper Scott – interesting concepts.

  13. Excession and Use of Weapons (both Iain M Banks) are terrific, both far better than Algebraist (also good). Books of significant quality.

  14. …So, at the Top it states “21 BEST” and at the bottom, “21 great”. Sure, great makes more sense than best as best would reflect many parameters where as great would add a few others and remove some that effect ranking overall
    which SURELY must be the 1st or 2nd, quantitative factor, in determining “greatest”

    This is a fanboi’s list and not anything drawn up on actual parameters that would apply to “greatest”

    DUNE is the only book above that would fall into a category that has the title “greatest”. Dune has sold over 20 million copies

    Based on the simplistic paint brush you used, Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy series should be ranked #2 and it is not on your list. It meets all of your criteria as well as the generalized and science fiction view, of what a Space Opera is.

    Other than what I have mentioned, there is no other “greatest” on the list utilizing the MODERN VIEW of what qualifies a book as “great”

  15. Anne McCaffrey’s “The Ship Who Sang” is on my list of the top 5 best books I’ve ever read and I’ve read many thousands of SciFi alone. (I was introduced to a library when my 2nd grade teacher took the class to one early in the school year. I had read ALL of the Oz books before Christmas.)

    Hal Clement’s “Mission of Gravity” is frequently listed as “Hard SciFi,” but there are many elements of Space Opera as well, and it is also one of my top 5 best books.

    Poul Anderson and Keith Laumer both have books which deserve at least “Honorable Mention.” You pick your own. I have too many from each. None stand out for be as being “head and shoulders” above the rest.

    Last of all, is a strange book by Filipe Jose Farmer, “Green Odysey,” which is a strange, haunting book for me which challenges the reader and has some great plot twists. It has very little space travel, but I still remember the first time I finished reading it and saying to myself, “Damn, that was a GREAT read!”

    It, also, deserves at least “Honorable Mention!” – – Stew

  16. Missing for me is a fantastic space opera author Christian Kallias, his ongoing series is brilliant Universe in Flames, and so far it’s up to the seventh book, not only is the ongoing story excellent technically, he also created his own art work, Christian has also a series The Kyrian Chronicles. He has written some Novellas, Ryonna’s Wrath, who is connected to Universe in Flames and another, not connected called Rewind 717, which is also an excellent Novella. Everyone into space operas should try Christian Kallias’ books, you won’t be dissapointed.

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