What is Space Opera? The Best Diverse Space Opera Books

Table of Contents

What is Space Opera?

I’m excited to have Jeremy Szal, author of the space opera Stormblood, with us here today. You’ll find more information on Stormblood below, but for now, I’ve asked Jeremy to share his answer to this question with much more passion than I ever could:

Space opera is a sub-genre of science-fiction, and occasionally fantasy. Quite possibly the richest of sub-genres, it’s characterised by major, galactic conflicts, interactions between diverse cultures and alien species, spaceships, planetary technology,  mysteries from the depths of space, mythic lost empires, all set against a backdrop of epic, sweeping storytelling. But that doesn’t mean the genre is any less human, or less interested in characters. If anything, the sheer scope of it all allows for us to examine humanity, cultures, values and relationships, when shaped by bizarre settings in the far-future. It’s a sobering, fascinating way of seeing the way human nature does, or doesn’t, change.

Jeremy Szal, author of Stormblood (The Common Trilogy)

Why is it called Space Opera?

The genre came be with the emergence of science fiction in the pulp era. Space opera was born into the pulp era but the term itself was not used until years later. “Space opera” was first used in 1941 by Wilson Tucker, a fan writer and author. Funnily enough, it was first used pejoratively in an article he wrote in Le Zombie, a science fiction fanzine. “Space opera” originates from the term “soap opera” which is a certain style of radio or television series. Essentially, this series style is often melodramatic and sentimental in nature, often with an ensemble cast. Similarly, “soap operas” are preceded by “horse operas” which are used to describe a similar formulaic and clichรฉd Western movie or TV series.

This means that space opera is essentially the science fiction equivalent of these terms. Some space operas even take the same plots as certain soap operas or horse operas and put them in space. These stories were character-driven, more engaging to audiences, and easier to empathize with than more rigid science fiction. They are often full of sympathetic and heroic characters that the audience can cheer for as they become a hero. They also have a characteristically optimistic tone.

So why was it first used negatively?

This requires a bit of explaining the history of science fiction. It is very related to the history I discuss in my Cyberpunk Book List. If you’re looking for a more in-depth history of science fiction, make sure to check out that post. But let me go back to discuss some of the science fiction climate when Wilson Tucker first used the term.

A Short History of Science Fiction

Science fiction was born into the pulp era of fiction. Pulp writing is characteristically cheap, low-quality literature which was named after the cheap, low-quality paper on which it was printed. Because it was inexpensive to print, the competition was high. Consequently, the stories became even more dramatic and formulaic as authors and publishers were trying to get their stories to be sellable (formulaic) but also given attention over the rest of the stories (dramatic). Is this starting to sound a bit familiar?

In direct response to the pulp era of science fiction a new period in science fiction emerges. This time in the genre is called “The Golden Age” of science fiction. Stories during this time tried to set to rest the dramatic and character-driven narratives. As a result, they lean into more linear narratives, scientific accuracy, problem-solving, rigid storytelling. People considered this superior to pulp fiction because it was based on facts and the stories were full of “smarter” plots. No more outlandish plots, it was the time of single idea narratives that were developed very thoroughly.

Hopefully, it’s starting to become clear. Wilson Tucker first used the term “space opera” near the end of the “golden age” of science fiction. During the “golden age” of science fiction, the genre had majorly evolved away from pulp narratives. At least the ones we hear about most today. They intentionally changed the scope of the genre. They became the complete opposite of pulp fiction in their rigidity and knowledge. Conversely, space opera evolved from pulp without rejecting its roots.

Bringing everything back together, space opera was born within this golden age of science fiction. Because science fiction was starting to believe that these “smarter” plots were superior, it makes sense why someone may have used the term “space opera” negatively.

Common Tropes & Elements

Modern space opera is mostly characterized by its grand scale. It’s full of monumental space adventures. Though the scope of the story does not have to be grand in itself, the landscape in which the story is set must be grand. This can mean that these elements are happening front and center or in the background of the narrative. Here are some common elements you might find in space opera:

  • Intergalactic battles/travel
  • The rise and fall of entire civilizations
  • entire species of alien races
  • melodramatic tone
  • large risk-taking space adventures
  • spacefaring civilizations

Naturally, these aren’t the only elements that make up space opera, but they are common. If you’re a fan of learning about civilizations in space, this genre is for you!

“Classic” or Famous Space Opera Books

As always, Bookish Brews is dedicated to promoting authors from marginalized backgrounds. This means I’m not going to go into details about these older and more famous works. So I will link them below so that you can check them out on your own if you so desire, but I highly encourage you to check out the list of diverse space opera books below instead! My hope with this pre-list is that you see a book that you recognize and start to put all of what I’ve shared together:

  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Generally, classic and foundational novels are generally not diverse authors. That is to say that they don’t fit with the goals of Bookish Brews. However, one day that will change and we will start to see some of the books in the book list below, or books like it, as foundational in years to come. I believe it!

Diverse Space Opera Books

Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

Quick Take

A hilarious, offbeat debut space opera that skewers everything from pop culture to video games and features an irresistible foul-mouthed captain and her motley crew, strange life forms, exciting twists, and a galaxy full of fun and adventure.

  • ๐Ÿ’€ Dark Content
  • โ˜๏ธ Cozy Reading
  • ๐Ÿ—บ๏ธ Adventures
  • ๐Ÿณ๏ธโ€๐ŸŒˆ Queer Rep

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository | Libro.fm

Original Publication Date: September 17, 2019

Why pick up this book?

Valerie Valdesโ€™s novel Chilling Effect was shortlisted for the 2021 Arthur C. Clarke Award and was named one of Library Journalโ€™s best SF/fantasy novels of 2019. The sequel, Prime Deceptions, was published in 2020, and the third book is forthcoming. She lives in Georgia with her husband, children and cats.


The Kindred by Alechia Dow

The Kindred by Alechia Dow book cover, featured on Bookish Brews Featured Bookshelf of diverse new book releases

Quick Take

To save a galactic kingdom from revolution, Kindred mind-pairings were created to ensure each and every person would be seen and heard, no matter how rich or poorโ€ฆ

  • ๐Ÿ“˜ Standalone
  • ๐Ÿ‘ฝ Aliens
  • ๐Ÿ’ž Young Love
  • ๐Ÿช„ Unique Magic

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository | Libro.fm

Original Publication Date: January 4, 2022

Why pick up this book?

Alechia Dow is a former pastry chef and librarian. When not writing, you can find her having epic dance parties with her daughter, baking, reading, or traveling.


Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

Quick Take

After being injected with the DNA of an extinct alien race, Vakov becomes addicted to adrenaline and aggression, so when he is asked to solve the murders of his old partners, it takes everything he has to uncover the secret and not fall victim to his addiction.

  • ๐Ÿ‘ฝ Aliens
  • ๐Ÿช– Military Fiction
  • ๐Ÿณ๏ธโ€๐ŸŒˆ Queers in Space
  • ๐Ÿ’€ Dark Content

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Original Publication Date: June 4, 2020

Why pick up this book?

Jeremy Szal has had his work of fiction and nonfiction appear in Nature, Tor.com, Abyss & Apex, Grimdark Magazine, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and Drabblecast, and many anthologies. His work has been adapted into audio and translated into Polish, Arabic, Spanish, French and Chinese.


Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Quick Take

Binti is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

  • ๐Ÿ‘ฝ Aliens
  • ๐Ÿ“” Novella
  • ๐Ÿ›ธ Africanfuturism
  • ๐Ÿค” Thought Provoking

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository | Libro.fm

Original Publication Date: September 22, 2015

Why pick up this book?

Nnedi Okorafor is an award-winning New York Times Bestselling writer of science fiction and fantasy for both children and adults. The more specific terms for her works are africanfuturism and africanjujuism.


Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Quick Take

The disgraced captain Kel Cheris, who must recapture the formidable Fortress of Scattered Needles in order to redeem herself in front of the Hexarchate.

  • ๐Ÿช– Military Fiction
  • ๐Ÿณ๏ธโ€๐ŸŒˆ Queer Rep
  • ๐Ÿฅ€ Flawed Characters
  • ๐Ÿช„ Unique Magic

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Original Publication Date: June 14, 2016

Why pick up this book?

A Korean-American sf/f writer who received a B.A. in math from Cornell University and an M.A. in math education from Stanford University, Yoon finds it a source of continual delight that math can be mined for story ideas. Yoonโ€™s novel Ninefox Gambit won the Locus Award for best first novel, and was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke awards.


Winters Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Quick Take

When the prince dies, his Thean widower is rushed into a marriage with his cousin, but the two soon find out that the prince’s death may not have been an accident. The two must work together to solve the murder to stop an interplanetary war with the dominating Iskat Empire, all while they grow feelings for each other.

  • ๐Ÿ’– Queer Romance
  • ๐Ÿ—ณ๏ธ Political Fiction
  • ๐Ÿ”Ž Mystery
  • ๐Ÿ˜ญ Emotional

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository | Libro.fm

Original Publication Date: February 2, 2021

Why pick up this book?

She grew up in Sussex, UK, which has come a long way from the days of Cold Comfort Farm and now has things like running water and Brighton Pier. She was lucky enough to live near a library that stocked Lois McMaster Bujold, Anne McCaffrey and Terry Pratchett, so spent all her spare time devouring science fiction and doorstopper fantasy, with her familyโ€™s Georgette Heyer collection always a reliable friend when the library books ran out.


Additional Diverse Space Operas

A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White

Amazon
Book Depository
Libro.fm
Goodreads

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Amazon
Book Depository
Libro.fm
Goodreads

Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

Amazon
Book Depository
Libro.fm
Goodreads

A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. Wagers

Amazon
Book Depository
Libro.fm
Goodreads


The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Amazon
Book Depository
Libro.fm
Goodreads

Fortuna by Kristyn Marbeth

Amazon
Book Depository
Goodreads

The Stars Undying by Emery Robin

Amazon
Book Depository
Libro.fm
Goodreads

Crystal Rain by Tobias S Buckell

Amazon
Book Depository
Goodreads

Any recommendations to add? Feel free to let me know via my contact page!


Diverse Space Opera Short Stories

Not sure if you’re ready to make the commitment to read an entire space opera novel? Check out some of these short stories to start:


Shop This List & More Book Info

Are you excited to read any of these books? Do you want more information on any of them? Here is the full list of books on a nice and condensed Bookshop list. Enjoy!


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2 Comments

  1. I didn’t know Space Opera was a genre or any of the history behind it, so this was new information! I think the only space opera book I’ve read is A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna (does it count?). Will have to get to one of the books you mentioned sometime.

    1. Yes I think that counts! In fact I’m going to double check and probably add it. Thank you! ๐Ÿค

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