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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 mesmerising 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?
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!
Tau Zero(Alastair Reynolds)
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.
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.
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.
Leviathan Wakes was nominated for the 2012 Hugo and Locus Awards, and George R.R. Martin described the novel as a "kickass space opera".
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.
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.
A Fire Upon the Deep won the Hugo Award in 1993.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Blood Music(Greg Bear)
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.
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?
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.
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.
Tau Zero -(Poul Anderson)
Not to be confused with the Danish resistance fighter and publisher, Poul Anderson, this Poul Anderson wrote one of the most well respected hard sci-fi, space opera novels, nominated for a Hugo award in 1971.
The starship Leonora Christine is powered by a Bussard ramjet and on course for a distant star system. As there`s no FTL in Anderson`s Tau Zero, the crew are looking at spending five years on the ship, with 33 Earth years passing before they arrive at their destination. Before the Leonora Christine gets there, she collides with a nebula damaging one of the integral parts of the engine and the crew accelerates the ship to get to a region where the gases and radiation levels are acceptable enough to try and repair the decelerator. As the crew tries to repair the ship, the time dilation screws up and they become more and more removed from ever seeing humanity ever again. Changing course, they try to locate another suitable planet to land on anywhere, but find they have to fly freely in their search, doomed to travel endlessly. In Earth time millions of years would have passed since they left. This all sounds very morbid, but it`s not all gloom and doom, with a surprisingly upbeat ending in Tau Zero.
The reason why we love this book and for the gut-renching portrayal of the crewmembers' reactions to being the last of humanity and the prospect of being confined with their colleagues indefinitely make this a case study in good science fiction. Think of this novel as a mix between Hard Science Fiction and Space Opera.
While science has proven the science behind Tau Zero as not possible, the book can still be appreciated as a great science fiction book without the actual pure science part being correct.
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.
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.
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.
The Centauri Device(M. John Harrison)
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.
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.
Singularity Sky was nominated for the Hugo Award in 2004.
Series Info: A sequel, Iron Sunrise, was published that same year. Together the two are referred to as the Eschaton novels.
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.
Newton's Wake(Ken MacLeod)
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.
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.
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.
Our Version of the List
At a Glance
- 1 Rendezvous With Rama (Arthur C. Clarke)
- 2 Foundation (Isaac Asimov)
- 3 Tau Zero (Alastair Reynolds)
- 4 Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card)
- 5 The Reality Dysfunction (Peter F. Hamilton)
- 6 Leviathan Wakes (James S.A. Corey)
- 7 A Fire Upon The Deep (Vernor Vinge)
- 8 Startide Rising (David Brin)
- 9 Barrayar ( (Miles Vorkosigan Saga) (Lois McM...
- 10 The Gap Into Conflict (Stephen R. Donaldson)
- 11 Blood Music (Greg Bear)
- 12 Ringworld (Larry Niven)
- 13 Consider Phlebas (Iain M. Banks)
- 14 Gateway (Frederik Pohl)
- 15 Tau Zero - (Poul Anderson)
- 16 Neverness (David Zindell)
- 17 The Risen Empire (Scott Westerfeld)
- 18 Dread Empire's Fall: The Praxis (Walter Jon W...
- 19 The Centauri Device (M. John Harrison)
- 20 Singularity Sky (Charles Stross)
- 21 Trading Danger (Elizabeth Moon)
- 22 Newton's Wake (Ken MacLeod)
- 23 On Basilisk Station (David Weber)
- 24 First Lensman (Edward E. Smith)
Publicly Ranked Version of the List66 items >>
- Dune (Frank Herbert)
- Hyperion (Dan Simmons)
- Foundation (Isaac Asimov)
- Pandora's Star ()
- Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card)
- Old Man's War ()
- Consider Phlebas (Iain M. Banks)
- Ringworld (Larry Niven)
- The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)
- Startide Rising (David Brin)
- Barrayar (Lois McMaster Bujold)
- Gateway (Frederik Pohl)
- The Lost Fleet (Jack Campbell)
- The Mote In God's Eye ()
- Use Of Weapons (Iain M. Banks)
- Eon (Greg Bear)