Novels with which to Begin Your Journey - absolute classics of space opera.
1) Foundation. Isaac Asimov (A/S). The decline and fall of a galactic empire is imminent and only one man has predicted it. Psychohistorian Hari Seldon makes contingency plans - with art, science and technology eventually saving the day. Asimov's scientific background is perfect for science fiction, and his writing is entertaining. Won a retrospective Hugo as all-time best series. You could start with the prequels: Forward the Foundation and Prelude to Foundation, but ensure you avoid anything co-written.
2) Dune, 40th Anniversary Edition (Dune Chronicles, Book 1). Frank Herbert (A/S). Perhaps the greatest single SF novel, Dune is to SF what Lord of the Rings is to Fantasy. Here, a political power struggle over an immortality drug on the planet Dune sees the hero lead desert dwellers and sandworms into battle and begin his rise to messiah status. The series gradually becomes more confusing and less entertaining, especially the second trilogy. 'Dune Messiah' and 'Children of Dune' sequels to 'Dune' are worthwhile.
Novels to Read Next - not as well-known but the next best in space opera.
1) The Forever War (A/S). Haldeman's brilliant novel is so far ahead of it's time with his concepts of future war. But what is fantastic is that it reads superbly. Much better than Starship Troopers, Forever War (written in first person) follows the career of reluctant soldier William Mandella; from training to battle to retirement over the course of 1000's of years due to time dilation. Great story and themes with perfect explanations of the science and feel for the future worlds. A must read.
2) Babel-17 / Empire Star (A) and Nova (A). Samuel Delany's short novel 'Babel-17' won all the awards in the 60's. It follows the story of a very talented linguist who is seconded by the military to decifer an alien language. After discovering something hidden in the language and hiring her crew she sets off to confront the danger. A clever and well-researched novel. The Nebula-winning Nova is even better. It follows the story of a rich space captain and his crew who search for a rare fuel found in a nova. But they have the captain's nemesis on their tail.
3) The Reality Dysfunction (Night's Dawn Trilogy, Book 1) (S). UK writer Peter F Hamilton kicks off his popular, 3000 page, Night's Dawn Trilogy with this sprawling saga set six centuries into the future. Humanity is colonising planets throughout the galaxy while the Confederation Navy stands guard. Conflict arises between the genetically engineered Edenists and the pioneering Adamists, but a new nemesis arises.
4) A Fire Upon the Deep (GollanczF.) (S). Physical laws relax a bit on the edges of space - populated by everything from the super-intelligent beings of the Transcend to the low-tech races of the Unthinking Depths. Scientists unintentionally unleash a destructive Blight, the hero's spacecraft is chased by lots of warships, and space operatic manoeuvres save the day. Novel is hard to get into.
5) Sundiver (The Uplift Saga, Book 1) (A/S). With his Uplift saga physicist David Brin wrote some of the most stirring sci-fi of the 1980s. Here, the galaxy is populated by intelligent alien races who can now 'uplift' or evolve other species. Only humans have not been uplifted, which gives us a certain prestige, much to the chagrin of some aliens. Murder ensues and Jacob Demwa sets out to find the culprit. The second book of the series, 'Startide Rising', is where the real action begins, but I couldn't relate to the dolphin characters that prevail in the remainder of the series.
6) The Risen Empire (A). Scott Westerfeld's ideas are immense: the Risen Empire (who bestow immortality at will) are attacked by their technologically savvy, polar-opposite rivals, the compound-mind 'Rix'. Will the Emperor's devastating secret be revealed? Can Captain Laurent Zai intervene in time?
7) The Real Story: The Gap into Conflict (S). Handsome space pirate Nick Succorso cleverly steals the beautiful female prisoner Morn Hyland from the brutal space pirate Angus Thermopyle, and has him thrown in jail. Angus is then augmented by the 'authorities' and sent to recapture Morn. Double-crosses and mayhem abound in this brilliant series. The story really picks up about half way through Book 2. Book 5 ends with a spectacular climax. Stephen (Thomas Covenant) Donaldson's series is definitely not for the faint hearted, but is my personal favourite. The Gap Series is Wagner's The Ring Cycle set to a space opera.
8) The Witches of Karres (A). James H. Schmitz novel sees Captain Pausart trying to fly three young witches back to their home planet. Humour, romance and adventure. Forget about the science.
9) Tuf Voyaging (A). Another personal favourite of mine, George R R Martin's compilation features the adventures of the honest space-trader Haviland Tuf. Tuf acquires the last seedship which is used to bio-engineer any species in the universe. Others would do anything to wrest it from him. Very easy to read.
10) The Centauri Device (S.F. Masterworks) (A). M. John Harrison. Space captain and lowlife drug runner John Truck is the last Centauran, and as such, holds the keys to the fate of the universe - the Centauri Device. All the major players want him and will do anything to get hold of him. Not quite as entertaining as it should be.
11) Singularity Sky (A). Two spies join forces to monitor a war between a military backwater and intelligent newcomer. They forge a strong relationship while on board the flagship. Some hard science, but interesting dynamics between the heroes.
12) Dread Empire's Fall : The Praxis (S). Humans have colonised parts of the galaxy through wormholes. They have been subserviant to the omnipotent but benevolent alien race The Seer who put in place The Praxis - a set of laws designed to improve everything. The last Seer dies and war ensues to attain the dominant position in the galaxy. Williams' series is entertaining and the main characters are well developed. There is no hard science.
13) Revelation Space (A). Ruthlessly-brilliant alien anthropologist Dan Sylveste has already survived the toughest the Universe has to offer, and is now intuitively drawn to the planet Resurgam - home of the Amarantin lost-race. When a decaying lightship shows up everyone heads off to a neutron star defended by a revelatory alien artefact. Excellent use of space-time relativity and hard science, however, make it a more difficult read than most. Alastair Reynolds' sequels are unrelated but set in the same universe. The second novel, Chasm City, is far more accessible than Revelation Space.
What Else to Read - set in space, but not exactly space opera.
1) Ender's Game (The Ender Quintet) is a part of a 3 book series (S) by Orsen Scott Card but can be read as a stand-alone (A). Child genius Ender Wiggin is top of the heap in the government's military genius breeding program. Time is running out as humanity is at war with an alien race. Imagine paintball meets 'Lord of the Flies'. Also look out for the sequel trilogy starting with 'Speaker for the Dead'. I previously had this as one of the first three books that should be read, a view I still hold to; but the reason I moved it here is that it isn't, strictly speaking, Space Opera.
2) Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos) (S). Hyperion is set in the 29th century and humans are threatened by invasion and scheming. A group of pilgrims share stories and truths as they enter the final pilgrammage in search of the Shrike - a god that they all have some connection with. However, one of them is a spy and intends to sabotage the group. Dan Simmons' work is a landmark classic; it is so cleverly written with each story brilliantly conceived. Definately for the mature reader. I believe it is one of the greatest novels ever in Science Fiction.
3) Rendezvous with Rama. Arthur C Clarke (A/S). A commander leads his crew in an exploration of the interior of a huge cylindrical alien artefact on a near-sun trajectory. No-one knows who built it or why it is here. The story sounds bland but is fascinating and so readable. It also won a swag of awards, including Nebula and Hugo. Three sequels: Rama II, Garden of Rama, Rama Revealed.
4) The Stars My Destination. Alfred Bester (A). Energetic 24th century tale of the motivational power of revenge, loosely based on The Count of Monte Cristo. Central character Gully Foyle is left to die in space when a passing ship refuses to render aid. He taps the under-utilised resources of his mind to seek revenge - becoming a psionic superman in the process. Fast-paced with a great climax; this is a true classic from a genuine master.
5) Downbelow Station (20th Anniversary) (Daw Book Collectors) (A). In the 1980s C J Cherryh emerged as the best practitioner of modern space opera with a series of exciting novels set in her Union-Alliance future history. Downbelow Station sees the balance of power between the deteriorating Earth Alliance, aggressive space-based Union and the merchant-freighter class begin to unravel. Cherryh's best, although others are good too.
6) The Player of Games (A). Part of the on-going Culture sequence set in a far-future where humanity dominates the galaxy, living idyllic high-tech lifestyles free from scarcity or need. A master player of games gets invited to a tournament at the small alien Empire of Azad - replete with all the imperial trappings. An interesting clash of cultures ensues. Clearly Iain Banks' best. If you like Banks' style read 'Consider Phlebas'.
7) Ringworld (A Del Rey book) (A/S). A novice crew sets out to explore the huge 'Ringworld' artificial object. The foursome survive encounters with the local inhabitants ("nothing but savagery"), who are seemingly very human. The apex of the Tales of Known Space sequence, Larry Niven's a bit short on entertainment value for some tastes.
8) Starship Troopers (A). Heinlein's short novel and winner of the Hugo Award is perhaps his best. Set 5000 years in the future, war is very different; infantrymen have jet-propelled armoured suits and fearsome weapons, and war is waged on aliens. Does this novel glorify war by appealing to instincts of violence and destruction?
9) Fool's War (A). Sarah Zettel's novel sees a spaceship's crew become pawns and only the hired fool can see through the charade. One for the girls.
10) Non-Stop (A). Brian Aldiss' superb novel is set on a generation ship. When a group of shipmates decide to break the rules and explore, they uncover a massive secret.