25 Best Space Operas

From Book Riot: 25 of the Best Space Operas. Okay, sure, I’ll bite. Let’s see if my picks are on here:

Nine Fox Gambit is the first book on the list. You know, I really do need to read this one of these days.

Dawn, by Octavia E Butler. And I’m immediately unimpressed with this list. Are you kidding me? In what possible sense is Dawn a space opera?

Let me back up and see what criteria were used to select works for this list … ah, look, there are no actual criteria listed. This is as close as the post comes: 

Space opera novels are so full of luscious world-building, all-around action, and very interesting characters.

That may be so, but as a way of delineating space opera, no way. Good lord above, historical novels could just as well fit these criteria! What a — sorry — totally lazy way to build a list of 25 best anything: don’t bother actually considering what defines the subgenre you named, just throw any SF novel that suits you right on in there. That’s ridiculous.

Here’s the definition that immediately comes to mind for me:

Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that  emphasizes action and adventure, set mainly or entirely in space, usually involving space ships and weaponry on about the level of Star Trek’s Enterprise. It blurs at one edge into military SF and at the other into epic SF.

Here’s a tor.com column about space opera. Here’s their definition:

“Colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character and plot action, and usually set in the relatively distant future, and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. It often deals with war, piracy, military virtues, and very large-scale action, large stakes.”

Sure, I could see that. I don’t think “competently and often beautifully written” is at all necessary as part of the definition; that’s a defensive reaction to the knee-jerk assumption that space opera is usually badly written. The emphasis on a sympathetic, heroic central character is probably common, but I don’t think it’s necessary. The plot action is necessary. The optimistic tone, yes, I could agree with that. I’d include that in my definition. “Relatively distant future,” no. The level of technology is a lot more important than the timing. Get too far into hyper-advanced tech and you lose the space opera feel, no matter how close or distant the setting is supposed to be.

There are a handful of selections from the Book Riot post I’d select for a list of space operas:

The Vorkosigan books and related novels by LMB

The Ky Vatta series by Elizabeth Moon, though starting with Cold Welcome is, not to put too fine a point on it, crazy.

Barbary Station by RE Stearns. I haven’t read it, but at least it sure looks like space opera.

The rest of theirs, I know nothing about or I don’t think are remotely space opera. Here are some others that I think are clearly space operas:

The Lensman series by EE Doc Smith

Agent of Change and other Tree-and-Dragon novels by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and others by Becky Chambers

And a zillion others, no doubt, that either I’m not thinking of right this minute or that are arguable. For example, Ancillary Justice. Yes or no for that series? I lean toward no, call that one epic, but I could absolutely be persuaded otherwise. 

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9 thoughts on “25 Best Space Operas”

  1. The Honorverse! (Arguably the main series about Honor Harrington is space military sf, although i’ve always thought about it as space opera, but given the larger universe of writing, it is absolutely space opera with all the soap elements)

  2. I don’t think Ancillary Justice has enough…romp, perhaps? to be considered space opera, but that’s because my definition emphasizes the “colorful” element and probably adds a strong note of humor. Ancillary Justice is a little too quiet, thoughtful, or meditative at times, though I love those moments best.

    On the other hand, Murderbot is DEFINITELY a space opera.

  3. Mary Beth: Romp! Yes, good term for this quality. I agree; that’s why Ancillary Justice doesn’t fit the Space Opera subgenre for me. Also, yes about Murderbot. I was walking the dogs when I read the last half of Exit Strategy and they probably found it odd that I started laughing at nothing several times during that walk.

    Robert, all borders between subgenres are fuzzy, I expect. Thanks for the link! Allan, that fuzziness is why I didn’t include the Honor Harrington series. I thought about it and said, no, that one is military SF, but honestly it fits both categories. Pete, yes, surely. Maybe I’ll try to compile a list of 25 titles and just see how that breaks down.

  4. I only read the first, but perhaps Boundary and sequels from Ryk Spoor. Planetary level space opera. His Arenaverse is specifically trying to go large in an EE Smith way, too. Again, I’ve only read the first one myself (see Mt Tsundoku) but I remember a sense of romp in parts of both.

  5. How about Joel Shepherd’s Spiral Wars series? The one thing missing is multiple viewpoints from secondary characters, which is de rigeur in soap operatic style.

  6. I went through my library looking for possibles, and found a few.
    1. The various Legion of the Damned series by William C Dietz. Most of it is milfic, but the Andromeda’s War trilogy surely counts as space opera.
    2. David Drake’s Daniel Leary Commanding That. Just a great series, and very much space opera. (Patrick O’Brian in Space, rather like Naomi Novik did O’Brian with Dragons.)

    Also: while early Honor Harrington books are entertaining, the series fell to pieces after a while, along the lines of Wheel of Time. Both are disappointing DNFs for me.

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