We've completely updated this list with 25 new entries, updated the old ones and generally filled this list out substantially.
Space Opera is one of those genres of science fiction that can mean many things and include many types of stories.
The casual SF reader associates 'Space Opera' with big ships, big battles,and many characters are some of the key elements behind space opera. The Space Opera is one of the most popular science fiction sub genres because it's exciting as hell. There's usually lots and lots of conflict between humans, and often with aliens. There's large scale conflicts, bigger battles, and inimical forces that just may be plotting the destruction of humanity.
And yes, this is one definition of Space Opera.
But Space Opera is larger than this definition.
Back in the early 1940s, romantic daytime dramas on American radio had acquired the name "soap opera" because so many of them were sponsored by soap companies. By the same principle, cowboy stories were starting to be known as "horse operas". So it no surprise when Wilson Tucker began calling science fiction stories, "space operas".
At first, there was no clear idea what space opera referred to. It was only in the 1960s and 70s that the term began to be applied particularly to the extravagant and melodramatic space adventures typified by E.E. "Doc" Smith and Edmond Hamilton and their imitators. Once that was established, we began to get subversive takes on the form, either through comedy, as in Harry Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero, or through reinventions of the form associated with the New Wave, such as M. John Harrison's The Centauri Device.
Before too long, these reinventions gave rise to what became known as the New Space Opera. In the main, these weren't too different from the old space opera, they were wild adventures set in space, but they were usually written with a great deal more style and a greater political sensibility. The Culture novels by Iain M. Banks were not just typical of this, but were among the founding texts of the New Space Opera.
What follows is a list of what we consider to be among the very best examples of space opera, and they prove to be a surprisingly varied bunch of books. The only thing that links them, really is that they are written on a grand scale.