5 Greatest Space Operas (And No, Foundation Isn't One Of Them)

By Stephen Cass | September 19, 2008 2:46 pm

Screencapture from Babylon 5Space Opera is one of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction, and in recent years has gained a new lease of life (I recommend reading The New Space Opera anthology for good snapshot of the current state of affairs). Like all definitions, saying what exactly is and isn’t space opera can be a highly subjective exercise, but for me, works of space opera all try for a certain grand sweep: the canvas is broad, often involving a good chunk of at least one galaxy. The themes are big–space opera is where entire space-faring civilizations can collide–and awesome technologies are frequently brought into play.

So why didn’t something like Battlestar Galactica make the list? I excluded Battlestar because although the rag-tag fleet does move through the galaxy, visiting other star systems, it pretty much does so as a single group, meaning the colonials take their world–their psychological landscape–with them. The tone of Battlestar is often deliberately (and brilliantly) claustrophobic, and to me Space Opera is all about being expansive. I also excluded Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the various incarnations of Stargate and even Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who, because although all these shows feature elements of space opera–and some even have full-fledged space opera episodes–the space opera isn’t central to their existence.

As for Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which is often quoted when discussing Space Opera, I just can’t get behind it. Like many, I first read Foundation in my teens, but it left little impression, unlike many of Asimov’s short stories or other novels (The Naked Sun in particular has stayed with me). When people got upset that I didn’t include Foundation‘s Terminus or Trantor in my recent list of 10 Best Science Fiction Planets, I went out and bought the trilogy to refresh myself and a) I still think neither Trantor and Terminus deserve to make that list and b) I found all three books heavy going.

For a yarn about the rise and fall and rise of galaxy-spanning empires, the books are surprisingly sparse. First, there are virtually no women at all in the first book–half of the human race simply doesn’t exist, except for a few lines from the shrewish wife of one of Foundation’s opponents, and a walk-on part with no words from a servant girl. There is one developed female character in each of the second and third books, but later it transpires that these two performed all their interesting actions as more-or-less meat puppets of the Second Foundation, robbing them of any agency. (And you can’t write this off as just a symptom of the 1950’s era that Asimov was writing in–for example, E.E. “Doc” Smith didn’t exactly smash gender roles in his Lensman books, written mostly in the 1940’s and described below, but he still managed to put women onstage and give them some agency, starting 30 pages in with Kinnexa, a lethal, efficient, and courageous secret agent who takes the lead in proposing a suicide mission to her male partner.) Even Asimov’s male Foundation characters tend toward a certain sameness — for example the heros of the first Foundation book, Hardin and Mallow, are essentially interchangeable characters, both cut from the same cloth of reluctant but idealistic and incorruptible pragmatism. All but one of several centuries worth of space battles occur offstage. There are no alien civilizations, which isn’t bad per se, but then the human worlds are largely culturally homogenous, with about as much variation between them as you’d get between rural and urban communities on contemporary Earth. And so on.

So all that said, here are my Top 5, in chronological order:

  1. The Lensman Series (1934-1954). Written by E.E. “Doc” Smith, in many ways this series is the granddaddy of the genre. Two vast and ancient superraces battle it out for control of the cosmos, mainly through proxy species, of which humanity is one. The books were especially notable for their space battles, and the scorch of beams splashing against hull shields practically wafts from the pages. The influence of the Lensmen series was huge and can be seen in things like Babylon 5 (see below) and the Homeworld series of video games.
  2. Known Space (1964- ). The setting of a series of novel and short stories by Larry Niven, the universe of Known Space brought us one of the most iconic artifacts in science fiction, the Ringworld, a vast and ancient habitat that encircles a star, apparently long since abandoned by its mysterious creators. If you’ve played a game of Halo, you’ve felt the influence of Known Space too.
  3. Star Wars (1977 – 1983) Space opera went mainstream with this swashbuckling epic. Exotic planets and aliens, fast-paced action and cool spaceships made this trilogy the ultimate exemplar of science fiction in the minds of many.
  4. The Culture (1987- ) Starting with Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks created a civilization of truly vast scope. His civilization doesn’t just discover alien artifacts of vast power or size–it makes them. His books focus on a branch of The Culture called Special Circumstances, where the high ideals of the civilization collides with unpleasant realities, with often messy results. His books are laced with a wry humor and have a literary quality matched by few.
  5. Babylon 5 (1993- ) Paving the way for shows like Lost and Heroes, J. Michael Straczynski’s creation was designed to be a televised novel, with a beginning, middle, and end. Although it had a slow start, and some elements were very Lensmen-like, the show had innovative ideas and originality throughout. (Incidentally, the first two season are currently available to watch for free on Hulu.)

What do you think? Any other space operas I should know about?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Comments (52)

  1. Dune?
    I really have to disagree with the omission of the Foundation series. It is recognized across genres as being an elemental work of literature. As is Dune.

  2. @Micheal

    I dithered on Dune for a long time. Finally I decided to leave it off the list because most of the action in the core six books take place on, and is deeply concerned with, just one planet, the eponymous Dune.

  3. Farscape hits the borderline, starting with a Buck Rogers fish out of water tale, but progressing into galactic war between the Peacekeepers and Skaren with the wormhole knowledge of the hero brought into play.

    If you want to talk burnable space operas, there’s the Deathstalker series by Simon Green. I still love his books “Blue Moon Rising” and “Shadows Fall”, but despite a couple interesting prelude novels, the Deathstalker series degenerated almost into self-parody.

  4. I’d agree that Dune isn’t space opera, and that Foundation is rubbish. But I’d also include Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series, the Evergence trilogy by Sean Williams & Shane Dix, and possibly the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons.

  5. You mentioned Dozois’ The New Space Opera (there’s also a Hartwell of a similar title and Aldiss’ Space Opera), but then in your list you blend both old and new space opera: in the days when original space opera was being written, Niven’s work with the Known Space series was considered ‘hard SF’ and anything but space opera.

    I also find it interesting that you felt the need to devote more than half this piece to a denunciation of the Foundation series. No matter how much we may love Doc Smith, most of your critiques of the Foundation trilogy apply to the Lensman series.

    Star Wars is science fantasy, not space opera, and so derivative of so many other works that I don’t really think it belongs in such a list.

  6. albo

    Alastair Reynolds? The guy who helped usher in the new space opera?

  7. My favorite is Iain M Banks. In fact, I’d never read any science fiction until Banks. Loved his novels and followed him into science fiction and love it so he made a convert.

  8. Keith

    How about David Weber’s Honor Harrington series? Mulitple planets, huge space battles in multiple star systems, culture vs. culture wars. And characters you really care about.

  9. As Overlord of Ray Gun Revival magazine, a publication devoted to space opera and golden age sci-fi, I’d like to offer five favorite space operas (I won’t stick with the ‘greatest’ theme, because then you’d have to get into Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett, two authors of whom I am aware but whom I am not well read.

    5. Doc Smith’s Lensman series
    This is what I think of when I think of early space opera, and I think you can make the argument that no one series did more to shape early space opera.
    4. Star Wars (the Wikipedia entry not only includes Star Wars as space opera, but says it “closely follows many traditional space opera conventions.” This is what I think of to describe more present day space opera.
    3. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga
    2. Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon the Deep.
    1. Joss Whedon’s Firefly tv show, buttressed by the feature film Serenity – this is the franchise that brought me back to space opera, and is what I point to today as a great example of what space opera can be in the right hands.

    Caveat: I didn’t know what to do with Walter Jon Williams. I wanted to include his Dread Empire’s Fall series, as well as his newest novel, Implied Spaces, but I just don’t know where I’d put them. Perhaps I’ll give them an honorable mention and be done with it.

  10. Elmar_M

    A very influencial novel series (that is highly popular in german speaking countries, but not so in the US) is Perry Rhodan. The series started out in the late 50ies and they had a physicist on board as well as a bunch of awesome writers. The series is still very popular now 50 years later (they now have thousands of novels in the series and tons of spin offs, etc).
    Basic story is Perry Rhodan becomes the first man on the moon (in 1972) and meets the stranded Arkonides (an advanced, but degenerated species). Perry Rhodan uses their tech to preent a nuclear war and unite mankind. A few years later he meets a superintelligence called ES and becomes relatively immortal (as in can be killed by weapons and certain illnesses but does not age). This allows him to lead mankind to become the most important power in the galaxy (solar empire).
    Now they are like 4000 years later or something. So if you are looking for Space opera that certainly should get a mentioning (if not a space in the ranks).
    They also have space battles a plenty with 1000s of 1500m to 2500m diameter spherical ships clashing with each other,or other races ships.
    Especially in the beginning they had some believable technology as well (well at least for the time). E.g. Perry Rhodans moon- rocket uses a NERVA-like propulsion system, which I thought was totally cool. They even had him launch with chemical engines to avoid radioactive contamination).The rocket also was almost the same size as a saturn V. Pretty good guessing in my book.

    Some things that I first saw mentioned there: Transmitters (basically star treks beaming technology).
    Impulse Engines (even with theoretical descriptions on how these things work).
    Hyperspace jumps (like in BSG actually).
    Defense shields.
    All sorts of ray guns etc.
    The super species of Cosmocrats (order, but static and no development, evolution) and Anarchs (chaos, war but in favor of evolution) fighting over the control of the universe and the humans are cought in the middle (I saw that later in B5).
    The mutan corps (people with psi abilities like telekinesis, teleportation and telepathi, among others). I dont quite like that, but it is very popular in sci fi until this day even.
    More realistic space physics ( no up and down, no air-plane- like flying, etc).

  11. Patrick B

    If I made a list of the all-time best space operas, David Brin’s Uplift series would have to make the cut. Brin starts out with an unimaginably old Civilization of Five Galaxies with an immensely detailed political, social, and religious structure which equals or surpasses anything else I’ve read. If that weren’t enough, by the end of the six books, this civilization is revealed to be only one small fraction of life in Brin’s universe. This series definitely belongs on this list

  12. N Michael

    Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence. It may be Hard SF, but it is also Space Opera at its best.

  13. scott

    Definitely add Dan Simmons Hyperion and Endymion books, they cover it all: travel across the galaxy, culture/ideology wars, three versions of the human race, a few aliens, et cetera.

  14. scott

    not to mention a vast span of years between the two sets of books.

  15. I would include Peter F Hamilton for his prose!

    There is the Reality Dysfunction series set in the Conferedation Universe
    And the Commonwealth Universe – Dreaming Void is the series he is working on now!

  16. I have always enjoyed the Star Wars saga and Babylon 5. Star Wars in particular had a great way of weaving so many interesting planets and cultures together. Take a look at First World on http://www.firstworldmovie.com or on IMDB at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1056062/. If I’m able to complete First World as a feature, it should have the makings of a space opera.

  17. Paladin

    I would’ve included David Brin’s “Uplift” series and Greg Benford’s “Galactic Center” saga in this list.

    Actually i’m surprised nobody mentioned them yet.

  18. @Steve Davison – the Hartwell is The Space Opera Renaissance, which seems to me more like an attempt by Hartwell to prove that the New British Space Opera (as it was called) was: a) not new, and b) not British. In defence of his argument, he claimed that 1980s military sf by the likes of David Weber was actually space opera. There are some good stories in the anthology, but Hartwell’s agenda means it also includes some right clunkers and some that aren’t space opera by any stretch of the imagination.

    And then you have the two Brian Aldiss anthologies – Space Opera and Space Odyssey. Aldiss does great introductions, but he can’t pick stories to save his life. The contents of Space Opera are mostly unmemorable, and several don’t even fit the definition. A better pair of anthologies, with a higher space opera hit rate, would be his Galactic Empires Vol 1 and Vol 2, although they include a lot of old, creaky and not very well written space operas.

  19. And for a series with a difference, I would rate Stephen Donaldson’s foray away from fantasy and into hard sci-fi very highly: his Gap Series is astonishingly good.

  20. I’d like to add two Japanese space operas from the 70s:

    1. Space Pirate Captain Harlock (Uchū Kaizoku Kyaputen Hārokku)

    2. Space Battleship Yamato (Uchū Senkan Yamato)- shown in the US as StarBlazers, in Latin America as Nave Espacial Intrépido

  21. Rob C

    Simon Green’s Deathstalker series was hilarious, grandiose, epic, believable, horrifying, and best of all, addicting. It was the longest 10 years of my life waiting for the finale!

  22. Ana

    What? No mention on the very first space opera of all time, John Carter of Mars?
    For shame…

  23. Pierre

    One of my favourite “space operas” (and I think it does fit the genre) was Stephen Donaldson’s “gap” series. Great characters. Ridiculously convoluted plots.

  24. Dr. Neutron

    I think James H. Schmitz’s “Federation of the Hub” universe deserves to be in any such list, as does Mike Resnick’s “Birthright” universe, (particularly the novel, “Santiago”). Many of Samuel R. Delaney’s novels such as “Nova”, “Babel-17″, and “Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand” Are also unjustly absent. I can’t think of many shows of western origin that haven’t already been named, but anime series such as “Outlaw Star”, “Cowboy Bebop”, and “Mobile Suit Gundam” are all worth consideration.

  25. MY SPACE OPERA INCLUDES THE HUMANS LORDS PIRATES(AS A POWER IN THEIR OWN RIGHT) GAZELLIONS AND THE MEGALANIC EMPIRE AND SPANS TO THE YEAR 3206. IT KICKS ANY SPACE OPERA’S YOU KNOW WHAT!!!!!!!

  26. Thomas

    @Ian,

    Like Stephen, I have always considered Dune to be more of a planetary romance than space opera. The Foundation is not rubbish, it simply is not space opera. The characters and settings, like Asmiov’s other works, are secondary to the “gimmick” of the book. This makes it more like hard Sci-Fi than space opera.
    As far as the new stuff, Reynolds is excellent, but so is Dan Simmons’ Hyperion books, I am amazed no one has mentioned them. Simmons really pushes the boundaries of what can be done with human-only space opera.

  27. Mike K

    how about Wing Commander, both video game and movie?

  28. Any such list that leaves out the Gaean Reach (slash Oikumene) novels of Jack Vance is mere piffle. Vance is the grand master, and simply cannot be ignored.

  29. Nelson

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned Orson Scott Card’s Ender saga. Sure the first book isn’t much but the books that followed really made it a space opera. If you add video games, Mass Effect should be strongly considered

  30. Edu

    Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet

  31. colton

    Did “Dread Empires Fall” Ever make your list? Its a by walter jhon williams, Best political space opera ive ever read.

  32. Rudyji

    K.J.Anderson SSS series : is right on target for space opera
    P.F.Hamilton reality dysf & dreaming void =: 1/2 space fantasy..1/2 sapce opera
    orson scott card enders : space si-fi background..but 90% of the action is on 1 planet
    dan simmons hyperion cantos : also right on target for space opera
    john Scalzi – Old Mans War Series : space si-fi+land combat..not so much opera
    Jack Campbell – The Lost Fleet : lots of space battles..not opera

    all these 6 authors were very good..i recommand them all
    I just wish all the old series prevously named in this blog had audiobook versions

  33. Clark

    A favorite of mine is David Brin’s “Uplift” series. The irony in the plot was interesting. For all of our our history, we’ve thought of ourselves as the greatest of creatures on Earth. Once we enter galactic society though, we see that we’re small fish in the biggest of ponds. But even the most advanced races fall short of their “grandparents” in the chain of uplift.
    The plethora of planets and alien races makes the series worth reading, regardless. I dwelled for a long time on the diversity of oxygen-based life in his series, and loved the idea that those creatures seemed like family compared to truly alien beings, such as hydrogen-based life. My biggest complaint is that the series ends at just six books.

  34. This gundam serie is the most effective. I can’t forget my 1st time watching Gundam Wing then know about japan mobile gundam. Hope to own a lot more fantastic gundam serie within the future

  35. CrazyCarl

    2 for thought, David Weber’s Honorverse and Peter F. Hamilton’s Void trilogy. I really got into the Honor Harrington series and enjoyed the steady progression of character, planetary and factional growth over the course of the series. Sometimes a bit slow but written so well that you were still into it even during the lulls. The Void trilogy is just plain awesome. Having action, innovation, twists and turns and plenty of just plain ol character development.

    Good show and good thread,

  36. bender

    Right now Hyperion/Endymion is the series to beat as my personal favorite.

    While its definitely fair to say that the original Dune series was not a space opera because Frank Herbert never really took the story off of the planet Dune, the prequels/sequels written by his son and kevin j anderson definitely fit the bill. arrakis is just one of the many planets where story lines unfold. this is especially the case in the ‘legends of dune’ trilogy which is not to be overlooked.

    I also think that the post-Ender’s Game trilogy, consisting of speaker for the dead, xenocide and children of the mind, taken on its own, can also be considered a space opera.

    Right now I’m on part 2 of the Reality Dysfunction, my first foray into any of Peter F. Hamilton’s work.

  37. I started researching colleges and have been thinking about online schooling. Anyone know anything about these associate in applied science degrees

  38. glroark

    I think Asimov’s Foundation and many other SF works target young audience. In contrast, Banks’ Culture series as well as most other works raise difficult issues, much more realistic (no easy divide between good vs bad) and thus target very serious dedicated readers. You can’t even compare Star Wars and Culture series. Star Wars are watched by kids and enjoyed by some adults, it’s your typical “hollywoodian” produce. Culture is an intellectual challenge, where SF elements are just means to ask important questions. In short, your ranking makes very little sense. You should kick out Star Wars and Babylon 5.; add AC Clarke and Reynolds; as of now, IMHO, Culture should be at the top.

  39. onetwohu

    Why isn’t Legend of the Galactic Heroes mentioned anywhere here?

  40. Alex

    I have to agree with Elmar_M about Perry Rhodan. You have to know German to read it but it’s the mother of all sci-fi series. It has over 12,000 pages of action-packed sci-fi opera with just about any idea you could possibly dream of.

  41. Boro

    my all time absolute favorite – the Gap series: Awesome technology. Intricate and brutally sinister plot with true anti-heroism. I believe this series suffered from its first and quite honestly D- book, but from the second book forward it is simply mind-blowing and crack-addictive.

  42. Edwin

    A lot of the books from Peter F Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds are space opera in their writers own epic scale universe.
    A must read for all space opera fans, that good.

  43. Ryan

    Elizabeth Moon’s Trading in Danger series is an epitome of space opera endeavor.

  44. While they are not the most eloquently written books in any galaxy, Kevin Anderson’s Saga of Seven Suns is absolutely a space opera, and worth mentioning, in my opinion, purely because it’s relentlessly plot driven. Anderson knows he can’t develop characters all too well, so he makes sure a crap load of stuff is always happening, all the time. Great fun.

    Also, another shout out for PF Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds.

  45. Statik

    What about the Sten series by Alan Cole and Chris Bunch ?

  46. Way to go mentioning Babylon 5, one my personal inspirations for sci-fi and space opera! Incidentally, it seems our reviews on the Dune series were cited by the same website. Thought I’d come by and say hello!

  47. Somebody

    Alastair Reynolds sure is a good read and I’d love to see “Chasm City”, that space opera noir, beeing the first story in the timeline of “Revelation Space” (though it is not officially a part), on a big screen.
    So many pictures in my mind.

    As for the “Foundation” I very much disagree with calling it the “rubbish” someone did before. Though it may not be typical space opera it is set in such a scene. The core of the story is more or less not dependent on it and the idea behind it is … amazing and frightening. Thinking of the knowlege of our time about psychology, media, politics , …, society itself, sure makes my mind spin sometimes.
    So I’d call it a spaceoperaeske science fiction analogy.

  48. James H

    I don’t think you understood foundation, and the fact that you said they were ‘heavy’, really does illustrate this…

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