The best sweeping space operas with unexpected metaphysical themes

Why am I passionate about this?

From dancing on a crane in a meteor shower, to earning a history degree at the top program in my country; bathing under a waterfall to cradling the dying as a physician—I’ve always straddled the line between adventure and hunger for the truth beyond. Some books are the same way: they pull you in with fun and plot, and colors, and they leave you with bigger thoughts and questions about the Universe at large. All genres have this capacity for surprise and depth, but space opera’s best—here’s a list of reads with that special metaphysical power.


I wrote...

Neodymium Exodus

By Jen Finelli,

Book cover of Neodymium Exodus

What is my book about?

Lem's a mace-wielding space ninja in a universe of sentient insectoids, purple jungles, and insane electromagnetic fields. She solves most problems by hitting harder and never plays by her enemy's rules.

That is, until she'd kidnapped by an army that believes a violent energy being has "contaminated" Lem from another dimension, infiltrating her EEG signals to conquer the matter-based universe. They usually kill people like Lem, but a high-ranking officer notices Lem's unique talents and vows to cure her. She's imprisoned in a re-education facility deep under an alien mountain and forced to choose between her energy friend and her family. If Lem resists the cure, her family dies—but if Lem cuts out interdimensional energy, she opens our universe to a devastating thermodynamic attack.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Star Surgeon

Jen Finelli Why did I love this book?

I’m a physician, so it’s probably not surprising that a book by a physician about an alien physician might hit my list of meaningful space operas. What is surprising is Star Surgeon’s double-twist—the patients aren’t who we think they are, and the secret to getting Earth into the prestigious Galactic Confederation isn’t what we think it is—both of which actually had huge real-world thematic implications. On face level, it’s a medical thriller: the protag’s the first alien to graduate from human medical school, and he’s got to prove himself by curing an epidemic on a remote planet without arousing the ire of his human teachers. (I felt like this in residency.) But on a metaphysical level, Star Surgeon is a quiet manifesto dissecting the origins of racism—and the very biology of sentience itself. 

By Alan E Nourse,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Star Surgeon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Sector General Novel In the far future Humans are part of an intergalactic civilization populated with countless alien races. Humans are prized for their medical expertise and make up almost all of doctors in the galaxy. Dal Timgar is the first non-human to attempt to become a qualified physician recognized by the Hospital Earth. But, before he reaches his goal he and his companions find a plague planet that may change the course of history.


Book cover of Out of the Silent Planet

Jen Finelli Why did I love this book?

On the surface, OOTSP is about a British linguist who’s kidnapped to Mars, then escapes to meet pensive furry seal-people who teach him Earth sucks. Lewis borrows from H.G. Wells’ space travel and—this was written pre-space-age—his haunting, fantastical solar system doesn’t match what we’ve learned since, but his totally unique take on the physics of interdimensional beings rips the pants off anything anyone else ever wrote in metaphysical sci-fi. These angels aren’t your church’s cherubs, they’re not Frank Peretti’s white-robed super-soldiers, and they’re not Aslan and friends: Lewis actually took the limited science he had at the time about space and dimensional theory, and applied that science to his spirituality with fascinating imagination. The second book in this series, Perelandra, was always my favorite for its tense philosophy, gorgeous floating continents, and tortured protagonist, but Out of the Silent Planet—with ideas comparable in scope to Vernor Vinge’s “Zones of Thought” and space AI–is where Lewis’ space opera skill shines.

By C. S. Lewis,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Out of the Silent Planet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first novel in C.S. Lewis's classic sci-fi trilogy which tells the adventure of Dr Ransom who is kidnapped and transported to Mars

In the first novel of C.S. Lewis's classic science fiction trilogy, Dr Ransom, a Cambridge academic, is abducted and taken on a spaceship to the red planet of Malacandra, which he knows as Mars. His captors are plotting to plunder the planet's treasures and plan to offer Ransom as a sacrifice to the creatures who live there. Ransom discovers he has come from the 'silent planet' - Earth - whose tragic story is known throughout the universe...


Book cover of The Truce at Bakura: Star Wars Legends

Jen Finelli Why did I love this book?

Yes, this is a Star Wars book, and on the surface it’s about Luke Skywalker and a reptilian alien invasion. Perhaps the biggest tragedy of Disney’s soulless, still-expanding media monopoly is the complete replacement of creative risk with bland corporate product, and Truce at Bakura hails from, as Obi Wan would put it, “a more civilized age.” Tyers investigates indoctrination, challenges concepts of “right to wealth” with a wise eye towards social justice before that’s even a term, and creates the most fascinating self-healing interaction with a parasite I’ve ever read. Unexpected metaphysical depth for sure!

By Kathy Tyers,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Truce at Bakura as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

No sooner has Darth Vader's funeral pyre burned  to ashes on Endor than the Alliance intercepts a  call for help from a far-flung Imperial outpost.  Bakura is on the edge of known space and the first to  meet the Ssi-ruuk, cold-blooded reptilian invaders  who, once allied with the now dead Emperor, are  approaching Imperial space with only one goal; total  domination. Princess Leia sees the mission as an  opportunity to achieve a diplomatic victory for the  Alliance. But it assumes even greater importance  when a vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi appears to Luke  Skywalker with the message that he must go…


Book cover of Space Opera

Jen Finelli Why did I love this book?

I picked up this book because the back cover made it sound like this funny romp where a rock competition decides the fate of the Earth—and who doesn’t want that? But this isn’t just a more uplifting version of that one Rick and Morty episode about “Gettin’ Schwifty.” With vivid worlds and deeply flawed characters, Space Opera is like a psychedelic trip with that brilliant, probably-drunk friend whose gorgeous mind you could listen to for days. (Stop looking at me like that! I’m not in love with her syntax, you are!) Don’t get me wrong: there are so many behaviors in Space Opera that I recommend against as a sexual health physician—they’d increase your risk of disease and mental illness—and I’ve got moral positions that don’t jive with Valente’s vision, either. But there’s a scene where Valente touches on immigration and deportation that made me weep and left an indent on my soul. I wasn’t expecting that from Eurovision in space.

By Catherynne M. Valente,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Space Opera as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

FINALIST FOR HUGO AWARD FOR BEST NOVEL 2019
FINALIST FOR LOCUS AWARD FOR BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL 2019

IN SPACE EVERYONE CAN HEAR YOU SING

A century ago, intelligent space-faring life was nearly destroyed during the Sentience Wars. To bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity and understanding, the Metagalactic Grand Prix was created. Part concert, part contest, all extravaganza, species far and wide gather to compete in feats of song, dance and/or whatever facsimile of these can be performed by various creatures who may or may not possess, in the traditional sense, feet, mouths, larynxes…


Book cover of Redshirts

Jen Finelli Why did I love this book?

Maybe more military sci-fi than space opera, this is probably the most surprising book on this list. It’s often sold as satire, or the quintessential humorous commentary on the Star Trek franchise, but Scalzi’s Redshirts actually goes beyond fourth-wall-breaking meta into the sublime. It’s not a particularly new take on the question of predestination versus free will, but it’s certainly an unexpected and emotional one, and I’ve always cared a lot about the question of “What’s Out There” and “Why Do We Suffer,” so this book resonated with me.

By John Scalzi,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Redshirts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'I can honestly say I can't think of another book that ever made me laugh this much. Ever' Patrick Rothfuss, New York Times bestselling author of The Name of the Wind

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It's a prestige posting, and Andrew is even more delighted when he's assigned to the ship's Xenobiology laboratory. Life couldn't be better ... although there are a few strange things going on:

(1) every Away Mission involves a lethal confrontation with alien forces

(2) the ship's…


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Split Decision

By David Perlmutter,

Book cover of Split Decision

David Perlmutter Author Of The Encyclopedia of American Animated Television Shows

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a freelance writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, specializing in media history and speculative fiction. I have been enchanted by animation since childhood and followed many series avidly through adulthood. My viewing inspired my MA thesis on the history of animation, out of which grew two books on the history and theory of animation on television, America 'Toons In: A History of Television Animation (available from McFarland and Co.) and The Encyclopedia of American Animated Television Shows (available from Rowman and Littlefield). Hopefully, others will follow.

David's book list on understanding the history of animation

What is my book about?

Jefferson Ball, the mightiest female dog in a universe of the same, is, despite her anti-heroic behavior, intent on keeping her legacy as an athlete and adventurer intact. So, when female teenage robot Jody Ryder inadvertently angers her by smashing her high school records, Jefferson is intent on proving her superiority by outmuscling the robot in a not-so-fair fight. Not wanting to seem like a coward, and eager to end her enemy's trash talking, Jody agrees.

However, they have been lured to fight each other by circumstances beyond their control. Which are intent on destroying them if they don't destroy each other in combat first...

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