Gully Foyle is a shipwrecked sailor abandoned out in space, and when ships pass him by without stopping to pick him up he vows to exact revenge. He manages to repair his ship, and after numerous terrors and adventures he manages to find his way back to civilisation. There he starts to put his plan into action. Famously based on The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas like Spirit: or, the Princess of Bois Dormant by Gwyneth Jones, another amazing space opera that very nearly made it onto this list , this novel is colourful, startling and unfailingly surprising.
Stephen Baxter is undoubtedly one of the stars of modern, scientifically literate sf, and he really stakes his claim to be one of the masters of space opera with the Xeelee Sequence, which to date includes nine novels, several novellas and a host of short stories.
The sequence covers several billions years of human expansion into space, their contact with a variety of alien species, the long war with the Xeelee, and the Xeelee's own war with the Photino Birds. The whole sequence is full of extraordinary invention, including the alternate universe in Raft in which gravity is a billion times stronger than in our universe, or Flux where humans live inside a neutron star, or the generation ship in Ring that is on a five million year journey.
You don't come across space opera as huge or as devastating as this very often. Quite frankly, if we didn't include Stephen Baxter on this list, it would be a travesty, and you only have to look at the Xeelee Sequence to discover the scale and the awe-inspiring wonder that is space opera at its very best.
Cherryh is one of the most consistently reliable authors of convincing, richly-detailed stories of life in space. And her fiction often is about space, set aboard spaceships and space stations rather than on planets. Her work takes the form of multi-volume interlinked series, so that the Chanur novels overlap with the Merovingian Nights which overlap with the Morgaine Cycle and so on.
But because the novels can be read in practically any order, Cyteen is our pick as a place to start. It's a dense novel, like so many by Cherryh, in which you find political duplicity, biological research, betrayals, wars and rumours of war, all set in a universe filled with strange, threatening planets and fascinating aliens.
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In this instance, the clone of a corrupt politician is raised to take her place, only to discover the convoluted plots that she is entangled in. Cyteen won both the Hugo and Locus Awards, and is a fascinating introduction to one of the most rewarding os space opera writers. We've already included one example of what might be called new wave space opera, and in a sense this is another, but it is a very different novel. The novel takes the form of a quest in which Lorq von Ray and his crew of misfits travel across the galaxy hunting clues in their search for the universe's most valuable fuel, which could change the whole balance of power in this future.
All the while they are pursued by their arch enemy, and in the end it becomes a race as they plunge into the heart of a nova to discover their treasure. It's a rich and vivid book, a precursor of cyberpunk in the way the characters jack in to their instruments, and at the same time the story is modelled on the Grail Quest from Arthurian legend, and yet the whole work is filled with references to other space operas such as the Foundation Trilogy. It was Nova that prompted AlgisBudrys to describe Delany as "the best science fiction writer in the world", and it was a major influence on William Gibson's Neuromancer.
It is also, quite simply, one of the most entertaining space operas you're likely to read. For some reason, the New Space Opera seems to have been particularly successful with British writers. Again, any of a number of his books could have merited a place on this list, but we've gone for the Quiet War sequence. Corey's Expanse series, in that it starts with conflict in the solar system and then expands out. Humans have expanded out into the solar system, but now there is a threat of war between Earth and the outer planets.
Despite every effort to prevent conflict, fighting breaks out and Earth's superior power soon wins, but at great cost to its ecosphere, while the people of the outer planets retreat further from the sun and start to develop forms of posthumanity. The third novel suddenly shifts thousands of years into the future and out to the Fomalhaut system already colonised by refugees from the Quiet War, but they carry with them their propensity for war. And in the final volume, the focus returns to the solar system, even further in the future, where humanity's colonising efforts are slowly coming apart.
This is a powerful and moving series that gives perhaps the most vivid and convincing account to date of what it would actually be like to live on other moons and planets in our solar system.
A disparate group of refugees aboard the spaceship "Null Boundary" are fleeing from the alien Chenzeme. The Chenzeme have already destroyed much of human space, and if the people aboard the "Null Boundary" are going to survive, they really need to find out why. Essentially, Vast is one long chase scene, but boy is it exciting.
And with the technology she has created, including advanced nanotechnology and ghost technology in which human memories and personalities are electronically preserved, the universe we glimpse along the way is incredibly complex.
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That's one of the joys of good space opera: a gripping, fast-moving story that reveals a universe that is awe-inspiring, wonderful and, of course, vast. John Clute has written about the "exorbitant inventiveness" of Linda Nagata, and if that isn't a definition of great space opera I don't know what is.
This is a book that really will repay you seeking it out. There are distinct similarities between the familiar patterns of space opera and the familiar patterns of medieval quest fantasy see Samuel R. Delany's Nova, for instance , but this novel makes the connection between the two explicit. Centuries before, a generation starship suffered a devastating failure and managed to limp into the system of a binary star, but repairs have proved seemingly impossible and the society aboard the ship has fractured into rival factions.
The fragments of the AI that control different functions aboard the ship have manifested themselves as angels, and within the strict hierarchy there are knights in armour and magical weapons, and a serving girl called Rien must rescue a captured angel and escort her on her quest. But the quest to heal the world, as it would be in a medieval romance, here becomes a quest to repair the ship before catastrophe strikes.
It's always interesting to see a basic space opera transformed into something else by the way the story is told, and this is a very inventive use of the form.
Space opera is all about big concepts, what Brian Aldiss has called "wide screen baroque", and they don't come much wider or more baroque than The Paradox Men. Like much of the early fiction of Charles Harness, its central characters are caught in a time loop, so that everything twists around and at times it can be difficult to follow. A spaceship carrying a strange man called Alar crashes, and Alar finds himself hunted by the forces of America Imperial because he has been identified as a threat to the regime. At the same time, America Imperial is building a new faster than light spaceship, which it is hoped will help bring about the next stage in civilisation.
Only the new ship bears a curious resemblance to the ship in which Alar crashed.
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A swashbuckling adventure that whips us through time and space, extravagant, action-packed, wild and colourful, this is a book that manages to be deeply profound and profoundly silly all at the same time. Saga of the Skolian Empire. The works cover an incredibly long timespan and several generations of characters, and though there is an internal chronology to the novels they can mostly be read as stand-alone works.
The books combine political and dynastic intrigues, detailed scientific and mathematical ideas the plot of The Quantum Rose is generated by a particular application of quantum physics , romantic subplots, cyberpunk elements and lots more. Its a heady mix that has made Asaro one of the current stars of space opera.
The Quantum Rose won a Nebula Award, which recognises the fact that Asaro has become one of the most popular and most skilled of space opera writers. Tempted as we were to place this at number one, it's at number three of our top 25 hard science fiction books because this isn't just hard science fiction, it's diamond hard. Challenging to read, and filled with actual mathematics and physics this is hard science fiction at both it's best and most difficult! Even it's title, Tau Zero, is part of an equation that is used throughout the book. Seriously, it's pretty much a textbook with plot.
Of course, you're here looking for good hard science fiction novels, so this should be right up your street. Poul Anderson takes a simple premise - a ship that can't stop accelerating - and weaves it into a masterpiece of storytelling and scientific explanations. It's a testament to his skill with the mathematics and principles at hand that what could seem like bullshit in the hands of a lesser writer reads as believable, logical and justifiable science.
Just don't attempt this as a light read, and you'll be fine.
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Vergil Ulam has done something remarkable - he has created something wondrous: biological computers which he calls noocytes. The thing is he used his own lymphocytes to do it, and now he's been told to shut it down, destroy his work. So he tries to smuggle all those millions of single cell computers out of the lab the only way he can - inside himself - in his bloodstream.
Inside his blood the noocytes begin to evolve, and in evolving they change the world Greg Bear is the thinking person's author. He's not scared to go way out there and look back at us mere mortals left behind on this lump of wet rock. And his words take you deep into the heart and soul of the concepts he places in front of you which, let me tell you, can be quite disturbing in a chilling sort of way.
And there's some real hard science behind the stories too he's not just weird - he's got style! He explores the concepts of reality as a function of observers, biotechnology, consciousness and everyone's favourite bogey-man: artificial intelligence.