Space Opera! A beloved subgenre of science fiction, it has everything I am usually looking for in an exhuberant, enthralling story. Wars across the stars, exotic alien civilizations, gigantic spaceships, advanced machine intelligence, dashing star ship captains and their gritty, honorable, and witty crew. Here then are the best space opera books, from mind-blowing classics to popular new titles written by exciting new authors.
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
When the remaining survivors flee the exhausted and dying planet Earth they follow the footsteps of their ancestors and discover a new planet already terraformed. But when they land they will find that this is not a pristine Eden, for after the first humans left this planet another set of creatures arrived with very different plans.
Her Revolution (Her Golden City Book 1) by C. S. Hand
When a minor incident of insubordination at an exotic vacation city turns out to be the first tremors of a revolution, Castillia turns to its eleven-year old military prodigy Innocence and her loyal Guardians for help.
Castillia has enemies, that’s for sure. But who is fomenting this uprising?
Sedition is an old trick the southern Republic, Ausonia, with its towering obsidian pyramids, is typically fond of. In fact, the exotic city used to belong to Ausonia and they have always wanted it back.
But could they really organize such a revolt between all their dancing and drinking?
Or has Vesper, the mighty Republic to the North finally woken from its slumber? It has plenty of old scores to settle with Innocence’s City.
For Innocence, squashing the uprising could be the perfect way to end the most legendary military career Castillia has ever witnessed and begin a new, exhilarating life as a prominent politician. Perhaps the only politician in any Republic with the power to unite humanity and evacuate it from the dying planet.
But it also might be the perfect way to start what she secretly years for: her own Empire.
All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells
A team of scientists is conducting perfunctory research on a faraway planet with a standard issue security unit—a droid—in a future dominated by massive corporations. What they don’t know is that this particular android has hacked its own “governor module” and become self-aware. It would rather try to discover its own identity rather than save any humans, which it secretly loathes. This is going to make things hard for everyone because suddenly a neighboring mission goes completely dark and the team of scientists and their misanthropic bot are the only ones around to figure out what really happened to them.
Fortune’s Pawn by Rachael Bach
The ambitious and highly talented mercenary Devi Morris has gone from army all-star to famous squad leader of the Blackbirds (a band of hired guns) in record time. Looking to join an elite fighting force to gain even more renown she throws in with an unforgiving captain and his notorious spaceship called the Glorious Fool. The Glorious Fool has never found a dangerous situation it hasn’t hurled itself into at anything less than warp speed, and is crewed with some of the shadiest aliens and smugglers in the known universe. But Devi is about to find out that the crew—and all their dark secrets—might be more dangerous than the doomed mission they are all on.
Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
This is the highly rated origin story of one of the greatest (and most popular) Star Wars villains. Thrawn follows the titular character on the fateful journey that made him one of the most cunning and ruthless villains in the Galactic Empire and the Star Wars universe more broadly. This kicks off a best-selling trilogy that will have you reading deep into the night.
Red Rising by Pierce Brown
Red Rising introduces us to a future where humankind has expanded across the solar system and organized itself into a hierarchy of classes based upon the color of people’s eyes. The top is dominated by a fierce, genetically enhanced, and blood thirsty ruling class known as the Golds and at the bottom are the Reds, who have basically helped terraform Mars. When Darrow sees the love of his life ruthlessly murdered by the ruling class, he vows revenge. What follows is a tortured tale of transformation as Darrow has to physically and mentally alter himself into a Gold in order to infiltrate and overthrow their entire empire. This is modern space opera written with the darkest ink and primal red screams, but one that you will very much enjoy reading.
Leviathan’s Wake by James S. A. Corey
There is so much to love about Leviathan Wakes, the highly rated and hugely popular best-seller from James S.A. Corey. It has everything that makes for great space opera: clashing factions, clever politicians, giant scheming, immoral corporate behemoths, and a few reluctant people just trying to get by in the middle of it all (and maybe even do a little bit of good).
This is the first book of the Expanse series, where we are introduced to Captain James Holden and the gumshoe private eye Detective Miller (who brings a great noir grit to the tale). These two end up looking for a missing girl with a hidden past only to find that she is a crucial piece to a massive conspiracy that has put the entire human race in dire peril. You’ll zip through this series at lightspeed.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The Forever War is an excellent and perennially popular work of space opera. Private William Mandella is recruited to help fight in an interstellar war on far away planets with high-tech weaponry. He begins training at the edge of our solar system and is then sent to battle fronts against a mysterious alien civilization bent on destroying humanity.
The real magic of this novel is its exploration of aging and what it is like to grow old, to grow up a certain way embracing certain values, and be alive as a culture changes and embraces new and very different values. Due to the effects of space travel and the phenomenon known as “time dilation,” (turns out Einstein was right!) Private Mandella ages months while the earth he leaves behind while fighting ages centuries. This is a stimulating way to grapple with epochal change in contrast to an individual subjectivity, and no doubt one of the main reasons why it won all the Hugo, Locus, and Nebula Awards.
Both piquant and ponderous, this is a space opera classic you just have to read.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
She used to coordinate massive strikes directing thousands of soldiers and hundreds of planets. That was when she was the AI on the Justice of Toren, a massive starship in the fleet of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now she is just a soldier named Breq. But even as Breq she is going to find a way to get what she wants—revenge.
This top space opera book features an uncanny, bold female protagonist and is just what your reading list needs.
Illuminae by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman
How would you like to have to save humanity with your ex?
It’s 2575 and two giant corporations are at war over a planet that is nothing but a speck at the edge of the universe. Two former lovers are forced to just deal with it when a plague breaks out, the fleet’s AI seems to be increasingly sinister, and the truth has simply gone missing from the mouths of leaders. This highly rated space opera book is a great experiment with literary form as it is communicated through hacked emails, maps, instant messages, and a whole variety of other media.
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Thrummingly hailed as a ravishingly inventive masterpiece that soared to the top of the best-seller lists, Revelation Space follows a scientist named Dan Sylveste on his relentless pursuit to solve one of the greatest mysteries of the universe. Over 900 million years ago an entire civilization was destroyed as it was on the verge of an important discovery, and Sylveste has no other choice but to join forces with a cyborg crew on the starship Nostalgia for Infinity. As he gets closer to making a world-historical discovery, he realizes someone is out to kill him: for the secret he is trying to uncover has consequences that threaten the very nature of time and reality itself.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
To this day, Ender’s Game has the best ending of any book I have ever read. Nothing else even comes close. He is a relatable, bullied young hero who somehow manages not only to survive but to thrive in an environment designed to crush and destroy him.
With humanity under attack by an alien menace known as the Buggers, earth has turned towards creating and training military prodigies to help win the war. Andrew “Ender” Wiggins makes the cut to join the orbiting Battle School, but there he is beset by isolation, abuse, and fear that he is becoming his deranged older brother. Ender might be able to beat the aliens, but first he will have to beat humanity.
Dune by Frank Herbert
When a brutal betrayal of the ruling family forces its youngest son into hiding, no one could ever imagine the strange and transformative journey it commences. Least of all Paul Atreides, the young boy at the center of the story in Dune. The world of Dune is harsh and inhospitable, set in a universe where planetary dynasties are controlled by ruling noble houses and where the only thing of value is “spice” which both extends mortality and enhances perception and consciousness. This is essential reading for space opera fans.