Space opera is a science fiction subgenre that focuses on fantastic adventure, romance, and tense melodrama. The term was allegedly coined in 1941 by fan author Wilson Tucker as a comparison to the term soap opera. Originally used derisively to deride the quality of these stories as trashy pulp with bad writing, the space opera has become a beloved genre. Our list of the top five best space opera books combines all of the dramatically scandalous narrative devices of soaps with the backdrop of high adventure across the stars.
Although the term space opera dates to the 1940s, books that helped to define the subgenre predate the term. Science fiction authors E. E. “Doc” Smith and Hawkins Garby published “The Skylark of Space” in 1928 as a serialized publication. “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” (1928) by Philip Francis Nowlan, starring Buck Rogers, was released at the same time and created one of the first great eras of space opera publication. Even these seminal works were predated by “Edison’s Conquest of Mars” (1898) by Garrett P. Serviss.
Clearly high adventures in space were marketable and captured the imagination of readers. In the decades following, space opera would begin to see some of its greatest works come to publication. “The Lensman Series” (1934) by E. E. Smith and the well-loved “Flash Gordon” comic strip adventures delighted fans. “Empire” (1945), and “Foundation” (1942) by Isaac Asimov were creating vast landscapes of the imagination where humanity has taken its place among the stars in galactic civilizations. Heroic adventures, malign empires, and amazing non-human beings began to take shape as a few of the most common narrative devices in space opera.
Many modern space operas have transitioned to television and film; and they have helped to create interest in a new generation of readers. Farm boys and desert scavengers have the ability to rise to heroic glory and defeat the darkness with bravery and compassion in these epic tales. With that being said, we turned to our trusted sources to rank the best space opera books of all time. Did we miss your favorite cosmic adventure? Let us know in the comments below!
The List: Best Space Opera Books, According to Readers
As mentioned above, “Dune” established many of the most common tropes of space opera. A displaced imperial duke named Paul becomes an all-powerful tyrant and starts a royal dynasty that would last more than three-thousand years. The Portalist raves, “The saga centers around desert planet Arrakis, the much-coveted drug extracted from its harsh terrain, and—perhaps most importantly of all—a young man named Paul Atreides who survives the destruction of his house and changes the course of the universe.”
“Frank Herbert’s prose is so good. Don’t go into this expecting a super cool intergalactic war because then you will be disappointed. ‘Dune’ is much more than that. It starts very slow, but it is a wild ride when it gets going,” praises Favbookshelf Blog.
“This classic space opera is a classic for a reason, and even if you only know about it now because of the flashy new remake, it’s never too late to board the sandworm straight to Arrakis and take the spice… Learn about the heir to the throne turned messiah turned emperor, Paul Atreides, as he sets out to reclaim the planet for House Atreides,” exclaims Book Riot.
“A Fire Upon the Deep” checks all of the essential space opera boxes. It is a story that examines the meaning of consciousness and self-awareness as well as the meaning of sentience. Barnes & Noble says, “A ship bearing the only defense against a malevolent Transcendent intelligence crashes on a planet inhabited by medieval lupine aliens. A rescue ship races to save the survivors, two children, and recover the weapon.”
Five Books describes, “‘A Fire Upon the Deep’ is a classic example of a novel that uses a big idea to power and amplify its plot… it has to do with how quickly people and communication can travel in the galaxy … I love transportation and communication networks as a subject of story. In addition, one of the alien species in the novel is loosely inspired by dogs, and as a dog-lover, I love their depiction so much.”
Read This Twice elaborates, “When warring factions unleash an ancient powerful weapon, thousands of worlds are destroyed, and all natural and artificial intelligence is enslaved. Follow a family of scientists taken captive by a harsh alien race and used as pawns in a ruthless power struggle. Can a rescue mission save the children and uncover a secret that may save interstellar civilization? A gripping tale of galactic war on a cosmic scale.”
Commander Honor Harrington leads her crew on epic adventures in space. This series has been aptly referred to as Space Navy adventures. Read This Twice adds, “With smuggling, cartels, and political unrest, the star system is in chaos … Honor has only an outdated cruiser to police it all. But they made one mistake: they underestimated her. Get ready for a thrilling ride in this action-packed, sci-fi military adventure.”
Barnes & Noble details, “Having embarrassed a superior officer, Commander Honor Harrington is assigned to picket duty at an out-of-the-way solar system. But she and the crew of her aged light cruiser ‘HMS Fearless’ discover and have to try to defeat an invasion plan. This is the start of an expansive series (totaling more than 30 volumes to date) from a very prolific author.”
Discover Sci Fi comments, “Honor Harrington has been essentially exiled to the Basilisk, her crew is annoyed with her, and her ship is aged and can hardly be expected to police an entire star system. As much as the Basilisk system was supposed to be a less-than-interesting punishment assignment, it turns out to be a bit of a lynch pin in the aggressive plans of the Haven Republic. And the only one in position to stop them is Honor Harrington and her crew.”
“Ender’s Game” is a straightforward example of gifted kids vs. aliens. This 1985 title quietly spawned a popular multi-media brand. Hooked to Books explains, “Ender’s Game has been hugely popular since the first book was released back in 1985. If you love Orson Scott Card’s original story, you’re in luck; There are a total of sixteen follow up novels, as well as thirteen short stories, countless comic issues, and even a blockbuster Warner Brothers movie.”
Joel’s Books offers, “With the threats of aliens, the only solution the government finds is to breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. An intelligent young boy, Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin, who lives with his distant parents, a barbarous brother named Peter, and his beloved sister Valentine were candidates for the program… Ender then moves forward to the Battle School, where his skills make him a leader and a respected candidate in the Battle Room.”
Shepherd states, “Ender grows up in a future under siege by aliens and is sent to battle school to rise through the ranks and become Earth’s head commander. The grandaddy of a sub-genre that features young adult protagonists going off to ‘school’ to become adept in their special abilities, ‘Ender’s Game’ is a fast, gripping read.”
“Leviathan Wakes” is a 21st century space opera that imagines humanity as it takes its first steps towards a solar-system-spanning civilization. This book series was also adapted into a critically-acclaimed television show. Hooked to Books claims, “Leviathan Wakes is the first novel in The Expanse series, which has nine books in total. James S.A. Corey is not one man, but two. It’s the pen name used by collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, [it] is a combination of the two author’s middle names and Daniel Abraham’s daughter’s initials.”
Read This Twice relates, “Explore a world where humanity has colonized our solar system, but the stars are still out of reach. Follow Jim Holden, XO of an ice miner, and Detective Miller as they uncover a dangerous secret aboard a derelict ship. Tensions rise between Earth governments, revolutionaries, and corporations as Holden and Miller strive to unravel the mystery and prevent a war that could change the fate of the entire universe.”
“These books blend fantastic action and character with really smart examinations of what our medium-term future might look like as humans expand into the solar system. The people—good and bad and indifferent—are relatable. The political dynamic, especially with respect to the exploitation of the ‘Belters,’ feels realistic… It’s a big universe with a lot of depth,” reviews Five Books.
You might also be interested in:
- The Portalist
- Favbookshelf Blog
- Book Riot
- Barnes & Noble
- Five Books
- Read This Twice
- Discover Sci Fi
- Hooked to Books
- Joel’s Books
Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations.