Sci-fi books have been at the forefront of great literature for more than a hundred years now. But within this broad genre, there are smaller subgenres that many people have never heard of, and ‘space opera’ is one of them.
So what exactly is the space opera genre, and what is it all about?
Unsurprisingly, it has nothing to do with music. The term is actually pretty self-explanatory; space opera books are stories that are set in space. Think soap operas, but instead of suburban streets and white picket fences, it’s spaceships and intergalactic travel.
The stories are usually dramatic adventures that occur primarily in outer space. Usually, they involve spaceships of some kind and often feature characters from various places across the universe. Common themes among these tales are interstellar war and dramatic, often violent battles between intergalactic species.
The term ‘space opera’ started out as a kind of joke, poking fun at the often melodramatic and drawn out plot lines and repetitive themes. But today, this genre is wildly popular, and some of the very best new science fiction books fit into the space opera category.
If space opera sounds like a subgenre you’d like to explore, or even if you’re already a fan, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve put together a list of the top ten very best space opera books to read in 2021. Enjoy!
Best Space Opera Books
Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggins believes he’s playing a simple computer simulation game; little does he know, the fate of the universe may lay on his shoulders.
The human result of a genetic experiment, Ender may be the key to fighting a deadly space war. The enemy is a seemingly unbeatable alien race who threatens to destroy the entire human civilization. Ender’s creators are ready to ramp up his training and put his skills and determination to the test.
But Ender isn’t the only result of an experiment in his universe. In the quest to find the perfect general to lead civilization out of peril, countless man-made life forms were created over the years.
Ender himself has two older siblings, Peter and Valentine, who are also gifted and unusual beings. But Peter became uncontrollably violent, and Valentine was incapable of any violence at all. That only leaves Ender; if the Earth is to have any future at all, all hope rests on him.
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. In my opinion, this is one of the best space opera books.
This sci-fi classic has been a cult phenomenon since it was first released in 1979, and its plot and setting make it the epitome of the space opera genre.
If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s a quick re-cap:
Arthur Dent is an ordinary, average earthling, going about his ordinary, average earthling day when suddenly everything changes. Just moments before the Earth is blasted into oblivion, his friend, Ford Prefect, zaps him to the safety of space. Ford announces he’s an alien and that the pair are about to embark on an epic, intergalactic adventure, wearing nothing but a towel.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a fast-paced, hilarious, and clever novel that is loved by readers of all ages. It’s even been adapted to the silver screen with the smash hit movie adaptation made in 2005.
In the distant future, humans have colonized the solar system. Each of the nine planets, their moons, and the asteroid belt are all a place to call home, but the stars are still unchartered territory.
Jim Holden works as an ice miner who regularly travels great distances from the asteroid belt to the rings of Saturn and back.
One day while traveling alongside his crew, he discovers a mysterious, derelict spaceship called The Scopuli. But alongside the ship, they also discover a dark secret that puts them, and many others, in perilous danger.
Meanwhile, the earth-based private detective Joe Miller is on a mission to locate a missing girl, but she’s not making it easy for him. His trail leads him to The Scopuli, where he meets Holden and realizes that this innocuous seeming girl may in fact hold the answer to a much bigger, more immediate problem; a problem that could lead to the destruction of the entire universe.
Together, Holden and Miller must solve mysteries, expose conspiracies, and uncover secrets that make up the organized universe, but the odds are firmly stacked against them.
Leviathan Wakes is the first novel in The Expanse series, which has nine books in total. James A.A Corey is not one man, but two. It’s the pen named used by collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. The name is a combination of the two author’s middle names and Daniel Abraham’s daughter’s initials.
Kris Kelvin has traveled to the planet Solaris in order to study it’s vast, strange, gel-like ocean, but he finds something completely unexpected when he arrives.
There, millions of miles from his home planet, he finds an entity with the exact physical likeness of his long-dead ex lover. Painful, deeply buried memories come to the surface. It’s as if this ocean is purposefully toying with him by exposing old wounds that never really healed.
And he’s not the only one. Kelvin soon learns that other researchers are being plagued with their own painful, repressed memories.
It seems that the Solaris ocean may not be an ocean at all. It’s a sentient life form a giant brain of sorts, which is capable of creating these physical incarnations. But for what purpose?
Now, the researchers must shift the focus of their experiments. Perhaps before they can unlock the mysteries of the universe, they must first understand the mysteries of their own hearts.
This classic space opera novel was first published in 1961. Its unique blend of sci-fi, fantasy, and philosophy made it a huge success at the time, and it has since been adapted numerous times for film, theatre, and radio.
Johnnie Rico had no real intentions of signing up to the space military, especially not to the infantry. But after a series of unfortunate events, he finds himself in the thick of the most challenging and brutal boot camp in the universe. He and his comrades are pushed to their limits with grueling combat training. If he can survive this, Rico is pretty sure he can survive anything.
But once his training is complete, Rico and his teammates will be entering into a battle against the most ruthless enemy in the universe, and the fate of the entire space civilization rests in their hands.
First published in 1959, Starship Troopers is a classic space action-adventure story. It was also adapted to the silver screen for the 1997 blockbuster movie of the same name.
Revelation Space is the story of one man, Dan Sylveste, who is on a mission to answer a simple question: why, when humans can travel throughout the galaxy, do we encounter so few remnants of intelligent life?
His quest leads him to discover the Amarantin civilization, an advanced species that lived over nine hundred thousand years ago. At one time, they were on the cusp of discovering space travel; that is until they were completely annihilated.
Though it happened in the distant past, Sylveste is determined to solve this ancient mystery before history repeats itself.
Desperate and with very few leads, he forms unlikely and dangerous alliances in his quest for the truth.
But as he delves deeper into this ancient mystery, there’s a killer on his tail, a killer who will stop at nothing to keep the truth about the Amarantins a secret forever.
Alastair Reynold’s epic first novel was published in 2000. It combines all the best-loved tropes from space opera alongside hard sci-fi and has since become a cult classic.
The Skylark of Space is the first novel in the epic four-book Skylark series by celebrated sci-fi and space opera author E.E. “Doc” Smith.
In book one, we’re introduced to D.Richard Seaton, a hard-headed inventor who has been working to create a revolutionary power source that will pave the way for intergalactic space travel.
But when he finds out that his colleagues at his government laboratory don’t believe his claims are true, he decides to go it alone. With a little help from his millionaire inventor friend, Martin Crane, he commercializes his new technology in order to sell it to the world.
But as his plans begin to take shape, a former coworker makes an attempt to steal his invention from right under his nose. But now, it’s not just Dr. Seaton’s success on the line; the fate of the entire world depends on protecting his discovery.
Despite the first book being published over 80 years ago, the Skylark series is still seen as a sci-fi classic to this day. This novel is often hailed as the first of the great space operas, so it’s a great one to start with if you’re new to the genre.
Leaders of planet Earth have declared war against a distant, dangerous alien enemy known as the Taurans. Defeating this deadly race seems almost impossible, yet a reluctant army is drafted nonetheless, and among them is a man named Private William Mandella.
Mandella is propelled thousands of lightyears through space to fight in the seemingly unwinnable war. But he’s determined not to die. Survival is his only option, and so he performs his duties, knowing that one day soon if he can just stay alive, he might return home once again.
But home isn’t exactly as he left it. Due to a glitch in time caused by his interstellar space travel, something has gone very wrong. While he remains the same, the Earth he will return to has aged by centuries.
This 1974 space opera novel saw immediate success and went on to win a Nebula Award the following year, along with the Hugo and Locus awards in 1976.
Rosemary Harpe had low expectations when she first joined the crew of an old spaceship named Wayfairer. Battered, patched up, and falling apart all over again, the ship has certainly seen better days. But it will give Rosemary a chance to see far off corners of the universe, and with any luck, escape her troubled past back home.
Rosemary is a quiet, introspective character who likes to keep her head down. So when she first meets her new shipmates, she’s more than a little taken aback. This eclectic and diverse mix of characters are nothing like anyone she’s ever met before. Life on board is chaotic and exciting and so very different from what she’s used to. This, Rosemary decides, is exactly what she needs.
Not long into her newfound career, the crew is offered the opportunity to tunnel wormholes through space to a far off, remote planet. The money would be life-changing for all of them, but the job is also incredibly dangerous. Once they begin their mission, there’s a good chance that they may never return.
As the battered old ship travels across space and time, the crew onboard the Wayfarer must learn to keep each other safe, as well as sane. If they’re going to survive, they need to rely on each other, which is something that doesn’t come naturally for Rosemary.
As they narrowly escape death several times over, Rosemary is forced to lean on her comrades, and they slowly begin to feel like family.
In this bestselling 2014 space opera, Becky Chambers takes a deep dive into her characters’ emotions and interpersonal relationships. It’s a book with all the classic sci-fi elements we love, while at the same time, it explores how we connect and relate to our fellow human beings, no matter how profound our differences might be.
On a frozen planet in a remote corner of space, a soldier named Breq is desperate for revenge. Locked inside a human body, Breq is the living embodiment of the interstellar warship known as The Justice of Toren.
Used to controlling an entire civilization onboard, The Justice is now trapped with only these fail arms and legs to control. Thanks to a grave act of betrayal, this once powerful and colossal spacecraft was destroyed by a powerful enemy. But they failed to destroy one thing; her burning desire for vengeance.
Ancillary Justice is a remarkable debut novel by Ann Leckie that sent shockwaves through the sci-fi world. When it was first released in 2014, Leckie became the first author to win the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Hugo Award for Best Novel, all in the same year.
There you have it, my top 10 picks for best space opera books. Which one is your favorite? Share it in the comments below!