Grand, sweeping epics with a sense of drama (hence the nickname) and lots of adventure. Many SF movies fall into this category.
Startide Rising by David Brin (Starter)
A top rate adventure story involving interstellar conflict and multiple species, this has several prequels and sequels.
Dune by Frank Herbert
A sweeping epic with lots of color and action, but informed by a sense of history and thoughtful on many issues: ethical, political, ecological, religious, and psychological. This started a long series, some weaker and some almost as good, and spawned three films, all much weaker than the book (see the film list at the bottom of this page).
The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Human interstellar civilization discovers a brilliant but hostile species, and fights for survival. Besides good adventure, the aliens are fascinating and ultimately tragic. Much SF views aliens either as threatening and monstrous, or sympathetically; this book does both.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons (Starter)
A group of travellers to an interstellar shrine tells their stories while on route; this fascinating modern take on the Canterbury Tales frames the gradual depiction of a complex interstellar civilization. A challenging and sentimental combination of sweeping ideas and moving personal stories, this was followed by a sequel almost as good, The Fall of Hyperion.
The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge
Like the previous title and Dune, this makes liberal use of mythology and archetypes, and deals with multiple issues; and like Dune, this is a tale of a “backwards” planet with a precious commodity, which is oppressed by a galactic civilization desperate to control the commodity. Despite this, Vinge’s book has a flavor and urgency all its own, and unforgettable.
Film to watch:
Star Wars (1977)
The epitome of space opera! The ultimate space opera book, Dune, was made into several disappointing movies; the REAL Dune movie, in spirit, was Star Wars!
Frank Kelly Freas: the art of science fiction
This and the next book are great examples of the colorful world of SF and fantasy illustration, showing the vision and flair typical of space opera.