Sure, all kinds of weirdness and wonder may exist within our solar system, but the feeling of actually traveling out among the stars is something special.
Have Spacesuit—Will Travel is for kids, but it’s still a fun book.
First prize in the Skyway Soap slogan contest was an all-expenses-paid trip to the Moon. The consolation prize was an authentic space suit, and when scientifically-minded high school senior Kip Russell won it, he knew for certain he would use it one day to make a sojourn of his own to the stars. But “one day” comes sooner than he thinks when he tries on the suit in his backyard—and finds himself worlds away, a prisoner aboard a space pirate’s ship, and heading straight for what could be his final destination…
The Terran exploration vessel Streaker has crashed in the uncharted water world of Kithrup, bearing one of the most important discoveries in galactic history. Below, a handful of her human and dolphin crew battles an armed rebellion and the whole hostile planet to safeguard her secret—the fate of the Progenitors, the fabled First Race who seeded wisdom throughout the stars.
Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, Startide Rising is the second book in the Uplift series (there’s a total of six), but popular opinion has it that the first book, Sundiver, can safely be skipped.
John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.
The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce―and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.
Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.
John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect, because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine―and what he will become is far stranger.
“[A]stonishingly proficient first novel reads like an original work by the late grand master [Heinlein].”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
The Skolian Empire rules a third of the civilized galaxy through its mastery of faster-than-light communication. But war with the rival empire of the Traders seems imminent, a war that can only lead to slavery for the Skolians or the destruction of both sides. Destructive skirmishes have already occurred. A desperate attempt must be made to avert total disaster.
“[T]houghtful, engaging characters and an intriguing vision of the future.”
— Publishers Weekly
A charismatic Jesuit priest and linguist, Emilio Sandoz, lead a scientific mission entrusted with a profound task: to make first contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life. The mission begins in faith, hope, and beauty, but a series of small misunderstandings brings it to a catastrophic end.
“A startling, engrossing, and moral work of fiction.”
— The New York Times Book Review
In an alternate universe, scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians live in seclusion behind ancient monastery walls. That is, until they are called back into the world to deal with a crisis of astronomical proportions.
Readers of Stephenson’s earlier works will not be surprised by this take on Anathem:
“[L]ong stretches of dazzling entertainment occasionally interrupted by pages of numbing colloquy.”
colloquy: a high-level, serious discussion (I had to look it up.)
It’s 2600 AD and humans are doing great. We’ve colonized the galaxy and improved lives with genetic engineering. Even the giant sentient spaceships are getting rich.
Then, of course, someone screws it all up. On a primitive colony planet, a renegade criminal’s chance encounter with an utterly alien entity opens a portal to a dimension, allowing strange creatures to enter our universe. Those strange creatures were called “The Reality Dysfunction” by an extinct race. And that Dysfunction is out among us.
It’s also 1,200 pages long. So buckle up for a long ride.
“Elements of space opera, Straubesque horror and adrenaline-laced action make this a demanding, rewarding read.”
— Publishers Weekly
In the 22nd century, humankind has colonized the solar system. Starflight is possible but hugely expensive, so humankind’s efforts are focussed on Isis, the one nearby Earth-like world. Isis is rich with complex DNA-based plant and animal life. And every molecule of this life is spectacularly toxic to human beings. The entire planet is a permanent Level Four Hot Zone.
Despite that, Isis is the most interesting discovery of the millennium: a parallel biology with lessons to teach us about our own nature. It’s also the hardest of hardship posts, the loneliest place in the universe.
Zoe Fisher was born to explore Isis. Literally. Cloned and genetically engineered by a faction within the hothouse politics of Earth, Zoe is optimized to face Isis’s terrors. Now, at last, Zoe has arrived on Isis. But there are secrets implanted within her that not even she suspects. And the planet itself has secrets that will change our understanding of life in the universe.
“Wilson’s most tightly constructed pure adventure tale to date.”— Locus
A brilliant young scientist rises to power on Cyteen, haunted by the knowledge that her predecessor and genetic duplicate died at the hands of one of her trusted advisors.
“A psychological novel, a murder mystery and an examination of power on a grand scale, encompassing light years and outsize lifetimes.”
As Alex Benedict investigates a mysterious project his uncle had been working on at the time of his death, he’s drawn deep into the history of a war between human civilization and a neighboring alien civilization. He uncovers secrets that challenge the foundation of the current human government.
A Talent for War is a good example of science fiction mystery. In fact, it’s probably best described as a mystery in a far-future setting. If you’re looking for a wild, spaceship-exploding adventure, this isn’t it. However, if you’re intrigued by what mysteries may appear in ten thousand years and enjoy getting into characters’ heads, give this book a try.
Some critics claim this is not McDevitt’s best novel. It is, however, arguably his most famous, and sets the stage for several well-regarded sequels.
Few science fiction books can claim to use the same structure as The Canterbury Tales and still be kick-ass sci-fi, but Hyperion pulls it off.
On the world called Hyperion, beyond the law of the Hegemony of Man, there waits the creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it. In the Valley of the Time Tombs, where huge, brooding structures move backward through time, the Shrike waits for them all. On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope—and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands.
Centuries ago, space settlers and soldiers fled to the stars from the sentient AI war machines that engulfed Earth. They colonized Eurydice, a planet whose rocks contain traces of its own war machines—some of which still guard a vast, enigmatic artifact on a remote tundra. When an expedition raids this strange artifact, the Eurydiceans discover that they weren’t the last survivors of humanity after all. Their leisured lifestyle is about to be disrupted by new arrivals for whom Eurydice is a prize worth fighting over. And the long-dormant war machines are awakening.
“Amid the somewhat strident politics there are some outrageously funny patches in this over-packed space opera.”
— Publishers Weekly
Gateway deals with first contact with alien technology (not actual aliens), and it’s a lot of fun. In fact, there’s a really wonderful tension in stories about screwing around with alien technology you don’t understand, and Pohl uses that to full effect. The characters are vulnerable, the scope is cinematic, and it’s just a hoot.
Hard science fiction with a hell of an idea: what would happen if your light-speed engine malfunctioned and instead of slowing down, you just went faster and faster? Tau Zero does a masterful job of dealing with the consequences of near-light-speed, and the reaction of the humans trapped in the ship.
Given that the suns of Draco stretch almost sixteen light years from end to end, it stands to reason that the cost of transportation is the most important factor of the 32nd century. And since Illyrion is the element most needed for space travel, Lorq von Ray is plenty willing to fly through the core of a recently imploded sun in order to obtain seven tons of it. The potential for profit is so great that Lorq has little difficulty cobbling together an alluring crew that includes a gypsy musician and a moon-obsessed scholar interested in the ancient art of writing a novel. What the crew doesn’t know, though, is that Lorq’s quest is actually fueled by a private revenge so consuming that he’ll stop at nothing to achieve it.
“Samuel R. Delany is the most interesting author of science fiction writing in English today.”
— New York Times Book Review
This book isn’t technically deep space, since it takes place in our solar system, but so much of it happens in space (and it’s so fun) that it’s worth bending the rules for it.
Humanity has colonized the solar system—Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond—but the stars are still out of our reach.
Jim Holden is an officer on an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, The Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for—and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew.
Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money, and money talks. When the trail leads him to The Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.
Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations, and the odds are definitely against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.
(James S.A. Corey is the pen name used by collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.)
Thousands of years hence, many races inhabit a universe where a mind’s potential is determined by its location in space, from superintelligent entities in the Transcend, to the limited minds of the Unthinking Depths, where only simple creatures and technology can function. Nobody knows what strange force partitioned space into these “regions of thought,” but when the warring Straumli realm use an ancient Transcendent artifact as a weapon, they unwittingly unleash an awesome power that destroys thousands of worlds and enslaves all natural and artificial intelligence.
Fleeing the threat, a family of scientists, including two children, are taken captive by the Tines, an alien race with a harsh medieval culture, and used as pawns in a ruthless power struggle. A rescue mission, composed not entirely of humans, must rescue the children—and a secret that may save the rest of interstellar civilization.
“Vinge offers heart-pounding, mind-expanding science fiction at its best.”
— Publishers Weekly
In the year 3016, the Second Empire of Man spans hundreds of star systems, thanks to the faster-than-light Alderson Drive. No other intelligent beings have ever been encountered, not until a light sail probe enters a human system carrying a dead alien. The probe is traced to the Mote, an isolated star in a thick dust cloud, and an expedition is dispatched.
Robert A. Heinlein, who gave the authors extensive advice on the novel, described the story as “possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.”
Revelation Space is a sprawling, hard-SF tale with enough original ideas for three thick novels. Seriously, it’s overflowing with the stuff. And it’s written by a guy with a PhD in astronomy, so all the science feels solid.
It’s got aliens, artificial intelligence, megastructures, colonized planets, ancient mysteries, cyborgs, big-ass spaceships, intrigue, betrayal, and murder. Reads don’t get much more satisfying than this.
The Dispossessed is a utopian science fiction novel set in the same fictional universe as that of The Left Hand of Darkness.
Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides to take action. He will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have isolated his planet of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe. To do this dangerous task will mean giving up his family and possibly his life. Shevek must make the unprecedented journey to the utopian mother planet, Anarres, to challenge the complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change.
“Le Guin’s book, written in her solid, no-nonsense prose, is so persuasive that it ought to put a stop to the writing of prescriptive Utopias for at least 10 years.”
— The New York Times
This is one of the funniest books written in the English language. It begins with the destruction of Earth, and things go downhill from there.
Do not read this book around other people, because you will annoy them by laughing so much.
The Stars My Destination anticipated many of the staples of the later cyberpunk movement. For instance, the megacorporations as powerful as governments, and a dark overall vision of the future and the cybernetic enhancement of the body.
Marooned in outer space after an attack on his ship, Nomad, Gulliver Foyle lives to obsessively pursue the crew of a rescue vessel that had intended to leave him to die.
“Science fiction has only produced a few works of actual genius, and this is one of them.”
— Joe Haldeman, author of The Forever War
Author Stanislaw Lem has the best aliens, mostly because he makes them completely and profoundly, well, alien. Communication with them is often impossible, and the humans that attempt to interact with them are well intentioned but unsuccessful. Lem’s humans are some of the best in science fiction, as well: they screw up, are late, fail to see the whole picture, act irrationally, and even the brightest of them can be swayed by vanity and pride.
It’s possible to argue that Stanislaw Lem is the best science fiction writer ever, and Solaris is his most famous book.
When Kris Kelvin arrives at the planet Solaris to study the ocean that covers its surface, he finds a painful, hitherto unconscious memory embodied in the living physical likeness of a long-dead lover. Others examining the planet, Kelvin learns, are plagued with their own repressed and newly corporeal memories. The Solaris ocean may be a massive brain that creates these incarnate memories, though its purpose in doing so is unknown, forcing the scientists to shift the focus of their quest and wonder if they can truly understand the universe without first understanding what lies within their hearts.
I’m a huge fan of Banks and his Culture novels, so there’s no way one of them wouldn’t show up on this list.
The man known as Cheradenine Zakalwe was one of Special Circumstances’ foremost agents, changing the destiny of planets to suit the Culture through intrigue, dirty tricks and military action.
The woman known as Diziet Sma had plucked him from obscurity and pushed him towards his present eminence, but despite all their dealings, she did not know him as well as she thought.
Dune is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time, and has spawned a huge franchise (I think we’re past “series” at this point). Dune’s sandworms remain one of the most fascinating alien species in science fiction literature.
Many of the human characters in Dune are altered in different ways, though the changes sometimes border on mystical instead of technological.
Oddly enough, no one’s been able to tell Dune visually (no, I’m not counting Lynch’s Dune. He tried, but it wasn’t good).
Whoever can crack the Dune visuals and create a film or show that fans embrace will make shocking amounts of money. In the meantime, enjoy Dune and God Emperor of Dune (the others are iffy). The other books by Frank’s son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson lack the depth of the original Dune, but are all entertaining reads.