Any list claiming to feature the best “insert adjective here” books of all time is inevitable going to be a bit controversial. (She says, knowing full well this is exactly what she’s done.) It’s going to be too narrow or too recent or not include your favorite book that obviously should’ve been counted among the best, so the entire premise of the list is therefore null and void. And I get it, I really do. I’m certainly unimpressed when I see “best of the best” lists featuring almost exclusively cis het white male authors when I know there’s so much more to the literary world than that. But choices must be made, and I was the one to make them, so while this list features some of the best space opera books I know of, it’s certainly possible some escaped my attention — or my regard.
As a long-time reader of science fiction (and space operas in particular), I loved scouring through some of my personal favorite reads as well as other seminal works of the genre and new classics to create a list that I think will appeal to anyone who loves a good sci-fi novel focused on character and story. That’s what space opera is, essentially: science fiction that’s more concerned with exploring the characters and world than getting into the nitty gritty of plausible science. It’s got the drama and heart of the very best of fiction, but set in a sci-fi universe, whether on a spaceship or alien planet. And these 25 books are among the best space opera books out there — in this universe or any other.
The Best Space Opera Books of All Time
Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden
This spacefaring civilization survives by carving out cities inside living spaceships is on the brink of collapse — but the future ruler of the matriarchal line doesn’t know that yet. Seske believes her people will go on living this way long into the future. But when she discovers that the creatures that rely on to survive are facing extinction — in no small part due to her people — she must search for a way for her people to coexist with these creatures and their fellow spacefarers without destroying them.
The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers
Any one of Becky Chambers’s Wayfarer books would make a great addition to this list, but I can’t help but pick my personal favorite: The Galaxy and the Ground Within. Although the books are interconnected, they don’t necessarily have to be read in order to understand, so even if you haven’t gotten to the first three books, this gorgeous space opera will still be an enjoyable read. And with an all-alien cast stranded together at an intergalactic rest station, what a read it is.
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
A disgraced war veteran is given an opportunity to redeem herself by recapturing a fortress taken over by heretics. But in order to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles, Kel Cheris must team up with an undead tactician who has never lost a battle and may be able to help her win this fight. Unfortunately, he also went mad in his first life and slaughtered his own army. With an unwinnable war at stake, Kel is willing to team up with a traitorous general and play the odds if it means a chance at victory — and redemption.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
An old favorite that I return to time and again, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the perfect combination of comedy and science fiction. Sure, the story will take you to the far reaches of the known universe, but it will also have you laughing along the way as Arthur Dent, his alien best friend, and their quirky cohort get into all sorts of strange and hilarious trouble.
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Scalzi is a modern master of sci-fi, and his series about a war fought by the elderly population is right up there with the best of the best of space opera science fiction. With little idea of what enlisting with the Colonial Defense Force will entail, John Perry celebrates his 75th birthday by visiting his wife’s grave and joining the armed forces. If he survives two years on the front, he’ll be rewarded with a generous homestead on one of the many colonies he’ll be fighting for. But in a bloody war against aliens, surviving may come at a high cost.
The Genesis of Misery by Neon Yang
Misery Nomaki has either a gift or a curse. They possess the rare stone-working powers that mark one as a saint or as succumbing to the same voidmadness that killed their mother. Misery knows they’re no saint, but the alternative is even worse. And when a voice calls them to the center of the universe, they find themself caught between two warring factions that would use Misery’s gifts to win an ongoing war. A rebel royal and a crew of outcast criminals are Misery’s only reprieve, but with the voice that called them here growing stronger, it may be too late to escape the madness.
Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes
On the Sirena Negra, a ragtag crew gets by delivering small cargo for a small profit around the galaxy. But when a shadowy crime syndicate ransoms the captain’s sister, Eva Innocente must follow their commands even as she tries to hide the truth from her crew and deal with a cargo hold full of psychic cats. Just another day in the life for the crew of the Sirena Negra, but if Captain Eva Innocente doesn’t get it together fast, she might just risk losing the found family she’s she’s worked so hard to keep safe.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
The ambassador for a small independent mining station arrives at the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor has died and under mysterious circumstances. No one will admit that the death was anything but an accident, but Mahit knows she might become the next causality in the wake of an ever-expanding empire. In order to survive, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, prevent herself from becoming the next victim, and resist the seductive alien culture that could spell the end of her station and their way of life — or possibly save it.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries is one of my all-time favorite science fiction reads. The series, which follows an elite, company-owned security unit who’s hacked its own nanny protocols, is full of lovable characters, intense fight scenes, and mysteries to be solved. You just can’t help but love Murderbot, the eponymous SecUnit, who keeps getting tangled up with humans and their silly human problems no matter how much Murderbot claims not to have feelings. And for whatever this recommendation is worth: my 65-year-old dad who grew up on Star Wars and Star Trek and played no small part in my love of SFF growing up is on, probably, his sixth read of this series. No joke.
Dune by Frank Herbert
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. Okay, I’ll admit that was stretching the bounds of credulity, but a girl’s gotta get her kicks somewhere. Learn about the heir to the throne turned messiah turned emperor, Paul Atreides, as he sets out to reclaim the planet for House Atreides.
Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather
Aboard a living spaceship, the sisters of the Order of Saint Rita traverse the galaxy on a mission of mercy. But when a distress call reveals a conspiracy that threatens the souls and lives of the people they are sworn to protect, it becomes clear that the danger is not coming from some unknown force in the great beyond. No, the threat is coming from the central government and the church itself. Now, to complete their sworn mission, the order must decide if their loyalty lies with the institution they’re a part of or the people they’re meant to serve.
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
This haunting space opera explores how the future can repeat the past if we don’t fight to remember it and refuse to let it be recreated. Born into the lower decks of the racially stratified HSS Matilda, Astrid lives a life of harsh labor and even harsher punishments. But as Astrid discovers secrets buried deep in the Matilda‘s past, secrets that may have something to do with her mother’s death, she realizes there may be a way off this ship if she’s willing face the dangers — and the consequences — of fighting for it.
A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White
A washed up treasure hunter and a former darling of the Pan Galactic Racing Federation framed for murder find themselves on the same smuggling ship with converging quests for redemption and for riches. Aboard the Capricious, Boots and Nilah find a place for themselves among a group of outcasts and misfits. And maybe, just maybe, if they work together, they’ll finally be able to find what it is they’re looking for somewhere in this big old universe.
Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
Earth has been all but ruined in a nuclear war. But the fate of humanity has not been sealed just yet. Instead, the survivors were rescued by an alien race who put them in a centuries-long sleep while they healed the planet, cured cancer, and increased human strength. Lilith is one of the surviving humans who has woken to this new reality. But she’s given an even greater surprise: the aliens have selected her to lead humanity back to Earth. The human race will get a second chance. But this chance comes with a cost, and though humans like Lilith survive, their children — and their children’s children — won’t be entirely human. Not anymore.
The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis
A priestess without a name or a voice is tasked with spying on her new captain by the Sisterhood she serves while two soldiers search for answers about their past that might help them decide where their loyalties truly lie. But in an ongoing war between the religious order, the soldiers who fight for them, and the technologically advanced Icarii, the choices they make will be not just for themselves but for the future they decide they want to fight for.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
Did someone say star-crossed lovers? When an imperial marriage meant to quell rising discontent on the planet Thea falls through, the newly widowed Jainan is quickly married off to the late Imperial Prince’s cousin, Kiem. But growing suspicious that the prince’s death might not have been an accident — and the Jainan might’ve had something to do with it — could spell doom for the Thean in the Iskat court. If he can convince Kiem to help him solve the murder and prevent all-out war, Jainan might just be able to salvage this. Their growing feelings for each other and a complicated web of political machinations, however, might make this nearly-impossible task even harder to achieve.
Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings
Stuck in a strange rift in deep space, a smuggler ship encounters a research vessel that claims to hail from more than a hundred and fifty years in the future. Uma Ozakka, chief engineer aboard the Gallion, has always been obsessed with the tale of the Fortunate Five who ended the war with the Felen more than a century ago. But when the Gallion rescues a run-down ship, Uma is shocked to recognize the Five among the crew. Somehow they’ve traveled into the past, in the fateful last days of the war against the Felen. But the story Uma knows doesn’t match up with the people and events she sees unfolding around her. And with time running out and both ships trapped in the rift, the fate of the war and the future could be on the line.
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
On a Caribbean-colonized planet where the festival of Carnival is celebrated with food, music, and pageantry, a young girl dresses up as the Robber Queen, her favorite of the “Midnight Robbers.” But when her father’s crimes have them both exiled to an in-between place where stories are real and humans live as outcasts, Tan-Tan must search for the truth of the Midnight Queen story in herself if she ever hopes to survive.
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
Humanity is at war. Though humans have made their way throughout the galaxy, they’re assassinated and sabotaged by the Invaders, an unknown threat that leaves only strange messages behind. Without any other clues as to what the Invaders want or how to combat them, an unusual specialist is brought in. Rydra Wong is a poet and linguist, and she’s determined to crack the code to this alien language and stop humanity’s biggest threat.
Providence by Max Barry
After a catastrophic loss in an intergalactic war left a handful of survivors drifting through space and wracked with PTSD, humanity set its sights on a new goal: zero-causality warfare. A class of AI powered ships known as Providences make this possible. But when the four astronauts on a newly launched Providence lose contact with Earth, they find themselves trapped on a supposedly indestructible spaceship with only each other, their secrets, and their fears.
The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord
A human with psionic power escapes to the planet Punartam to get away from the government’s clutches. There, he can finally live in a place where powers like his are the norm. Punartam also happens to be the epicenter of Rafi’s favorite sport: wallrunning. With the help of a friend, Rafi is soon able to train alongside the elite. But there’s more to the game than meets the eye. And with cartels playing their own game, making the galaxy a far more dangerous place, Rafi must decide what he’s willing to risk to hold on to the one thing he’s always loved.
The Vela by Yoon Ha Lee, Becky Chambers, Rivers Solomon, and SL Huang
In this serialized story from Realm (formerly Serial Box), four renowned sci-fi authors come together to create one almost seamless space opera about a soldier for hire from a dying planet. Asala Sikou tries not to think about home, because her home is dying. But when she uncovers a universe-shattering secret after being tasked with tracking down a missing refugee ship, she’s forced to face up to the fact that looking out only for herself is no way to make a living — or a life — for herself.
Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders
It doesn’t get much more space opera than a cloned teenage “chosen one” who learns that being an intergalactic hero is more complicated than just going toe-to-toe against the bad guys. In fact, when you can’t remember your past life, which was the whole point of being cloned in the first place, being a cloned chosen one isn’t much to brag about at all. But after being taken in by the crew of an alien spaceship fighting against an intergalactic evil, Tina must figure out her place in the universe even if she isn’t the hero she always thought she was meant to be.
The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw
In a universe full of highly-evolved, sentient AI determined not to let humanity have control over the cosmos ever again, a team of former criminals get back together for one final mission. But this time, they’re not just in for a paycheck; they’re here to save a friend. Doing that and settling their affairs once and for all means journeying to the heart of the planet Dimmuborgir to uncover its secrets and take on a horde of sapient ageships determined to stop them. Good thing this band of half-clone, half-machine outlaws are up for a fight.
The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard (November 24, 2022)
Aliette de Bodard’s Universe of Xuya series of novellas and short stories explore a fascinating Vietnamese-inspired space opera world full of sentient spaceships, so I absolutely can’t wait to see what she does with her first full-length sci-fi novel. Bodard describes it as “Black Sails in space, but with more romance and more Vietnamese culture.” So, uh, count me fully in. I love a good tale of space pirates. Add in a little sapphic romance and some sentient spaceships and you’ve got me, hook, line, and sinker.