Space Opera: 10 Best Books to Read
The science fiction sub-genre of space opera has not always been the most popular category in sci-fi books. It was originally termed “space opera” in 1941 by author Wilson Tucker, with the derogatory meaning “a hacky, outworn, spaceship yarn.” Now, nearly 80 years later it’s amongst the bestselling science fiction categories on the market.
Amazon.com proudly offers over 10,000 space opera stories and this now timeless category continues to grow.
How and why did it endure? Because the authors and the stories they write have a purpose.
New York Times bestselling author, L. Ron Hubbard stated in the introduction to Battlefield Earth:
“Science fiction, particularly in its Golden Age, had a mission. I cannot, of course, speak for my friends of that period. But from Campbell and from ‘shooting the breeze’ with other writers of the time, one got the very solid impression that they were doing a heavy job of beating the drum to get man to the stars …
“For a while, and before and after World War II, I was in rather steady association with the new era of scientists, the boys who built the bomb, who were beginning to get the feel of rockets. They were all science fiction buffs. And many of the hottest scientists around were also writing science fiction on the side …
“As one of the crew of writers that helped start man to the stars, I’m very proud of also being known as a science fiction writer. You have satellites out there, man has walked on the moon, you have probes going to the planets, don’t you? Somebody had to dream the dream, and a lot of somebodies like those great writers of The Golden Age and later had to get an awful lot of people interested in it to make it true.”
Today, space opera stories are more popular than ever. The stories emphasize space warfare, melodramatic adventure, interplanetary battles, chivalric romance, courageous heroes and their risk-taking. They usually involve conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic spaceships, weapons, and other sophisticated technology.
The stories themselves are not only telling us we can go to the stars, but they are telling us how to get there.
Here are ten of the best space opera stories for your reading list:
FOUNDATION: ISSAC ASIMOV
For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. Only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future—a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save humanity, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire—both scientists and scholars—and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for future generations. He calls this sanctuary the Foundation.
But soon the fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. And mankind’s last best hope is faced with an agonizing choice: submit to the barbarians and live as slaves—or take a stand for freedom and risk total destruction.
DUNE: FRANK HERBERT
Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides—who would become known as Muad’Dib—and of a great family’s ambition to bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.
A stunning blend of adventure and mysticism, environmentalism and politics, Dune won the first Nebula Award, shared the Hugo Award, and formed the basis of what is undoubtedly the grandest epic in science fiction.
RINGWORLD: LARRY NIVEN
Four travelers come to the Ringworld …
Louis Wu: human and old; bored with having lived too fully for far too many years. Seeking a challenge, and all too capable of handling it.
Nessus: a trembling coward, a puppeteer with a built-in survival pattern of nonviolence. Except that this particular puppeteer is insane.
Teela Brown: human; a wide-eyed youngster with no allegiances, no experience, no abilities. And all the luck in the world.
Speaker-To-Animals: kzin; large, orange-furred, and carnivorous. And one of the most savage life-forms known in the galaxy.
Why did these disparate individuals come together? How could they possibly function together?
And where, in the name of anything sane, were they headed?
BATTLEFIELD EARTH: L. RON HUBBARD
In the year A.D. 3000, Earth is a barren wasteland, plundered of its natural resources by alien conquerors known as Psychlos. Fewer than thirty-five thousand humans survive in a handful of communities scattered across the face of a post-apocalyptic Earth.
From the ashes of humanity rises a young hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler. Setting off on an initial quest to discover a hidden evil, Jonnie unlocks the mystery of humanity’s demise and unearths a crucial weakness in their oppressors. Spreading the seeds of revolt, Jonnie and a small band of survivors pit their quest for freedom in an all-out rebellion that erupts across the continents of Earth and the cosmic sprawl of the Psychlo empire.
For the fate of the Galaxy lies on the battlefield of Earth.
Get the first 13 chapters for free, to see why this book helped put space opera on the map as a respected and well-loved science fiction genre.
ENDER’S GAME: ORSON SCOTT CARD
In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race’s next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter and Valentine were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn’t make the cut—young Ender is the Wiggin drafted to the orbiting Battle School for rigorous military training.
Ender’s skills make him a leader in school and respected in the Battle Room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity. Yet growing up in an artificial community of young soldiers Ender suffers greatly from isolation, rivalry from his peers, pressure from the adult teachers, and an unsettling fear of the alien invaders. His psychological battles include loneliness, fear that he is becoming like the cruel brother he remembers, and fanning the flames of devotion to his beloved sister.
Is Ender the general Earth needs? But Ender is not the only result of the genetic experiments. The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway for almost as long. Ender’s two older siblings are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. Between the three of them lie the abilities to remake a world. If, that is, the world survives.
HYPERION: DAN SIMMONS
On the world called Hyperion, beyond the reach of galactic law, waits a creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it. In the Valley of the Time Tombs, where huge, brooding structures move backward through time, the Shrike waits for them all.
On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope—and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands.
THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE: JOHN SCALZI
Our universe is ruled by physics. Faster than light travel is impossible—until the discovery of The Flow, an extradimensional field available at certain points in space-time, which can take us to other planets around other stars.
Riding The Flow, humanity spreads to innumerable other worlds. Earth is forgotten. A new empire arises, the Interdependency, based on the doctrine that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war—and, for the empire’s rulers, a system of control.
The Flow is eternal—but it’s not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well. In rare cases, entire worlds have been cut off from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that the entire Flow is moving, possibly separating all human worlds from one another forever, three individuals—a scientist, a starship captain, and the emperox of the Interdependency—must race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.
ATLANTIS WORLD: A.G. RIDDLE
Northern Morocco: Dr. Kate Warner cured a global pandemic, and she thought she could cure herself. She was wrong. And she was wrong about the scope of the Atlantis conspiracy. Humanity faces a new threat, an enemy beyond imagination. With her own time running out and the utter collapse of human civilization looming, a new hope arrives: a coded message from a potential ally.
Arecibo Observatory: Mary Caldwell has spent her life waiting, watching the stars, looking for signs of intelligent life beyond our world. When that day comes, Mary is thrust into a struggle older than the human race, with far greater stakes. She must decide whom to trust because there is nowhere to hide.
Antarctica: In the wake of the Atlantis Plague, Dorian Sloane finds himself a puppet to Ares and his mysterious agenda. When Dorian moves to take control of the situation, Ares unleashes a cataclysm that changes everything. As the catastrophe circles the globe, Ares reveals the true nature of the threat to humanity, and Dorian agrees to one last mission: find and kill David Vale and Kate Warner. There will be no prisoners this time. The orders are seek and destroy, and Dorian has been promised that his own answers and salvation lie on the other side.
With Dorian in pursuit, Kate, David, and their team race through the ruins of the Atlantean ship left on Earth, across Atlantean science stations throughout the galaxy, and into the past of a mysterious culture whose secrets could save humanity in its darkest hour. With their own lives on the line and time slipping away, Kate, David, and Dorian are put to the ultimate test.
LEVIATHAN WAKES: JAMES S. A. COREY
The first book in the landmark Expanse series, now a major television series.
Leviathan Wakes is James S. A. Corey’s first novel in the epic, New York Times bestselling series the Expanse, a modern masterwork of science fiction where humanity has colonized the solar system.
Two hundred years after migrating into space, mankind is in turmoil. When a reluctant ship’s captain and washed-up detective find themselves involved in the case of a missing girl, what they discover brings our solar system to the brink of civil war, and exposes the greatest conspiracy in human history.
ARMADA: ERNEST CLINE
Zack Lightman has never much cared for reality. He vastly prefers the countless science-fiction movies, books, and video games he’s spent his life-consuming. And too often, he catches himself wishing that some fantastic, impossible, world-altering event could arrive to whisk him off on a grand spacefaring adventure.
So when he sees the flying saucer, he’s sure his years of escapism have finally tipped over into madness.
Especially because the alien ship he’s staring at is straight out of his favorite video game, a flight simulator called Armada—in which gamers just happen to be protecting Earth from alien invaders.
As impossible as it seems, what Zack’s seeing is all too real. And it’s just the first in a blur of revelations that will force him to question everything he thought he knew about Earth’s history, its future, even his own life—and to play the hero for real, with humanity’s life in the balance.
But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can’t help thinking: Doesn’t something about this scenario feel a little bit like … well … fiction?
At once reinventing and paying homage to science-fiction classics as only Ernest Cline can, Armada is a rollicking, surprising thriller, a coming-of-age adventure, and an alien invasion tale like nothing you’ve ever read before.
There you have it. 10 of the best science fiction stories in the space opera genre for your must-read list.
Don’t forget to download the first 13 chapters of Battlefield Earth for free, and see why Space Opera science fiction is so popular.
Other articles you may be interested in:
A Short History of the Birth of Sci-Fi
L. Ron Hubbard Recommended Order of Books
10 Sci-Fi Weapons We Hope Never Exist
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10 Great Science Fiction Books No SF Fan Should Miss Out On
Which Sci-Fi Books Inspired the Iconic Apple iPod, iPad and Earbuds?
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What a great list! See also Barnes & Nobles list of top 100. That has these plus more great reads. I have 3-4 on here to read now.