16 Best Space Exploration Science Fiction Books

One of the biggest draws of science fiction is the exploration of space, and discovery of all the unpredictable craziness out there, whether it’s wondrous, deadly, or both.

16
We Are Legion (We Are Bob)
by Dennis E. Taylor – 2016

Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. There are places to go, books to read, and movies to watch. So it’s a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street.

Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he’ll be switched off, and they’ll try again with someone else. If he accepts, he becomes a prime target. There are at least three other countries trying to get their own probes launched first, and they play dirty.

The safest place for Bob is in space, heading away from Earth at top speed. Or so he thinks. Because the universe is full of nasties, and trespassers make them mad—very mad.

Winner of Audible’s 2016 Best of Science Fiction.

15
Startide Rising
by David Brin – 1983

Brin’s tales are set in a future universe in which no species can reach sentience without being “uplifted” by a patron race. But the greatest mystery of all remains unsolved: who uplifted humankind?

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 are a total of six), but popular opinion has it that the first book, Sundiver, can safely be skipped.

14
Raft
by Stephen Baxter – 1991

The descendants of a crew of spaceship explorers, who wandered into a universe with a force of gravity one billion times stronger than today’s, are still struggling for survival.

Raft is the first book in the popular Xeelee Sequence. Like much of author Stephen Baxter’s work, the Xeelee Sequence is hard SF space opera. The novels span several billions of years, describing the future expansion of humanity, its war with its nemesis, an alien race called the Xeelee, and the Xeelee’s own war with dark matter entities called Photino Birds.

Xeelee Sequence:
Raft
Timelike Infinity
Ring
Flux
Resplendent
Coalescent
Transcendent
Exultant
Starfall
Gravity Dreams

13
Anathem
by Neal Stephenson – 2008

For ten years Fraa Erasmas has lived in a cloistered sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside world. But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the brink of cataclysmic change—and Erasmas will become a major player in a drama that will determine the future of his world, as he follows his destiny to the most inhospitable corners of the planet… and beyond.

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.”
— Publishers Weekly

colloquy: a high-level, serious discussion (I had to look it up.)

12
2010: Odyssey Two
by Arthur C. Clarke – 1982

Nine years after the disastrous Discovery mission to Jupiter in 2001, a joint U.S.-Soviet expedition sets out to rendezvous with the derelict spacecraft to search the memory banks of the mutinous computer HAL 9000 for clues to what went wrong and what became of Commander Dave Bowman.

Without warning, a Chinese expedition targets the same objective, turning the recovery mission into a frenzied race for the precious information Discovery may hold about the enigmatic monolith that orbits Jupiter.

Meanwhile, the being that was once Dave Bowman—the only human to unlock the mystery of the monolith—streaks toward Earth on a vital mission of its own . . .

“A daring romp through the solar system and a worthy successor to 2001.”
— Carl Sagan

11
Cibola Burn
by James S. A. Corey – 2014

In this fourth book of the Expanse series (and I strongly recommend you read the first three before diving into this one), a stargate beyond the orbit of Pluto has opened the way to a thousand new worlds, and the rush to colonize has begun. Settlers looking for a new life stream out from humanity’s home planets. Ilus, the first human colony on this vast new frontier, is being born in blood and fire.

Independent settlers stand against the overwhelming power of a corporate colony ship with only their determination, courage, and the skills learned in the long wars of home. Innocent scientists are slaughtered as they try to survey a new and alien world. The struggle on Ilus threatens to spread all the way back to Earth.

James Holden and the crew of his one small ship are sent to make peace in the midst of war and sense in the midst of chaos. But the more he looks at it, the more Holden thinks the mission was meant to fail.

The whispers of a dead man remind Holden that the great galactic civilization that once stood on this land is gone.. and that something killed it.

“Combining an exploration of real human frailties with big SF ideas and exciting thriller action, Corey cements the series as must-read space opera.”
― Library Journal (starred review)

The Expanse
Leviathan Wakes
Caliban’s War
Abaddon’s Gate
Cibola Burn
Nemesis Games
Babylon’s Ashes
Persepolis Rising

10
The Three-Body Problem
by Cixin Liu – 2006

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion.

An English translation by Ken Liu won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

“Remarkable, revelatory and not to be missed.”
― Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

9
The Sparrow
by Mary Doria Russell – 1996

Sandoz is a part of the crew sent to explore a new planet. What they find is a civilization so alien and incomprehensible that they feel compelled to wonder what it means to be human.

The priest is the only surviving member of the crew and upon his return he is confronted by public inquisition and accusations of the most heinous crimes imaginable. His faith utterly destroyed, crippled and defenseless, his only hope is to tell his tale. But the truth may be more than Earth is willing to accept.

Some readers find this book provocative and compelling, while others were a little let down by the ending.

8
Ringworld
by Larry Niven – 1970

Ringworld is considered a science fiction classic, and it won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards while spawning three sequels and four prequels.

An expedition’s goal is to explore a ringworld: an artificial ring about one million miles wide and approximately the diameter of Earth’s orbit (which makes it about 600 million miles in circumference), encircling a sun-like star. It rotates, providing artificial gravity that is 99.2% as strong as Earth’s gravity through the action of centrifugal force. The ringworld has a habitable, flat inner surface equivalent in area to approximately three million Earth-sized planets.

The explorers crash on the ringworld and make some surprising discoveries.

7
Bios
by Robert Charles Wilson – 1999

In the 22nd century, humankind has colonized the solar system. Starflight is possible but hugely expensive, so humankind’s efforts are focused 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.

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

6
Have Space Suit—Will Travel
by Robert Heinlein – 1958

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…

5
Revelation Space
by Alastair Reynolds – 2000

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.

4
Hyperion
by Dan Simmons – 1989

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.

3
The Martian Chronicles
by Ray Bradbury – 1950

When I think back to being blown away by books as a kid, The Martian Chronicles always comes to mind.

Bradbury imagines a place of hope, dreams, and metaphor—of crystal pillars and fossil seas—where a fine dust settles on the great empty cities of a vanished, devastated civilization. Earthmen conquer Mars and then are conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.

In this classic work of fiction, Bradbury exposes our ambitions, weaknesses, and ignorance in a strange and breathtaking world where man does not belong.

2
Gateway
by Frederik Pohl – 1977

Gateway is a space station built into a hollow asteroid constructed by a long-vanished alien race. Inside the station are nearly a thousand small, abandoned spaceships, but nobody knows where a particular setting will take the ship or how long the trip will last. Most settings lead to useless or lethal places. A few, however, result in the discovery of alien artifacts and habitable planets, making the passengers extremely wealthy. Very high risk, very high reward.

But if you live on an impoverished and overcrowded Earth like Robinette Stetley Broadhead, even ridiculously long bets start to look good.

1
Solaris
by Stanislaw Lem – 1961

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.

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