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Best Space Opera Books

Top 50 Best Space Opera Books (Updated 2016)

We've completely updated this list with 25 new entries, updated the old ones and generally filled this list out substantially.

Space Opera is one of those genres of science fiction that can mean many things and include many types of stories.



The casual SF reader associates 'Space Opera' with big ships, big battles,and many characters are some of the key elements behind space opera. The Space Opera is one of the most popular science fiction sub genres because it's exciting as hell. There's usually lots and lots of conflict between humans, and often with aliens. There's large scale conflicts, bigger battles, and inimical forces that just may be plotting the destruction of humanity.

And yes, this is one definition of Space Opera.

But Space Opera is larger than this definition.

Back in the early 1940s, romantic daytime dramas on American radio had acquired the name "soap opera" because so many of them were sponsored by soap companies. By the same principle, cowboy stories were starting to be known as "horse operas". So it no surprise when Wilson Tucker began calling science fiction stories, "space operas".

At first, there was no clear idea what space opera referred to. It was only in the 1960s and 70s that the term began to be applied particularly to the extravagant and melodramatic space adventures typified by E.E. "Doc" Smith and Edmond Hamilton and their imitators. Once that was established, we began to get subversive takes on the form, either through comedy, as in Harry Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero, or through reinventions of the form associated with the New Wave, such as M. John Harrison's The Centauri Device.

 Before too long, these reinventions gave rise to what became known as the New Space Opera. In the main, these weren't too different from the old space opera, they were wild adventures set in space, but they were usually written with a great deal more style and a greater political sensibility. The Culture novels by Iain M. Banks were not just typical of this, but were among the founding texts of the New Space Opera.

What follows is a list of what we consider to be among the very best examples of space opera, and they prove to be a surprisingly varied bunch of books. The only thing that links them, really is that they are written on a grand scale. 


01

Consider Phlebas

(Iain M. Banks)

(Culture)

Banks himself once described the plot of Consider Phlebas as: "a shipwrecked sailor falls in with a gang of pirates and goes in search of buried treasure." And that's precisely what it is, a colourful romantic adventure full of derring do and hair's breadth escapes and startling escapades. Only it's all played out against a vast backcloth of galactic warfare and huge faster-than-light ships and exploding Orbitals. In other words: it's big. The scale of the thing just makes us gasp with amazement.

It was Consider Phlebas that introduced us to the Culture, which has to be the best space opera setting in science fiction. Honestly, if the Culture doesn't fill you with wonder, nothing will. And we could have included other Culture novels on this list, like Excession with all those brilliant ships, or Matter with those nested worlds, or The Player of Games just because. But Consider Phlebas came first, so it has to be first on this list.

 Why It Made The List

It wasn't the first Culture novel written, but it was the first published. And you can say that it didn't just start the Culture, it started the British Renaissance, it started the New Space Opera, and it started an awful lot of people seeing just how mid-bogglingly good space opera can be. So it really has to come top of the list.

The Culture series is an amazing set of novels and if it wasn't already considered a classic in the sci-fi genre, Iain M. Banks' recent departure from this world will definitely solidify that status. If you didn't know Iain M. Banks before this list, you need to give yourself a slap with a glove, because the recently departed man was considered such an asset to science fiction, that he's had an asteroid named after him. 

Consider Phlebas tells the epic, intergalactic tale of the Idiran-Culture War and the different levels of conflict that the War creates. One of the characteristics of the Culture series that makes it so interesting compared to your run-of-the-mill space opera series, is that it's told from the perspective of the antagonist of the tale. Battles, betrayal, action, and ship to ship combat abounds. Consider Phlebas is a great segway into the culture series -- regarded as some of the finest science fiction around.

Books in Culture Series (10)

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Comments (6)
Award Nominations:1990 BSFA, 1992 CLARKE

Brilliant on just about every level, Hyperion IS the quintessential space opera series. Simmons puts everything you'd ever want in a Space Opera (breathtaking action, military engagments in and out of space, faster than light travel, AI, etc), but what sets this series apart from the rest is the deep human themes explored, the cast of emotionally tortured (yet all the while compelling characters), the beautiful prose, and Simmons' ability to seamlessly structure the narrative in homage to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as a series of interrelated tales told by each character as they march to their doom on a desolate planet to seek answers from a god.

If you have not read Hyperion, stop everything and make sure you do. The 'series' is divided into two series -- each having two books. Both are brilliant and both are completely different sorts of stories.

Books in Hyperion Cantos Series (4)

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03

Revelation Space

(Alastair Reynolds)
Comments (6)
Award Nominations:2000 BSFA, 2001 CLARKE

After Iain Banks, the best exponent of the New Space Opera has to be Alastair Reynolds, after all there isn't another writer working today who can so brilliantly capture the sense of the vastness of space and time. Frankly just about any of his novels could have featured here (personally, I've got a soft spot for House of Suns), but in the end it seems sensible to include his first novel. After all, if you're going to start your career with a bang, this is the way to do it.

There's all sorts going on this novel: the archaeological excavation of a long-dead alien race, strange viruses, assassins, and a mysterious machine sentience that destroys every space-faring race it detects. And this is only the start of a four-novel sequence. If you've not yet read Reynolds, prepare to have your mind blown.

 Why It Made the List

Because everything you could ever hope to find in space opera is here in this one novel: massive, thrilling, stunning.

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Fresh off his guest appearance at the Museum of Science Fiction's pre-opening summer event, Escape Velocity, acclaimed author James Suriano brings readers his SciFi Political Drama, Dark.

In the 25th Century, countries and borders no longer exist and Earth is ruled by one directly elected President. President Haakon has recently been voted out of office after a 3- year run. But he knows what many of Earth's citizens don't- that unforseen forces are pushing civilization in a direction in which humans will become subservient to androids.

The Huffington Post debuted author, James Suriano's fast paced politically charged novel will take you for a thrill ride along the campaign trail with President Haakon and his team, as they race against time to try and sway voters on Earth, The Moon, and Mars to unseat the Android President. Will they be able to pull off the greatest political heist of the century or will they unleash a force so powerful it could dismantle civilization as we know it? Suriano's novel will capture your imagination and have you questioning whether the realities of today's politics will lead us into the world of Dark.

Suriano's first novel, Inbiotic, grabbed readers around the globe the moment it came out, garnering audiences from The US, France, Germany, Brazil, India, Australia, Japan, Canada, and the UK. He will appear at Intervention 7 in September.

04

Before Iain Banks, there was M. John Harrison, and this new wave space opera is probably one of the major influences on Banks's own space operas.

Harrison did pretty much everything he could to undermine all the clichs of space opera. His hero, John Truck, isn't going to save the universe. The various planets we visit are an industrial wasteland where it always seems to be raining. Space battles are over in seconds. Yet the whole thing adds up to a novel that has the wide vistas and the thrills that you expect of a space opera.

 

It's not just that The Centauri Device is, if you like, the grandfather of the New Space Opera, but it also demonstrates how subtle and how supple space opera can be. This is a much richer and more engaging sub-genre than you might have expected from E.E. "Doc" Smith and his imitators.


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Ah Dune -- a million words have been written about Dune, more words in fact than Herbert himself ever wrote in his grand planetary romance meets ecological space opera.  

Dune has made just about every relevant recommendation list on this site and you'll find most people put Dune near the top of anything with the words 'best' and 'science fiction' in the same sentence.

It's not surprise that critics endlessly refer to it as Science Fiction's answer to Lord of the Rings.

Dune is many things: a planetary romance, a science fiction Shakespearean tragedy, an ecological science fiction, a revenge tale, a saga of a dynasty, and a Space Opera.

It's a Space Opera that (mostly) takes place on a planet. A very special planet. Dune. A planet that controls an empire of planets.

If you are the one person who has not yet read Dune, start. The series is sometimes polarizing, but it's a grand sweep of politics, war, economics, dynasty, and religion. But it's also (at least the first couple books) a very personal tale of a boy who becomes a man, and a man who becomes a leader, and a leader who becomes a god, a god who becomes a man.

Read it and weep for love.

Series Info

I've only listed the superior original Dune trilogy (which was six books with the seventh book, partially completed and edited to completion by Herbert's son, Brian). The first couple books are the absolute best with the post-humorously released book a disappointment. Frank Herbert's son Brian along with Kevin J Anderson have pumped out an enormance amount of ti-in dune novels that tell prequel and sequel stories in the universe. While they are decent reads, they are a shadow of a spec of the brilliance of the original series.

Books in Dune Series (8)

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06

A Fire Upon The Deep

(Vernor Vinge)

(Zones of Thought)

Comments (1)
Awards Won:1993 HUGO
Award Nominations:1993 NEBULA, 1993 LocusSF

Set thousands of years into the future, the universe is inhabited by various races, including super-intelligent entities in the Transcend and the simple creatures and technology of the Unthinking Depths. Space has been divided in these regions of thought by unknown forces. When the Straumli realm uses an ancient Transcendent artifact as a weapon, a huge force of power is unleashed that kills thousands of worlds and enslaves all intelligence - natural and artificial alike. Recognizing what they have unleashed, researchers attempt to flee in two ships, one of which is destroyed. The second ship is unharmed, landing on a distant planet with a medieval type civilization of dog-like creature called the Tines.

There's a problem with much traditional space opera: the setting may be as vast as the entire universe, but it's all more or less the same. Or it was until Vernor Vinge came along with the Zones of Thought.

The idea, first presented in this stunning novel, is that the further out from the galactic core that you travel, then the greater the speeds that can be attained, and the more advanced the thought that is possible. Close to the core, in the Unthinking Depths, intelligent thought is pretty much impossible.

Outside this, in the Slow Zone (where Earth is located), faster than light travel and true artificial intelligence are impossible. In the Beyond, artificial intelligence, faster than light travel and faster than light communication are all possible. Further out still, in the Transcend, there are superintelligent species that are incomprehensible to normal beings.

Humans from the Beyond, fleeing the superintelligence known as the Blight, crash onto a planet in the Slow Zone inhabited by Tines, dog-like aliens whose intelligence works within the pack. The humans must raise the medieval technology of the Tines in order to activate countermeasures against the Blight.

 Why It Made the List

A Fire Upon the Deep, which won the Hugo Award, is one of those novels so packed with ideas that it could keep most other writers busy for years.

This novel has everything I want in space opera in it: love, betrayal, aliens, space battles, super-intelligence, physics, and the Beastie Boys. Wait, I think I just included that part by accident. These things happen when you start getting Intergalactic Planetary stuck in your head every time you read about a gripping tale of galactic war. 

A Fire Upon the Deep won the Hugo Award in 1993.

Books in Zones of Thought Series (3)

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07

The Reality Dysfunction

(Peter F. Hamilton)

(The Night's Dawn)

As we keep saying, scale is one of the key features of space opera; after all, if you take the whole of the galaxy as your playground, you've got to think big. So it's hardly surprising that space opera has generated some very big books, and they don't come much bigger than Peter Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy: well over a million words in three massive thousand-page volumes. Is it worth the time, and the wrist-ache, of reading them? You bet, because Peter Hamilton does epic stuff very well.

Then three volumes, The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist and The Naked God, along with the short story collection, A Second Chance at Eden and the non-fiction The Confederation Handbook, cover a vast amount of space centuries from now. There are sentient space ships and sentient space cities, there are aliens, space navies, and there's a war against the dead who are returning, all of which make for a vivid and exciting account of our future in space.

 Why It Made the List

Space opera should be epic, and with Peter Hamilton that's exactly what you get.

Technically, I think this epic space opera tale also fits within the zombie genre, but somehow this has never been mentioned by any reviewers. Have we finally had our fill of zombie jokes? Am I flogging an (un)dead horse? Okay, I admit defeat. Peter F. Hamilton's novel is much fresher than my terrible zombie jokes: it's a new take on the space opera genre with all of the old-fashioned criteria: new technology, epic plots across the stars, massive spaceships, and entertaining baddies and heroes you want to gun for. 

But this novel really does tell the story of a "reality dysfunction" - a rip in the fabric of time that lets the dead possess living bodies. A Satanist, Quinn Dexter, takes control of his dead/sort of dead/kind of living/are they living or dead army and initiates the Night's Dawn: the decimation of everything on Earth. All is not doom and gloom, however, with Joshua Calvert and Syrinx using their spaceships to search for an alien God who just may hold the answer, if they can manage to find this mythical God in the stars before The Night's Dawn eats everything in existence.

Books in The Night's Dawn Series (3)

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08
Comments (4)
Award Nominations:2012 HUGO, 2012 LocusSF

Showing that new space opera is just as relevant as more traditional space opera, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, writing under the pen-name James S.A. Corey, offer a 2011 sci-fi novel centering around a conflict in the solar system that comprises Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt. The story follows Jim Holden, an ice miner who makes runs form the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. He and his crew stumble across the remains of a ship named the Scopuli, where he finds a secret that people are willing to kill and die for, and to start wars over. Simultaneously, Detective Miller is looking for the daughter of a wealthy couple. Her trail leads him to Holden and the remains of the Scopuli... and he realizes that this girl just may be the lynch pin holding everything together, or threatening to pull it apart. Holden and Miller have to work together to find out what is going on and to keep themselves alive, but this involves running the gauntlet of the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries and the secretive corporations. 

The first novel in the Expanse series is the sort of no-holds-barred, kickass space opera that some people say isn't being written any more. Well, here's the proof that it is. And if you can start reading and not want to keep turning the pages just to find out what happens next, I'd be amazed. The pace never lets up, with tensions building up between Earth and the outer planets, alien molecules being used as weapons, conspiraci4es and explosions and a race against time. There's always something dramatic happening.

But that's only the start, because in subsequent novels (so far, the series includes Caliban's War, Abaddon's Gate, Cibola Burn and Nemesis Games) the alien molecule takes over Venus and manufactures a gate that gives humanity access to a thousand worlds. But, of course, war, terrorism and other threats follow them there.

 Why It Made the List

Leviathan Wakes was nominated for the 2012 Hugo and Locus Awards, and George R.R. Martin described the novel as a "kickass space opera".

With several novels still to go (and 6 books out so far as of 2016) in the Expanse series, this is shaping up to be one of the most engaging and exciting of contemporary space operas. Let's not forget the absolutely awesome TV series made from the book (The Expanse) by the SyFy channel which has turned out to be some of the best science fiction TV has ever seen.


Books in The Expanse Series (11)

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09

The Foundation Trilogy

(Isaac Asimov)

(Foundation)

A crumbling interstellar empire, rebels and space battles, a mutant warlord, and a secret base that remains hidden away for millennia. It is said that Isaac Asimov based this groundbreaking space epic on Edward Gibbons's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but really it's just a rumbustious space adventure that took all the scale and wonder of the old space operas and turned them into something far better than anyone might have expected.

Originally published as a series of short stories during the 1940s, then collected as three volumes, Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation in the early 50s, the trilogy has a grandeur and a scope that has been rarely matched even today. The writing can be stodgy, but it's still a great series to read. Just don't bother with Asimov's belated prequels and sequels, which try and tie all of his Robot stories and others into the same future history, they're not worth the effort.

Why It Made the List

At number 6 on our list of top hard science fiction books is Foundation by Issac Asimov. Why number two? Because we couldn't have a joint number one, that's why. Many of Asimov's books would have fitted the bill, but given Foundation is part of the original foundation (sorry) of modern science fiction, we thought it the best starting point. With it's sprawling, space-opera like setting, it's focus on science and history and Asimov's classic turn of phrase, it's no wonder this novel has remained popular for decades after it was first published.

Foundation takes the familiar starting point of the fall of an Empire, sets it in space and adds in that vital ingredient - hope. Mixed together, we get a soaring epic that spans both space and time. Not only is the technology realistic, but so are the characters and society. Asimov is master of both story and science, and it's evident throughout this. The best part is, this is the first in a series! So you can read even more!

The Foundation Trilogy won a one-off Hugo Award as the All-Time Best Series. It probably wouldn't win a similar award today, but it is still a wonderful example of the ambition and the scope of space opera at its very best.

Books in Foundation Series (5)

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Comments (17)
Awards Won: NEBULA, 1986 HUGO
Award Nominations:1986 LocusSF, 1985 NEBULA

What do you get when mix together a card carrying-homophobe and science-fiction? Ender's Game. 

Now it's an ethical struggle these days to decide what to do with the great writer OSC and his fiction, but it happens that he wrote one of the best space opera sci-fi novels of all time. So much so, that even the American military seems to agree with this. Ender's Game has been awarded fifth place on our list for one of the most popular and well-written novels space opera novels. 

The book has been critically acclaimed and is suggested reading for the U.S. Marine Corps. It won the 1985 Nebula Award and the 1986 Hugo Award. Ender's Game ranked in second place on the Damien Broderick's book Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010 list.

Ender's Game was also made into a well received big budget movie in 2013 as well, though the book is a richer and much deeper reading experience.

Books in The Ender Quinte... Series (4)

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11

The Warrior's Apprentice

(Lois McMaster Bujold)

(Vorkosigan Saga)

And another writer where we could pick just about any of her novels for this list. We've chosen The Warrior's Apprentice not because it's the best of them (it isn't), but because it's a great place to start, because this is the first appearance of her hero Miles Vorkosigan.

This is a great old-fashioned space adventure, full of action. Miles flunks out of the military academy, finds himself the owner of an obsolete freighter, goes on to become the commander of a mercenary fleet, and then starts smuggling weapons during a space war.

 Why It Makes the List

Bujold's on-going Miles Vorkosigan saga has won all sorts of awards, including the Hugo Award for the novels The Vor Game, Barrayar and Mirror Dance, not to mention the novella "The Mountains of Mourning".

Lois McMaster Bujold really does make up for a huge mass of sins that the science-fiction writing industry commits in the form of sexism. Oh, wait... women are meant to like being portrayed as submissive, yet sexual, chain-mail bikini wearing individuals? Proving that not all sci-fi is about female subjugation (and really, the sci-fi writing industry is copping a beating lately for it), is the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Alternate Choice: Barrayar 

If you like tough women, like Lisbeth in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, then you'll love McMaster Bujold's Cordelia Naismith.

It's unusual for us to recommend the second novel in a series, but Barrayar is the most popular novel in the Vorkosigan saga, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Other recomended books in the series: Shards of Honor and the Warrior's Apprentice, also by Bujold.

Books in Vorkosigan Saga Series (16)

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12

Rendezvous with Rama

(Arthur C. Clarke)

(Rama)

Why is this our number one choice, you ask? Well, if you've heard of science fiction, you've heard of Arthur C. Clarke. And if you haven't, what are you doing here? Go fix that! Clarke is a giant of hard sci fi, probably because as well as writing science fiction, he actually went and did science. So, after lots of thought (well, closing of eyes and pointing at a list of his books), we've placed Rendezvous with Rama firmly at the top of our list 25 hard science fiction books.

Rendezvous with Rama starts with the most predictable of premises. No, really. Strange non-earth object spotted in space? Been there, done that. Hell, it sound like something people tell you after their 8th shot of vodka. But in Clarke's hands, it becomes something special. Rama is a world unto itself, and the descriptions every bit as mesmerizing as they are believably scientific. Don't get into this work expecting high drama and detailed character arcs - the cast aren't 2D by any means, but there's only one real main character here, and that's the spaceship. It's a work of exploration, discovery and strange new worlds - what more could you want?

Books in Rama Series (4)

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13

Brin's second novel in the Uplift Saga is set in a future universe where no species can become sentient without being "uplifted" by a patron race. Humanity wouldn't be humanity without its existence being a mystery, so naturally, it's still unsolved as to who uplifted mankind. In turn, mankind has uplifted chimps and dolphins to sentience. The Terran exploration vessel Streaker (crewed and captained by mostly dolphins) crashes on a previously uncharted water planet called Kithrup after discovering an ancient and powerful secret that everyone wants a piece of. The action in this novel is fast paced, the hostiles in space and their epic space battles make for a gripping story, and it sure is imaginative.

One of the topics that practically every space opera has to deal with is our encounter with aliens. After all, space opera assumes that we go out into the big wide universe, and at some point we are likely to meet up with something that is not human. But what will that encounter be like? Many space operas, particularly early examples, have tended to assume a fairly simple relationship: the aliens will either be enemies, or allies against another alien enemy. But the reality of such an encounter is likely to be far more complex than that. One very interesting possibility appears in David Brin's Uplift sequence: galactic civilisations sponsor and mentor intelligent races beginning to struggle up into space.

In this universe, humans are an anomaly, since they don't have any sponsors, they have made the ascent into space under their own efforts, though they have in turn uplifted dolphins and chimpanzees. Nevertheless, humanity is the newest and weakest of the galactic civilisations, which is a dangerous position to be in. Then, in Startide Rising, not quite the first but one of the best of the sequence, a human ship happens upon a cluster of derelict spaceships that might belong to the legendary Progenitors, and the discovery unleashes rivalries and conflicts between the other civilisations.

Why It Made the List

Startide Rising won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. With the other novels in the Uplift Sequence (Sundiver, The Uplift War, Brightness Reef, Infinity's Shore and Heaven's Reach) it provides a fascinatingly different perspective on our place in the universe.DOLPHINS IN SPACE! I promise I am not making this up, as much as it sounds like a bad take-off from the Muppets, it really happens in this novel. And not just dolphins in space, but actual dolphin-fucking. Yep, you have to read it to believe it.

And usually I'd leave the awards a novel has won to the end of a review, but I feel after the dolphin fucking comment, that the industry seal of approval needs to be shown upfront, for fear of turning readers away. Startide Rising won the 1984 Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards. That's some pretty serious sci-fi literature swag there.

Books in The Uplift Saga Series (6)

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14

Beginning with his first novel, Gridlinked, Neal Asher has consistently explored a fecund and violent future known as the Polity. In something like 13 novels to date, he has combined extravagant space opera invention, such as world-ruling AIs, androids, all sorts of aliens, interstellar matter transmission, and venomous parasites that can confer immortality, with the sort of gritty, violent storytelling more often associated with cyberpunk. In among all of this there are barely-human investigators, separatist movements, betrayals and wars, a constant thread of action keeps the books sizzling at a fast pace.

There's over 13 books in the Polarity universe, with some of the books in their own stand alone series, and even some stand alones. A good starting point is the chronologically first book Prador's Moon. However, an equally good place to start is with Gridlinked, probably one of the more popular books in the series. And finally, another starting point is The Skinner, the first book in the Spatterjay trilogy which is a sort of biopunk heroic science fiction series set in the Polarity universe -- it's weird, strange, and yet entirely exciting (and a lot of action in this trilogy). 

Why its on the list

Clearly influenced by Iain Banks, Neal Asher shows that space opera can have a contemporary political relevance.

Books in Polarity Series Series (13)

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15

The Gap Into Conflict : The Real S...

(Stephen R. Donaldson)

I admit to making like a U.S. baseball player and cheating again on this one - The Gap Into Conflict is actually a novella, but it's such a freaking amazingly structured story, and so popular with sci-fi aficionados that we had to include it on this list, and for that reason it comes in at number ten here. If you're a fantasy buff as well as a science fiction buff, Stephen R. Donaldson will come as no stranger to you, being the author of one of the most acclaimed fantasy series, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

In the Gap Into Conflict, Donaldson takes the reader on an adventurous, almost Shakespearian tale of the internal struggle we face between good and evil as we follow the story of Angus Thermopyle, an ore pirate and murderer who arrives at Mallory's Bar and Sleep with a stunning woman on his arm, who turns out to be Mom Hyland, a cop in a former life, before she met Thermopyle. When Nick Succorso, another pirate and owner of a nice frigate kitted out for deep-space, notices Thermopyle, this is when the story turns to one of revenge and rivalry, with devastating effects. 
Aside from the interesting structure (the novel tells a short scene and goes into its ramifications from the point of view of the casual bystanders who bore witness to the scene), this book is fascinating with its dark characters who go from hero to villain and back again, and how it succeeds in making you care about a main character who seems, at first glance, to be utterly unlikeable.

The sequel books in the series are The Gap into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge; The Gap into Power: A Dark and Hungry God Arises; The Gap into Madness: Chaos and Order; The Gap into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die.

If you like your science fiction dark, then there is nothing darker than the Gap series. This is the science fiction answer to fantasy's grimdark.

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16

The Skylark of Space and Other Wor...

(E. E. Smith)

(Halcyon Classics)

The story goes that one evening in 1915 Smith and his wife got together with their friends Carl and Lee Garby. The talked about travelling into space, and it was agreed that Smith should write up what they had discussed, with Mrs Garby helping with the more romantic sections. It took him years to do it, but eventually he produced The Skylark of Space, which is effectively the first space opera.

The first ever spaceship is immediately used to kidnap the heroes girlfriend. The hero sets out in pursuit in his own spaceship, and what follows is a basic tour of the galaxy discovering strange planets and meeting alien races before they all get back safely to earth.

 Why It Made the List

Okay, don't read this for literary quality. It's crudely written, full of ridiculous coincidences and wild improbabilities, but, as Frederik Pohl has said, Smith probably inspired more imitators than anyone else in science fiction, with the possible exception of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. But without this book and its three sequels (believe me, they don't get any better), and his later Lensman series, it's possible we wouldn't even have space opera.

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17

Ancillary Justice

(Ann Leckie)

(Imperial Radch)

The big space opera series of the moment is Ann Leckie's multi-award-winning Imperial Radch trilogy, consisting of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and the forthcoming Ancillary Mercy. It's set in a high-tech future where Breq, the central character, is an ancillary, a body that houses a portion of the AI that once controlled a spaceship, "Justice of Toren". But the ship has been destroyed by treachery, and Breq is the sole surviving ancillary who is now seeking to find out what happened and get revenge.

What Breq uncovers involves her in a civil war between different aspects of the ruler of the Radch, and she finds herself on one side of the resulting conflict while still trying to work for her revenge.

 

Ancillary Justice won just about every award going, including the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, BSFA and Arthur C. Clarke Awards, and Ancillary Sword added another Locus and BSFA Award. It's been a long time since space opera won such universal praise.

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18
Comments (0)
Award Nominations:1992 PKD

At the end of the 1980s, two novels kick started the British renaissance, and the New Space Opera. The first was Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks, the second was Take Back Plenty. Before this, Greenland had written a series of elegant fantasies, but nothing that prepared the way for the vivid colours, the fast and furious action and the straightforward excitement of this novel.

In one swoop he took us back to the days when the solar system was like the wild west, a place of frontier towns, extravagant dangers and rough and ready justice. Tabitha Jute and her ship, the Alice Liddell, are always desperate for money, so they accept a commission to take a band to the huge alien space station, Plenty. But that's only the start of their troubles in a story that barely pauses for breath. They end up being chased back and forth across the solar system as they get involved in vast conspiracies involving the different alien races that control our solar system.

 

Take Back Plenty won both the BSFA and the Arthur C. Clarke Awards, but perhaps the most important thing about it is that, with its sequels, Seasons of Plenty, Mother of Plenty and the collection The Plenty Principle, it showed that space opera could be fun.


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19

Cities in Flight: They Shall Have ...

(James Blish)

If space opera is the literature of breathtaking special effects, then how about this: an entire city ripped out of the earth and setting out on a journey through space? Well that's exactly the scenario that you find in James Blish's wonderful quartet collectively titled Cities in Flight.

It begins with two amazing discoveries: an anti-aging drug, so that anyone setting out on the long journeys to other worlds will still be alive at the end; and the spindizzy, a phenomenal anti-gravity device that will lift entire cities and send them through space. And that's exactly what happens when the Earth's economy collapses and major cities set off to seek work elsewhere in the galaxy.

The four novels, They Shall Have Stars, A Life for the Stars, Earthman, Come Home and The Triumph of Time tell the stories of the "Okies" (named after the refugees from the Oklahoma dustbowl of the 1930s) over thousands of years.

 

It's easy just to invent something that's bigger or faster than anyone else has done before, but that's not really very satisfying. Space opera works best when there is genuine innovation, and an intelligent purpose in the invention. And that was what Blish was a master at doing, and in our new austerity world these stories remain extraordinarily pertinent.


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20

The Stars My Destination

(Alfred Bester)

He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead.

Gully Foyle is a shipwrecked sailor abandoned out in space, and when ships pass him by without stopping to pick him up he vows to exact revenge. He manages to repair his ship, and after numerous terrors and adventures he manages to find his way back to civilisation. There he starts to put his plan into action.

Famously based on The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (like Spirit: or, the Princess of Bois Dormant by Gwyneth Jones, another amazing space opera that very nearly made it onto this list), this novel is colourful, startling and unfailingly surprising.

 

William Gibson has said: "I can't recall having met an SF writer whose opinion I respected who failed to share my enthusiasm for Alfred Bester's work" and The Stars My Destination (also known as Tiger! Tiger!)is regularly and rightly listed as one of the best science fiction novels ever written.


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21

Vacuum Diagrams

(Stephen Baxter)
Comments (0)
Awards Won:1999 PKD

Stephen Baxter is undoubtedly one of the stars of modern, scientifically literate sf, and he really stakes his claim to be one of the masters of space opera with the Xeelee Sequence, which to date includes nine novels, several novellas and a host of short stories. The sequence covers several billions years of human expansion into space, their contact with a variety of alien species, the long war with the Xeelee, and the Xeelee's own war with the Photino Birds.

The whole sequence is full of extraordinary invention, including the alternate universe in Raft in which gravity is a billion times stronger than in our universe, or Flux where humans live inside a neutron star, or the generation ship in Ring that is on a five million year journey. You don't come across space opera as huge or as devastating as this very often.

 

Quite frankly, if we didn't include Stephen Baxter on this list, it would be a travesty, and you only have to look at the Xeelee Sequence to discover the scale and the awe-inspiring wonder that is space opera at its very best.


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22
Comments (0)
Award Nominations:1989 BSFA

C.J. Cherryh is one of the most consistently reliable authors of convincing, richly-detailed stories of life in space. And her fiction often is about space, set aboard spaceships and space stations rather than on planets. Her work takes the form of multi-volume interlinked series, so that the Chanur novels overlap with the Merovingian Nights which overlap with the Morgaine Cycle and so on. But because the novels can be read in practically any order, Cyteen is our pick as a place to start.

It's a dense novel, like so many by Cherryh, in which you find political duplicity, biological research, betrayals, wars and rumours of war, all set in a universe filled with strange, threatening planets and fascinating aliens. In this instance, the clone of a corrupt politician is raised to take her place, only to discover the convoluted plots that she is entangled in.

 

Cyteen won both the Hugo and Locus Awards, and is a fascinating introduction to one of the most rewarding os space opera writers.

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Comments (0)
Award Nominations:1969 HUGO

We've already included one example of what might be called new wave space opera, and in a sense this is another, but it is a very different novel.

The novel takes the form of a quest in which Lorq von Ray and his crew of misfits travel across the galaxy hunting clues in their search for the universe's most valuable fuel, which could change the whole balance of power in this future. All the while they are pursued by their arch enemy, and in the end it becomes a race as they plunge into the heart of a nova to discover their treasure.

It's a rich and vivid book, a precursor of cyberpunk in the way the characters jack in to their instruments, and at the same time the story is modelled on the Grail Quest from Arthurian legend, and yet the whole work is filled with references to other space operas such as the Foundation Trilogy.

 

It was Nova that prompted AlgisBudrys to describe Delany as "the best science fiction writer in the world", and it was a major influence on William Gibson's Neuromancer. It is also, quite simply, one of the most entertaining space operas you're likely to read.

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24

The Quiet War

(Paul McAuley)
Comments (0)
Award Nominations:2009 CLARKE

For some reason, the New Space Opera seems to have been particularly successful with British writers. Just look at names like Banks and Reynolds, Hamilton and Baxter, not to mention Ken MacLeod and Gwyneth Jones, and Paul McAuley is another who has made some stunning contributions to the genre. Again, any of a number of his books could have merited a place on this list, but we've gone for the Quiet War sequence.

The quartet, which consists of The Quiet War, Gardens of the Sun, In the Mouth of the Whale and Evening's Empires, is reminiscent in a way of James S.A. Corey's Expanse series, in that it starts with conflict in the solar system and then expands out. Humans have expanded out into the solar system, but now there is a threat of war between Earth and the outer planets.

Despite every effort to prevent conflict, fighting breaks out and Earth's superior power soon wins, but at great cost to its ecosphere, while the people of the outer planets retreat further from the sun and start to develop forms of posthumanity. The third novel suddenly shifts thousands of years into the future and out to the Fomalhaut system already colonised by refugees from the Quiet War, but they carry with them their propensity for war. And in the final volume, the focus returns to the solar system, even further in the future, where humanity's colonising efforts are slowly coming apart.

 

This is a powerful and moving series that gives perhaps the most vivid and convincing account to date of what it would actually be like to live on other moons and planets in our solar system.

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25

A disparate group of refugees aboard the spaceship "Null Boundary" are fleeing from the alien Chenzeme. The Chenzeme have already destroyed much of human space, and if the people aboard the "Null Boundary" are going to survive, they really need to find out why.

Essentially, Vast is one long chase scene, but boy is it exciting. And with the technology she has created, including advanced nanotechnology and ghost technology in which human memories and personalities are electronically preserved, the universe we glimpse along the way is incredibly complex. That's one of the joys of good space opera: a gripping, fast-moving story that reveals a universe that is awe-inspiring, wonderful and, of course, vast.

 

John Clute has written about the "exorbitant inventiveness" of Linda Nagata, and if that isn't a definition of great space opera I don't know what is. This is a book that really will repay you seeking it out.

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There are distinct similarities between the familiar patterns of space opera and the familiar patterns of medieval quest fantasy (see Samuel R. Delany's Nova, for instance), but this novel makes the connection between the two explicit.

Centuries before, a generation starship suffered a devastating failure and managed to limp into the system of a binary star, but repairs have proved seemingly impossible and the society aboard the ship has fractured into rival factions. The fragments of the AI that control different functions aboard the ship have manifested themselves as angels, and within the strict hierarchy there are knights in armour and magical weapons, and a serving girl called Rien must rescue a captured angel and escort her on her quest. But the quest to heal the world, as it would be in a medieval romance, here becomes a quest to repair the ship before catastrophe strikes.

 

It's always interesting to see a basic space opera transformed into something else by the way the story is told, and this is a very inventive use of the form.


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27

The Paradox Men

(Charles L. Harness)

Space opera is all about big concepts, what Brian Aldiss has called "wide screen baroque", and they don't come much wider or more baroque than The Paradox Men. Like much of the early fiction of Charles Harness, its central characters are caught in a time loop, so that everything twists around and at times it can be difficult to follow.

A spaceship carrying a strange man called Alar crashes, and Alar finds himself hunted by the forces of America Imperial because he has been identified as a threat to the regime. At the same time, America Imperial is building a new faster than light spaceship, which it is hoped will help bring about the next stage in civilisation. Only the new ship bears a curious resemblance to the ship in which Alar crashed.

 

A swashbuckling adventure that whips us through time and space, extravagant, action-packed, wild and colourful, this is a book that manages to be deeply profound and profoundly silly all at the same time.

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In a complex series of novels, novellas and short stories, including Ascendant Sun, The Quantum Rose, Skyfall and The Final Key, Catherine Asaro has traced the ongoing conflict between the interstellar Skolian Empire and their rival Eubian Concord. The works cover an incredibly long timespan and several generations of characters, and though there is an internal chronology to the novels they can mostly be read as stand-alone works.

The books combine political and dynastic intrigues, detailed scientific and mathematical ideas (the plot of The Quantum Rose is generated by a particular application of quantum physics), romantic subplots, cyberpunk elements and lots more. Its a heady mix that has made Asaro one of the current stars of space opera.

Why its on the list

The Quantum Rose won a Nebula Award, which recognises the fact that Asaro has become one of the most popular and most skilled of space opera writers.

Books in Saga of the Skol... Series (14)

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29

Tau Zero

(Poul Anderson)
Comments (5)
Award Nominations:1971 HUGO

Tempted as we were to place this at number one, it's at number three of our top 25 hard science fiction books because this isn't just hard science fiction, it's diamond hard. Challenging to read, and filled with actual mathematics and physics this is hard science fiction at both it's best and most difficult! Even it's title, Tau Zero, is part of an equation that is used throughout the book. Seriously, it's pretty much a textbook with plot. Of course, you're here looking for good hard science fiction novels, so this should be right up your street.

Poul Anderson takes a simple premise - a ship that can't stop accelerating - and weaves it into a masterpiece of storytelling and scientific explanations. It's a testament to his skill with the mathematics and principles at hand that what could seem like bullshit in the hands of a lesser writer reads as believable, logical and justifiable science. Just don't attempt this as a light read, and you'll be fine.

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30

Blood Music

(Greg Bear)

Vergil Ulam has done something remarkable - he has created something wondrous: biological computers which he calls noocytes. The thing is he used his own lymphocytes to do it, and now he's been told to shut it down, destroy his work. So he tries to smuggle all those millions of single cell computers out of the lab the only way he can - inside himself - in his bloodstream. Inside his blood the noocytes begin to evolve, and in evolving they change the world...

Greg Bear is the thinking person's author. He's not scared to go way out there and look back at us mere mortals left behind on this lump of wet rock. And his words take you deep into the heart and soul of the concepts he places in front of you (which, let me tell you, can be quite disturbing in a chilling sort of way). And there's some real hard science behind the stories too (he's not just weird - he's got style!) - he is credited as the first sci-fi author to write about nanotechnology with this book.

He explores the concepts of reality as a function of observers, biotechnology, consciousness and everyone's favourite bogey-man: artificial intelligence. Somehow he manages to squeeze in a darned good story that ties it all together flawlessly. Also (honestly) it's one of his easier books to read. One of the founding members of Cyberpunk or maybe a pre-curser author. The point is debatable.

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31

In a move that most of us would think is unprecedented in the science fiction world of famous authors, Larry Niven has done something unheard of: admitted to an error in his plot. Niven wrote, 'If you own a first paperback edition of Ringworld, it's the one with the mistakes in it. It's worth money.' 

Louis Gridley Wu celebrates his 200th birthday at the start of the novel. It's 2850 AD, so this age isn't particularly unusual. But as the vampires in Ann Rice's world found, when one gets to this age, one gets rather fucking bored with life and its experiences. Louis decides to take a trip beyond Known Spaceship on his own. Nessus, a Pierson's Puppeteer, offers him a spot on an exploration voyage with Speak (a Kzin) and a young human female, Teela Brown. They travel to Ringworld, an artificial ring about one million miles world and the diameter of Earth's orbit.

They unsuccessfully try to contact the Ringworld but their ship is disabled by its defense system. With important systems on their ship destroyed, the crew has to find out how to get back into space as well as explore Ringworld. Forced to land due to sickness, they encounter Ringworld's indigenous people who seem to be human and living in a primitive human manner. They mistakenly think the crew is the creators of the Ring, treating them as gods. Proving it's never good to get in with fundamentalists, the Ringworlders go a bit feral. If you think things are already intense, plots, secrets and machinations are revealed and inter-species love happens. This is definitely one of the most intriguing space opera novels written and well worth your time. 

And did we mention that Ringworld won the Nebula, Hugo and Locus Awards?

Books in Ringworld Series (5)

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Imagine Robert Heinlein without his gratuitous love of breakfast foods and busty, bisexual women and replace those interests with technical, craft brilliance and a love of robust dialogue, and you have Frederik Pohl.

The Heechee, an alien race who disappeared a long time ago, built a space station (Gateway) in a hollow asteroid. Humans have tried to replicate this technology with most efforts ending in disaster and they`ve also tried to learn how to operate the alien space ships that were found at Gateway, but the humans can`t quite figure out how to use the controls all too well - they don`t know where a setting will send the ship or how long the ship will be there for.

Out of luck, a few voyages have resulted in finding Heechee artifacts and other habitable planets. This made the Gateway Corporation (the corporation who runs the space station on behalf of a cartel of countries) and the passengers of the relevant voyagers rather rich. Robinette Stetley Broadhead wins a lottery giving him enough money to buy a one way ticket to Gateway. He goes on several riches seeking missions - the first is useless, the second he makes a huge discovery but is penalized for incapacitating his ship, the third is where he and his ship mate Gelle-Klara get stuck in the gravitational pull of a black hole. And at this point, things get really interesting.

Gateway won the 1977 Nebula Award and the 1978 Hugo, Locus and John W. Campbell Awards.

Books in Heechee Saga Series (6)

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Comments (0)
Award Nominations:1990 CLARKE

Usually when you think of the 80s you think of bouffant hair, jeans tight enough to threaten a man-s ability to father, and high pitched singers wearing neon colors. Fortunately, the 80s gave us more than just bad taste, with Neverness written by David Zindell and published in 1988.

Neverness tells the story of a futuristic world where mathematicians have reached cult status, almost like a religion of their own, due to the calculations they do for space travel. In his magnificent prose with its rich complexity, Zindell follows a young graduate pilot, Mallory Ringee in this very believable future on the planet of Icefall, in the city of Neverness.

Zindell-s world building is next to none, creating a world where society and culture as we know it has been completely replaced, and humanity lives in a world of akaschixz, cetics, tinkers, hairjan, warrior poets, scryers and wormrunners. A testament to his craft, the reader never feels jarred out of place in this foreign world, and instead is caught up into its whirlwind as if the reader were one of the characters.

There is an intense focus on science, math, and technology in this novel with the creation of technology treated in almost reverent manner, rather than the fanboy/girl approach to technology such as Apple devices that we have in our era. This galaxy has insane computer gods, religious sects worshipping poetry, altered human DNA and exploding stars threatening to destroy humanity. If you like deeply complex plots, heart wrenching action, and a meaningful quest, then Neverness is the novel for you. Neverness won the Gigamesh Award for best novel in 1991.

Books in A Requiem for Ho... Series (3)

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34

The Risen Empire

(Scott Westerfeld)

(Succession)

If you think space opera is just a subset or spin-off of military science fiction, and that every novel or series or saga is yet another John Carter, prepare for Scott Westerfield to blow your expectations away. And of course, in the positive way, not in the "not another crappy erotica post E.L James" fame sort of blowing your mind way.

The Risen Empire is set in a galaxy in the distant future (don't worry, it's also not another Star Wars rehash), where the galactic empire comprises 80 worlds with many human civilizations. The Risen Emperor rules over the galactic empire, but he's not human, not entirely. He's an immortal through the help of a "symbiant" (a symbiotic creature). In turn, he gifts his favorite citizens with immortality after their death, though, this immortality seems more like becoming a zombified supplicant of the emperor. The still naturally living citizens are represented by the Imperial Senate and elected governments on each world.

The Empire doesn't have FTL travel yet, so people who travel between the worlds lose the same time frames as their friends and family, an effect called "Time Thief". Aside from all of this strangeness, the Empire is at war with crazy cyborgs, the Rix, who worship artificial intelligence and take a hostile, yet evangelical approach to their worship. If that hasn't convinced you that this book has everything you need in space opera, you could go for the dolphin sex book instead.

Books in Succession Series (3)

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35

Dread Empire's Fall : The Praxis

(Walter Jon Williams)

(Dread Empire's Fall)

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few years, the initials W.W. may not resonate with you as an impressive science fiction writer in the new wave of space opera - W.W. probably brings to mind a previously mild-mannered high school science teacher who became a multi-millionaire after producing high grade methamphetamine to pay for his cancer treatment. Nothing at all like that W.W., our novelist Walter Jon Williams is instead a master at crafting fascinating and complicated space opera battles.

Published in 2002, The Praxis is the first novel in the Dream Empire's Fall series and introduces the reader to the Shaa, a powerful race who have led the Empire for eons, ruling humanity and other races. Their philosophy is the Praxis, based on obedience and hierarchy (not too dissimilar to how law firms, investment firms, and accountancy companies operate).

But it's the last days of the Shaa, with a civil war heralding the end of the Empire. The Naxids, an insectoid race battle with every race after the last of the Great Masters passes. It wouldn't be real space opera without an intense look at human interpersonal relationships, and the plot follows Lieutenant Gareth Martinez, a naval officer and Cadet Sula, a female pilot and head of the Sula Clan, also known as Lady Sula. They launce a rescue of a yachtsman, Blitsharts (yes, that name makes us laugh too!) and over the recuse Martinez courts Sula with comedy and literature.

If you're after some fresh space opera, you can't go wrong with the Praxis.

Books in Dread Empire's F... Series (4)

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36

The Centauri Device

(M. John Harrison)

Do you know what they used to call cyberpunk in the 70s? "Hippie space opera", according to the New Worlds Magazine. At least that's what they called Harrison's third space opera book The Centauri Device. These days, we'd all think of Harrison's novel with its port cities with Bladerunner-esque junk and hookers as cyberpunk space opera, not hippie space opera.

The Centauri Device follows John Truck, a scummy, drug-selling spaceship captain who is the last of the Centaurians, as he is hunted by General Alice Gaw (head of the Israeli World Government), Gadhafi ben Barka (head terrorist) and Dr Griskin (a leader of the Opener Cult) Truck's mother was one of the last Centaurians before the genocide. Now there's a group of people who want him to arm a powerful bomb that only responds to Centaurian DNA, the Centauri Device.

It's a dark and gritty world that Harrison envelopes the reader in - the Arab and Isreali conflict has split the planet and Truck as our hero is the epitome of the fallen hero stereotype. It's not just space opera, this novel falls firmly within the hardboiled and cyber punk genres too, giving fans of all types of dark fiction something to sink their teeth into.

And if you're still not convinced about this hard breed of space opera, Harrison was also the editor of the British science fiction magazine, New Wave.

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37

Singularity Sky

(Charles Stross)

(Eschaton )

Comments (0)
Award Nominations:2004 HUGO

The New Republic, a repressive state has launched an attack against an invasion of one of its colony, little does the New Republic realize, that they've actually been visited by technologically advanced aliens who can grant the colony any wish, including giving them the Festival's technology.

Like any third world civilization that goes from squalor to having their wishes granted (wait, no, we aren't that pleasant to our third world countries on real-life Planet Earth), socio-economic and political issues crop up, causing conflict within the colony. And because it's space opera, we have our Days of Our Lives installment of an engineer and intelligence operative trying to stop this happening and falling in love on the New Republic's flagship.

What is there to love about the usual space opera elements of intergalactic battle and a love story between super intelligent people? The themes in this are ones that resonate today, particularly in the midst of the Prism scandal - information should be free and widely available, no matter what level of society you're from.

Books in Eschaton Series (2)

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38

Trading in Danger

(Elizabeth Moon)

(Vatta's War)

You know when you were a kid and you were forced to peel potatoes for the family fish and chip shop? Wait a minute is that just an English thing? Okay, scrap that. The family business that Kylara Vatta tries to avoid in Trading in Danger isn't that mundane, but apparently it's still worthy of buggering off to join the military.

Sci-fi readers say that Elizabeth Moon's Vatta series is like the work of Lois McMaster Bujold, and there are definitely similarities in this epic, military, space-opera series. Trading in Danger follows Kylara Vatta, one of the young heirs of the interstellar shipping corporation Vatta Enterprises (imagine Planet Express, except with far more competent employees than Fry and Leela). To avoid being roped into the family business, Vatta enrolled in the Slotter Key Spaceforce Academy but had to leave in her last year and captain a trading ship, the Glennys Jones for the family business on its last journey to the scrapyards, Lastway.

She deviates from her mission when she hears that a shipment of agricultural machinery never arrived and that there would be a hefty bounty to anyone who could bring this in. An engine malfunction lands her and the ship in a planetary system just edging into serious conflict. It wouldn't be a space-opera if epic conflict didn't ensue, and this is just what the local crisis causes. By Ky's military training pays off in the end.

Books in Vatta's War Series (5)

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39

Newton's Wake: Novel

(Ken MacLeod)

Our favorite Mad-Scotsman, Ken McLeod, crosses the genres of sci-fi, cyber-punk, space opera and post-apocalyptic fiction in Newtown's Wake, telling the story of the world after the Hard Rapture, a devastating war, caused by god-like artificial intelligence on Earth. Only the fittest and most intelligent survived, and unsurprisingly these categories weren't ones that the humans featured highly in! Though, a few humans remained and thrived.

Lucinda Carlyle has taken control of a chain of interstellar gates called the Skein and finds a relic on a remote planet called Eurydice. The relic is as formidable to the existence of the Carlyles as the name Eurydice suggestions. Little known to Lucinda is the fact that before the Hard Rapture, a group of scientists scanned human personalities into digital storage in the hopes of reviving them one day.

And as is a common theme with sci-fi, artificial intelligence novels, once awakened, these personalities are not happy campers. The darker, existential theme comes through clearly in Newtown's Wake - what is it that makes a person a person? Is it a soul, memories, flesh, or being born as a human?

And if strong moral themes aren't your thing, this novel has more to cater to every sort of sci-fi nerd: faster than light space ships, nanotechnology and wormhole gateways. There's something here for everyone in Newtown's Wake.

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40

On Basilisk Station

(David Weber)

(Honor Harrington)

Finally, a book on our list so deserving of its place not only because it gives us some epic space opera goodness, but also because it actually promotes women as capable of performing the same function as men in science fiction.

Now I know there are going to be readers who may not be able to picture this easily, but just imagine Ripley from Aliens, and you'll be right. On Basilisk Station is the first novel in David Weber's Honorverse series. Commander Honor Harrington is head of the light cruiser Fearless, on mission through the Basilisk system, completing an extensive weapons refit. The excitement of her new command quickly changes when Honor realizes that Fearless has been stripped of its weapons and turned into a testing ground for technological warfare. 

And this isn't the worst news - opposing officers decide the safest way to deal with this is to deny Honor the opportunity to use the weapons. Fearless is banished to Basilisk to hide its secret weapon and Honor comes across her old nemesis, Captain Lord Pavel who attempts to sabotage her assignment. Eventually sabotage leads to a coup by Haven against Basilisk, which would lead to an invasion of Manticore. Honor finds herself and her Fearless crew in a position where they must act quickly. 

The Honorverse books have made the New York Time Best Seller List.

Books in Honor Harrington Series (13)

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You know it has to be old school space opera, when the novel's written by someone called "Doc". It makes me wonder if this was ever really cool, or just something sci-fi nerds thought was cool and the rest of the world was laughing at until the 80s came along.

First Lensman was first published in 1950 and is still hugely popular today. In a chronological oddity that must have been done to screw with our heads, First Lensman is the second novel in the Lensman series, but the last one written. It tells the story Virgil Samms, a being so incorruptible and courageous that he is given the honor of being the first to wear a "lens" (hence, the First Lensman), which is a form of pseudo-life that gives the wearer telepathic powers.

Virgil's dream is establish a galactic patrol to protect civilization against evil and he finds a selection of "lens worthy" people to make up this force. In a nice 1950s dash of sexism, women are deemed psychologically incapable of wearing a lens. The Lensmen take on a Batman like crusade, fighting the forces of evil in the form of drug traffickers and corrupt politicians and visiting alien planets to seek the pirate fleet that attached their defense headquarters.

Lensman was a runner up for the Hugo Ward for best All Time Series, narrowly beaten by Isaac Asimov for the Foundation series.

Books in The Lensman Seri... Series (7)

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42

The Frontiers Saga

(Ryk Brown)

(The Frontiers Saga)

An indie published science fiction series that now spans #14 books.

While the writing itself is mediocre, the actual story telling is fantastic.

It's a story where humanity has expanded outward into the stars but and after a plague pretty much destroys human civilization, becomes cut off and isolated with pockets of humanity scattered around. Earth over a thousand years later manages to rebuild Faster Than Light capabilities and a small ship, through old earth technology, ends up stranded 1000 light years from earth, finding humanity has developed a whole new civilization.

The old meets new and glorious space operatic conflict results. This series makes for an absolute page turning read from the first to the current book (which as of 2016 stands at #14).

This is one of the best indie science fiction series around. Yes, the prose is so so, yes, it's pulpy. And yes, once you start, you'll read all 15 books non stop. If you've been hankering to try some indie stuff, START with Ryk Brown's Frontiers saga.

Books in The Frontiers Sa... Series (15)

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43

Bill, the Galactic Hero: The Final...

(Harry Harrison)

With so much extravagant invention as its stock in trade, an awful lot of space opera is unintentionally funny. But it's surprising that there is so little intentionally comic space opera. But for that there's always Harry Harrison, and particularly his wonderful Bill the Galactic Hero, which pokes fun at just about every space opera clich going. In particular, you can't help noticing bits of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein cropping up in the constant rush of Bill's misadventures.

Bill is press-ganged into the Space Troopers and accidentally becomes a hero in the war against the alien Chingers, but when he goes to the capital to receive a medal he finds himself listed as a deserter. In turn he works in garbage disposal, becomes a spy, then gets arrested and sent to prison where he finds himself back in the war against the Chingers.

 

There isn't enough comic science fiction, so this gloriously silly space opera is more than welcome.

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44

The Pride of Chanur

(C. J. Cherryh)
Comments (1)
Award Nominations:1983 HUGO, 1983 LocusSF

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Lets finish this list by going back to the classic space opera. The form may have been invented by E.E. Doc Smith, but it was given its most lasting shape by Edmond Hamilton, pulp writer supreme. His space operas typically involved a gallant Earthman who would set out with a few companions (not necessarily human) to combat evil aliens whose plans presented a threat to the entire galaxy. They were universe-spanning tales of derring-do, full of heroic escapades, mind-boggling coincidences, and the good guys winning in the end. It says something for the formula that he could repeat it in his successful Captain Future stories for young adults without having to make much of a change. Possibly the most successful of these space operas was The Star Kings which stole its plot from The Prisoner of Zenda, proof enough of the colourful romantic nature of these stories. Every clich you expect in a space opera, interstellar empires and evil aliens and so on, can all be traced back to Hamilton.

Why its on the list

Its hokum, but its enjoyable hokum. As with Smith we make no great claims for the quality of the book, but Hamilton was a major influence on the history of space opera, and for that at least he deserves his place on this list.

Books in The Star Kings Series (3)

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