For those not familiar with the many, many subgenres of speculative fiction, space opera is characterized by space travel, galactic adventures, interplanetary stakes, and (usually) some daring romances thrown in between. The genre’s most famous example is, of course, the Star Wars films. But there are far more books on the space opera shelf, including the ones below, which represent some of the best sci-fi books around.
For a long time, the most visible science fiction authors were all white, and black authors fell through the cracks and were not recognized by the larger sci fi community as a vital part of the genre's cultivation and growth. Thankfully, Dark Matter by Sheree R. Thomas works to undo that lack of acknowledgment. Featuring seasoned authors like Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, and more, this anthology collects a well-rounded selection of sci fi stories by authors from the African diaspora. Some of my favorite works in Dark Matter include Nalo Hopkinson's "Ganger (Ball Lightning)" and Nisi Shawl's "At the Huts of Ajala".
Winner of the 2013 Nebula Award for Best Novel, 2312 is a novel of epic proportions. To me, the most realistic space exploration novels evoke the feeling of massiveness, just like the giant expanse of space. 2312 certainly does just that. As its title suggests, it is set in the year 2312, where human life has spread throughout the solar system. It focuses on the inhabitants of Terminator, a city on Mercury. A master of worldbuilding, Robinson creates a dauntingly detailed future where humanity must confront its sins of the past.
Kass Morgan wrote the books that turned into one of the boldest shows on television—CW's The 100. It's no surprise she's written another series of nail-biting futuristic adventures. Supernova is the sequel to Light Years, which both take place in a galaxy on the brink of war. Supernova continues the story of the earnest cadets from Quatra Fleet academy as they fall further and further into trouble. Featuring romance, action, and the future of humanity at stake, Kass Morgan reminds us all why she's a master YA storyteller.
Following in the tradition of emotional, character-driven space operas, An Unkindness of Ghosts is a startling novel about a girl who stumbles upon more than she bargained for. Though the technology of this world is advanced, its politics are from the antebellum South. On the spaceship Matilda, dark-skinned sharecroppers like Astrid toil endlessly while others benefit from their labor. Frustrated with the injustice and reeling from the death of her mother, Astrid takes it upon herself to retrace her mother's steps and ends up discovering something that could change the way her whole world functions.
Hey, look who's on the list again! It makes perfect sense—Kim Stanley Robinson is somewhat of a virtuoso when it comes to the space opera. Red Moon is set in a different time than 2312; this time, the human race is only around the year 2050 or so. We're still starting up in our journey into space, and so our characters here reside on the brutal world of the moon. After Fred Fredericks makes his first trip to the moon, he witnesses a murder that will turn the tides of politics on both the moon and Earth.
Yoon Ha Lee
The best sci fi books do something that we haven't seen before, and Ninefox Gambit is truly one of the most unique space operas published in the last decade. In a world built on the sacred truth of math, six different factions vie for power. They rely on the objectivity of mathematics to ensure a stable universe, but in this scenario, math can be warped. With it, physics itself can literally change. And, it seems, someone might be using this dangerous power to their advantage.
First, Breq was a massive starship. She traversed the galaxy, serving the empire and the soldiers who fought for it. Now... she's a human. Unsure of who she is without her previous body and abilities, Breq must navigate a new life and possibly find those who took what mattered most. Ancillary Justice also presents a fascinating future in regard to gender, culture, and the nature of consciousness. This is one that will sit with you and make you think for a while afterward.
Speaking of gender and culture, The Long War to a Small, Angry Planet drops you into a universe with aliens and planets of all sorts. When Rosemary Harper boards the Wayfarer, she doesn’t expect the ride that she's about to take. Featuring reptilian ship pilots, artificial intelligences, and interspecies romance, Chambers' book is a wild ride. It's also one of the more pleasant reads on this list, if you need a little break from the dramas of war in space and planetary chaos.
Last but not least, we have a book that might also be known as the award-winning television show it spawned: The Expanse. This is just the start of a nine book series that chronicles humanity's tense future as they colonize the solar system. Conflict is already rife between the Earth, the Moon, and the outer planets when Leviathan Wakes begins, and things don't get better. This space opera is one of the best characterizations of the genre, complete with alien threats, space empires, starship battles, and a rich, detailed universe.
Books are meant to let you escape the everyday world. What better way to do that then to delve into these space exploration novels and find yourself among the stars?
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Mya is a reader, poet, and writer in New York City. You can find them and their work on Twitter @literallymya.