In one of our recent posts, you learned more about sci-fi writing. Now, we’ll pay special attention to a science fiction sub-category called space opera.
Although space opera is a sub-category or sub-genre of science fiction, it’s synonymous with some of the best science fiction novels to date. One of the most popular science fiction novels of all time, Space Wars, is an example of space opera.
In its core aspects, space opera has all the basic elements of science fiction writing. However, it has its own, distinct traits that make it a genre like no other.
What Are Space Opera Books?
First, let’s clarify what space opera is!
Space opera is a science fiction sub-category that focuses on intergalactic warfare. It expands its universe literally beyond a single realm of existence, and there, it combines adventure with clashes of different civilizations. For most of its part, the plot is focused on outer space while the stories themselves feature large-scale space battles.
Advanced technology and the use of sophisticated tools for intergalactic journeys are common for space opera as well, as it is for many other categories of the sci-fi genre. However, technology isn’t central to the story. Instead, the main plot in a space opera revolves around adventures on certain tasks or missions that are important for the survival of the protagonist’s universe.
However, the stories aren’t all about war! Alien solar systems and galactic empires have conflicts, alliances, and ecosystems that make each unique and interesting to explore. There are typically many different species either in allegiance or conflict, for which space journeys are essential and often central to the narrative.
There is, however, a trait unique to space opera that can’t be found in any other science fiction sub-genres. Space opera is often strongly focused on romance, and the romantic elements of its stories may assume an important position in the war and conflict between civilizations.
What Do All Best Space Opera Books Have in Common?
Space opera often depicts big romances between main protagonists, and even between protagonists and villains. Aside from this, memorable traits of this genre include epic sceneries and space battles, which make each of the novels special and close to the reader’s heart.
Within this concept, space opera also involves the following tropes:
Vintage and gothic motifs in design, fashion, languages, decorum, and social norms
Royal hierarchies, including families, kings and queens, princesses, knights
Obscure societies, cults, organizations
Adventures, including chase scenes
A team of soldiers or scientists follows trail leads that might uncover a mystery that remains unsolved for eons
The protagonist team tries to reconstruct tools or weapons from civilizations that left so few remnants that it's impossible to predict the consequences of their actions
However, romance amid intergalactic conflict is a prominent trope, and driving motivation for the protagonist’s actions remains the genre’s signature trope. Without it, there’s little emotion attached to the overall concept that relies on readers wanting to see how the love story turns out, oftentimes, regardless of the main plot’s outcome.
Romance in this genre skillfully contrasts the warfare aspects, which is necessary from the literary point of view since it’s not easy to make the readers care for a fictional universe that they otherwise don’t feel attached to or connected to.
Lastly, the term itself was coined from the popular phrase “soap opera” which emphasizes romance in stories and plots where it otherwise wouldn’t be thought of as particularly relevant.
Space Opera Writing Basics: How to Excel Writing Space Operas
There are many advantages to choosing to take your science fiction story in the space opera direction. The viewership is broader, as the appeal of a love story and epic-inspired royal drama speaks to readers who’d be more interested in those aspects of your novel, and less in science fiction.
What Makes Space Opera Series and Books So Special?
The intergalactic settings and advanced technology, on the other hand, make this sub-genre universally appealing to anyone who likes science fiction, so there’s nothing in space opera that excludes an average sci-fi fan as your potential reader.
With this in mind, science fiction sub-genres tend to intertwine, and overlap and a writer must tread lightly when it comes to creating their story. A fatal error in writing science fiction would be to accidentally journey from one sub-category to the other, as this kind of inconsistency (unless intentional and to serve the plot) doesn’t tend to bode well with readers.
How to Write Best New Space Opera Books
Use the following tips if you’ve chosen to write a space opera novel!
Write an External (Orbit) View of Your Alien Worlds
There are view things that both the general audience and avid sci-fans love as much as getting to know alien worlds. Since here we talk about space opera, starting with an orbit view of the galaxy, solar system, and planet where your protagonists reside, is bound to get the reader’s attention and draw them into the story.
The same goes for showing battles in a man's war that colonized the solar system, writing about journeys through space, and using other scenes typical for pulp era "soap operas" that deep space fiction books are known to be.
Start With the Aftermath
Your universe should have its history and background, current affairs, and of course, future implications that remain to be seen in the likelihood that the story unfolds as the protagonist planned (which rarely happens!).
Successful space opera authors often advise positioning the beginning of your book to the aftermath of a major battle, where you get to tell the background of the intergalactic conflicts that unfolded while creating space to introduce the new world and explain why its characters care so much about particular aspects of the plot.
Emphasize Sacrifice and Shivery
Space opera readers aren’t too much into moral grayness and “flawed” characters that are so loved in dystopian and other categories. Here, when stakes are epic, they require a more elevated protagonist, someone with strong morals and a willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
Sacrifice, of course, is a powerful tool to understand the protagonist’s motivations and build emotional connections to the universe! Perhaps, the protagonist’s parents were soldiers who sacrificed themselves for the safety of their people, so the protagonist has a strong sense of duty.
Construct Your Space Ships and Stations Well
This is important because each different civilization’s technology reflects its uniqueness, philosophy, missions, and combat strengths and weaknesses. Each should be unique within your book universe and from anything else that’s so far been written.
You can also use technological functionalities and design to subtly hint at how the battles will go, what a particular civilization has in store for the future, and where their priorities lie when it comes to allocating resources. For example, more tyrannical rulers will have basic, uncomfortable accommodations on space stations while the functionality will be extremely destructive, whereas more “positive” oriented civilizations will put more emphasis on safety and comfort.
With these and more detailed science fiction writing tips, you can proceed to write amazing pieces of work that your readers will love. But, to begin with, you must acquaint yourself with the best-known titles of the sub-genre. In the following sections, you’ll learn more about the best space opera novels that can be found in your nearest bookstore.
Star Wars: What Makes it One of the Best Space Operas?
You don’t even have to like sci-fi, or literature in general, to know a good space opera. This series is a space opera category in its own right, as a cultural phenomenon that became far more than books and movies. Star Wars saw several screen adaptations, although not all of them saw equal success.
If you’re hearing about the franchise for the first time, you’re probably wondering what’s so special about battles between alien species and human civilization. The reason behind every kid knowing about Starship Troopers without even having heard about this piece of military science fiction, or the general public knowing who Obi-Wan is, first lies in very unique and innovative writing.
To understand better why that is, let’s first overview how the Star Wars book series developed. First, let’s lay out that there are far more Star Wars publishing within the franchise, as well as associated stories than there are movies.
One of the reasons why the Star Wars franchise worked so successfully is that it was carefully planned before the first book was published. In 1976, a novel was published called Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker. However, this book was to promote the movie, and not the other way around. In fact, the first Star Wars publishing was entirely based on the story’s screenplay.
The bulk of the Star Wars writing was done by the writer Alan Dean Foster, who had also been involved with the Star Trek writing.
The second Star Wars installment was published in 1978 and is considered to be the original novel on the topic. It gave readers a greater explanation of the Force, as well as more history and background that helped expand the understanding of the franchise. The novel was titled Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.
This particular publication was said to have more value for avid fans of the franchise, who are completely fascinated by all of its elements, and couldn’t possibly get bored or have very high reading expectations. Anyone who is looking to read this installment as a piece of fantastic reading may find themselves disappointed. Why?
The book is said to be slow-paced and contains more records of the universe and its history than it does any Han Solo adventures. The reason for this was the lack of certainty that Harrison Ford will participate in the movie.
Now, an average reader would expect to hear about the third part of the series. Yet, instead of publishing a single book, the writer Timothy Zahn instead published the Return of the Jedi trilogy. Keep in mind that the movie based on these books doesn’t completely follow the course of the written story, but the publication’s elements (e.g. the mention of the Coruscant planet) were instead used across later movies.
The series that followed was The Dark Empire, based on which the comic and the novel series Shadows of the Empire were published. This particular sequence of publishing is said to have invented several essential elements to the story, and settings that remained memorable for each Star Wars fan.
The next publication was the well-known The Empire Strikes Back, and it came out in May of 1980. It was published only months before the movie, and it is said to feature numerous errors that made it the “black sheep” of the franchise. The controversial author of the book had since been thought of as harming the franchise more than doing good.
The next publishing in the series, Phantom Menace, again went out only a short time before its namesake movie. This novel gives the reader a greater outlook on the Sith universe, which also foreshadowed some of the later important events.
Finally, in 1999, the writer Terry Brooks was enlisted to write the novel about the first movie in the installment, mainly working to adapt the screenplay into a literary piece, so think of it more as a rewrite of the first book.
Isn't Star Wars just the craziest ride? With this particular book series, it’s important to remember why it has such mixed reviews, from a billion-dollar worth fan base to hard-core haters that discredit the entire literary series.
First of all, there wasn’t a single author behind all of the books, which made it difficult to expect any kind of consistency or unity when it came to tone, world-building, and character building. Second of all, the books served to promote movies and further engage the fan base with more detail. In most cases, it is the book that gets a screen adaptation, not the other way around.
Lastly, the mass success of the franchise, despite its often discredited quality, both for filmed and written works, can be largely attributed to unseen plots and characters, as well as story tropes. You’ll notice that most people know at least a reference or two about Star Wars even if they never watched or read anything about it.
This is because the franchise became synonymous with sci-fi itself. It perfectly mirrored people’s way of thinking about aliens, it introduced the novelty of unexplored worlds and used the soap-opera elements to make the story more personal.
In a way, it’s only the setting that distinguishes Star Wars from being a medieval saga about rivalries between two European kingdoms and their noble families.
Whatever your thoughts of the franchise are, it’s a worthy read for its intricate world-building and innovativeness. It’s also a relevant source for any sci-fi publisher who wants to plan ahead and think beyond writing a single novel.
If you wish to learn how to build a franchise, you can research how one of the best space opera books developed and follow in the footsteps from writing your first novel to looking for designers and contractors for associated products.
What Are the Best Space Opera Series?
Star Wars, Star Trek, and Avatar, among others, rank among high-quality sci-fi books.
What are the Most Popular Classic Space Opera Series Books?
Murderbot, Avatar, and Ender's Game are considered to be among the most popular space opera books.
Are All Space Opera Novels Good?
Not necessarily. Some, like the novel Planet Solaris, have been criticized for their approach to diversity and race, which is something to keep in mind while reading or looking for writing inspiration.
Is the Space Opera Genre Different From Science Fiction?
Yes. Science fiction doesn't always include tropes like intelligent life outside of Earth, alien races battling to conquer the entire universe or space pirates. Tropes such as these are specific to the space opera genre as a sub-category of science fiction.
List of 2016 Space Opera Books Still Popular in 2022
Some of the best space opera books from 2016-2022 still rank high among readers and publishers. Yet, not all titles are made the same. Some of the publications are standalone novels, while others are parts of book series. For these purposes, we grouped them into two separate lists for you to enjoy.
Top 12 Best Classic Space Opera Series Books
1: Dune: The Best Space Opera Book Series
You’ll find Dune, an all-time cult sci-fi classic about space travel by Frank Herbert, at the top of many lists of publications from various genres. Why? It’s not only a part of the space opera genre but further delves into epic science fiction, with romance tropes to match.
Following a single character Paul Atreides, this novel tells the tale of an epic conquering that will alter the future life of mankind. It’s not only the best-selling science fiction novel but also compared with the works of Tolkien. Take Paul to be your Frodo, only in an entirely different story that will conquer your heart.
2: Pandora’s Star
In this 2004 novel by Peter Hamilton, mankind uses wormhole space travel technology to colonize distant planets. This publication has been described as intelligent, exciting, and captivating. Plus, it collected some favorable critics and editorial reviews proving that any time spent reading it won’t go to waste.
Imagine the future in which humanity is set to live in the world called Hyperion, where the human race is governed by the will of a creature called Shrike and his worshipers. Amid the apocalypse, a group of pilgrims will set out to question Shrike about the mysteries of their lives, some of whom can potentially alter the fate of humanity.
In this work by Dan Simmons, you’ll get to experience the fear of the unknown and the sensation of otherworldly existence that still reaches some very contemporary human fears, pains, and aspirations.
4: The Honor Harrington Series
Also known as The Honorverse, this military academy science fiction series by David Weber centers on the navy career of Honor Harrington, our main protagonist. Interstellar war has our heroine leave her home planet and battle a hostile alien race, earning numerous awards throughout her military service.
5: Revelation Space Series
Crafted by Alastair Reynolds, this fictional history documents far future man's war on the inhibitors who wish to enslave our entire galaxy.
6: The Vorkosigan Saga
Authored by Lois McMaster Bujold, this series follows the adventures of numerous protagonists who find themselves living in opposing civilizations.
7: Banks Culture Series
This science fiction series by Iain M. Banks centers on a utopia called "The Culture." Series documents main protagonists who live in artificial intelligence-led habitats across the galactic empire.
8: Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee
This trilogy and its short stories detail the adventures of a spaceship captain, Shuos Jedao. A heroic captain and his crew stumble upon a mission that will take them further from home as the series progresses from its first book.
9: The Expanse by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck
In this sci-fi book series under the pen name J.S.A. Corey, followed by related novellas, you get to see how mankind evolves after it conquers much of its galaxy. As it will be, there are alliances and conflicts that will further escalate with the use of asteroid belt tools to access parallel worlds.
10: Lensman Series
Written by Elmer "Doc" Smith, a part of the Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov, this series follows the interstellar development from before mankind was created to our near future.
11: Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov
This follows the protagonist Hari Seldon, who develops a science capable of predicting how populations will emerge. When the scientist warns of the society's inevitable downfall, a plan is in the story to alter the sequence of events that will lead up to the disaster.
12: Wayfarers by Becky Chambers
This series follows our protagonist's journeys to a hostile planet and beyond, and is considered a part of the Infinite Stars anthology.
Top 8 Space Opera Novels
Without further ado, let's look at some of the best Space Opera Books:
1: Falling Free
This 1988 classic by Lois Bujold proudly holds three Nebula Awards and six Hugo Awards. If you wish to have a great time with an epic read, while simultaneously learning how to combine deep philosophies and difficult topics with humor and intellect, then read this book.
This novel follows Leo Graf, once an engineer who liked to keep to himself. Then he’s assigned to work for Cay Habitat, Graf will face a serious dilemma between pursuing the interests of the corporation and standing up against its ongoing humanitarian exploitation.
Although this novel can be read as a standalone title, it is a part of the massive Vorkosigan Saga that counts 16 books and associated short stories.
Written in 2010 by Alex J. Cavanaugh, this novel follows Byron, a troubled rebel, who wants to prove himself as a fighter pilot for a moon base. As it happens, his journey is filled with obstacles and twists. Keep in mind that this novel isn’t really everyone’s cup of tea. While the book has a devout following, many critics have mixed feelings about it.
3: A Talent For War
This Jack McDevitt 1989 space opera tale follows Alex Benedict on his investigation of an inter-civilizational war. Following the footprints of his late uncle, Alex will uncover the traces of a secret war between humans and an alien civilization, of course with links to the current government.
This fantastic read is part science fiction, and part mystery in a future scenery that eventually escalates into a masterful twist.
Written in 1951 by Isaac Asimov, this book shows a futuristic vision of what the world would look like with the use of psychohistory, which is a combo of psychology, data, and history used to predict people’s behaviors.
Although the characters of this novel are said to lack depth, the very entertaining nature of the stories gives them undeniable value.
In this 1977 classic, Frederik Pohl shows us what happens when people use alien technology that they don’t understand. Can you guess? Unforeseeable consequences and twists that will leave you feeling as if you’re watching an adventure movie make for a fantastic reading experience.
6: Ender’s Game
You’ll see this amazing piece of literature mentioned twice on our blogs, including our best sci-fi books list, and not without reason! This 1985 Orson Scott Card masterpiece puts you smack in the middle of a futuristic military state that recruits children.
The numerous awards that the title claimed, including Nebula and Hugo awards, are an ode to the literary value of the book. However, bear in mind that Ender’s Game has been criticized for its gruesome scenes, so you shouldn’t expect the soft-worded reading experience you’d get with typical space operas.
7: A Fire Upon the Deep
This space opera novel by Vernor Vinge was written in 1992, and it tells the tale of a universe in which one’s location in space determines how their mind develops and the psychic potentials of its inhabitants.
These potentials range from super intelligent to limited, where only the basic creatures and simplest technologies survive.
8: Pushing Ice
This novel by Alastair Reynolds details the journey of Bella Lind, head of the cometary ice miner. Making runs routinely turns into a life-defining twist that will set off a chain of events that will alter the future of mankind.
Honorable mentions also include:
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
Forever War by Joe Haldeman