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The space opera has become a staple sub-genre of science fiction. Funnily enough, like all things unusual, the term 'space opera' began as a mockery. The term referred to them being typical, dramatic 'soap operas' with the added specialty of having some 'spaceship yarn' woven into the uninspiring plot. However, this sub-genre has now evolved into something much bigger and has produced some true masterpieces. For this list, we will be considering 'space opera' as a work of science fiction with the bonus of occurring or relating to space. So sit back, fasten your seatbelts, and get ready to be blown away by this unique spatial ride with our list of the greatest space opera books of all time.
Warning: Just watch out for meteorites!
A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
A Fire Upon the Deep allows us to envision a galaxy in which multiple species interact and live with their own unique cultures. It also presents the fascinating yet terrifying impact of what the introduction of an artificial super-intelligent species would bring to the table.
The plot takes us into the depths of the future, in a universe where life exists in many forms and the potential of the mind is defined by its location; while nobody knows what strange force is at work creating these mysterious 'partitions of potentials'!
When the warring Straumli realm unwittingly uses an ancient Transcendent artifact as a weapon of war, they must now face having let loose an unbridled power that causes destruction in thousands of worlds and enslaves all sorts of natural and artificial intelligence. A family of scientists that was trying to survive this looming threat is taken captive by the Tines which is a harshly medieval alien race.
A rescue mission composed of various species is then assembled and must now free the family from this web of the power struggle. Not just that but also there is also a secret that may just be the key to saving the interstellar civilization.
Dune by Frank Herbert
What bigger compliment can be given to a space opera novel than that it has been called the Lord of the Rings of science fiction? It won the Hugo award in 1966 a year after its publication and is a complex exploration of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion as the many forces of the empire come together in a confrontation in their desire to rule the planet.
Set in the far future on the sandy planet of Arrakis, where planetary dynasties are ruled by noble families who are alleged to the Imperial House Corrine; Dune explores the tale of a young boy named Paul Atreides who will go on to become the mysterious man Muad'Dib. He must find vengeance against the plot to bring down his noble family and must fight to save the 'spice' melange, the most significant and valuable substance in the cosmos. The story of Dune and the valuable melange also parallels the controversies of oil in our modern day society, and this is often said to be the real life influence behind Frank Herbert's Dune.
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds' debut is another epic space opera book. Full of technological miracles and marvels, it is a fascinating vision into the future modern advancement promises and is described by Publishers Weekly as "the ultimate cold of the dark between the stars".
It starts 9,000 years ago when the civilization of Amarantin was destroyed just as they were on the very brink of discovering space flight. Now Dan Sylveste, a scientist, finds himself unable to leave the puzzling riddle alone and must solve it to prevent history from doing a repeat annihilation. In desperation, he forms a perilous alliance with the cyborg crew of the starship Nostalgia for Infinity.
Yet as he gets closer to the truth he must deal with an assassin bent on preventing him from the task. After all, if all is known the reality might be altered never to be the same again.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Imagine finding out one day that the war video games you have been playing are real! Nothing is a simulation. All the people that you killed actually died. All the bloody battles actually happened. This space opera book is a thriller in the true sense of the word indeed, as well as one of the best sci-fi military books. Although criticized a bit for its violence, it is a fantastic reflection on human nature and our vision of the future. It was the winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards.
The story revolves around a genetic experimentation, Ender Wiggins, the boy whom the earth is desperate for to evolve into the perfect military genius. To win the war against aliens, he must be trained in even harsher scenarios until he is ready or it ends in his destruction.
However, he is not the only one. His older siblings Peter and Valentine are also unusual and different. Peter is uncontrollably violent while Valentine seems incapable of it. Driven by sibling jealousy and an innate desire for power they seek to attain goals in their own ways. Peter wants to rule while Valentine's campaign is more subtle, based on controlling beliefs of elites and commoners. Working anonymously behind robust computer networks they work to shape the ultimate fate of the earth.
Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold
Author Lois McMaster Bujold is kind of like a space opera book legend, winning six Hugo Awards and three Nebula Awards. Her style is intelligent and mixes humor and drama with a touch of philosophy all into a wonderfully exciting adventure. Falling Free is the first part of her best-selling series Vorkosigan Saga.
Leo Graf is an average but highly efficient engineer. His job is simple, fix whatever is wrong. He likes order and does things within an inch of specifications like a proper engineer. All that meets a drastic change when he encounters an assignment to Cay Habitat. Already uneasy about exploitation of his bright, new pupils, the question is that will he stand by and watch as it turns into something much darker? How does he react without the safety of a rulebook? Leo Graf adopted a thousand quaddies — now all that's left is teaching them to be free.
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a must read not just in the space opera genre, but also in the humor department. Warning: Do find a sanctuary where you can laugh as much as you want and avoid getting the 'Are you crazy?' stares.
It begins with, oh yes you guessed right, what other than the epic destruction of planet Earth. Luckily seconds, before that happened Arthur Dent, was plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Perfect. This is the start of an exciting journey through space.
Interstellar adventures, spaceships, aliens, and planets coupled brilliantly with the unparalleled wit and charm of the unexpected this book is a great escape from the drudgery of monotonous reality.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
This brilliant masterpiece uses the same structure as the Canterbury Tales and yet retains all the awesomeness of a thrilling sci-fi novel. Happening in a world called Hyperion, beyond the law of the Hegemony of Man, there waits a creature known as 'Shrike' that is worshiped by some, feared by others and passionately hated by the rest. Within the valley of Time Tombs, Shrike awaits them all.
On the eve of Armageddon, seven pilgrims set off to solve the riddle that is their lives on a voyage to Hyperion. Each is desperate and hopeful in the grips of their secrets, and one of them just might have the fate of humanity in his hands. The first volume in a remarkable space opera book series, Hyperion fills the reader with awe and wonder taking him along on an odyssey of excitement and invention.
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
One of the more recent space opera book releases is Leviathan Wakes, a joint venture written by collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck underneath the pen name S.A. Corey. Humanity has achieved its dream of colonizing the solar system —Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond—but the stars are still out of their reach. An officer on ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining The Scopuli of the Belt, Jim Holden, and his crew accidentally stumble upon the ruins of a neglected, The Scopuli. Suddenly they are the owners of an unwanted secret that will put even their lives at risk and kill on a massive scale!
Detective Miller must find the girl. The one lass he finds has a multitude of billions. It is, however, help that her parents have loads of money. Money never goes unnoticed. When the trail points directly to The Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.
While dealing precariously with the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations, one small ship must beat the odds to change the destiny of the entire universe.
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
An uncontested classic space opera, Rendezvous with Rama is undeniably one of the best Arthur C. Clarke books, winning the Campbell, Hugo, Jupiter, and Nebula Awards. When a humongous, strange, cylindrical object appears in space very few things are known about it. The ship sent to investigate finds a ten trillion tons weighing object hurtling towards the sun at an inexplicable speed.
As the astronauts uncover more and more of the mysteries of the object they dub 'Rama' it becomes apparent that this is no natural object but an interstellar spacecraft. In immense excitement space explorers and planet-bound scientists alike prepare for humankind's very first encounter with an alien intelligence. From deciphering the extra-terrestrial mysteries to the trilateral symmetry of its structures to its cylindrical sea and machine-island, Rama has all the pointers leading to a very advanced civilization. Fans are taken on a wildly exciting ride as the moment of rendezvous looms ahead.
Rendezvous with Rama has all the ingredients of fast-moving and fascinating page-turner for science fiction fans.
The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
A space opera book that has all the classic ingredients: a beaten up ship; a crew of misfits; with a galaxy filled with danger and adventure. What could go wrong with this recipe? This is definitely a debut that hints of great things ahead.
In a crowded sky, you have your average crew of wormhole builders hopping from planet to planet, on their way to the job of a lifetime. In such a massive galaxy humanity is a mere speck and one construction vessel is a conventional vehicle just going to everyday places. However, all journeys are filled with tales and within all ordinary people live beautiful stories. A young Martian woman embarks on a journey hoping to let the vast expanse of space put distance between her, and a past life she would rather forget. An alien pilot travels through life without the company of her own species. A captain awaits the return of his beloved trying to be a pacifist in this cruel world.
Set against a backdrop of exotic cultures and strange worlds, this tale weaves together the stories of nine eclectic characters and brings out the beauty of ordinary lives in faraway worlds.