While all of the books in this list feature a galactic empire, the empire itself doesn’t always play a major part in the story.
What if a time traveler lived in a world where disrupting the timeline could destroy everything in the universe―everything but himself?
Pilot X is Ambassador of the Alendans, a race with the ability to move through space and time as guardians of the timeline. Locked in ongoing conflict with the Sensaurians, an organic hive mind that can send messages in thought throughout its own history, and the Progons, a machine race who can communicate backwards in time, Pilot X finally manages to create peace among the three races.
But when Pilot X discovers that a secret dimensional war fought in hidden parts of spacetime threatens the fabric of the universe itself, he faces unseen enemies and a deeper conspiracy, bringing him to the ultimate choice: erase the existence of all three races, including his own people, or let the universe be destroyed.
“A retro space opera…for readers who enjoy seasoning their planetary romps with a dash of cynicism.”
― Publishers Weekly
Having made a superior look foolish, recent graduate Honor Harrington is exiled to Basilisk Station in disgrace, and her demoralized crew blames her for their ship’s humiliating posting to an out-of-the-way picket station.
The government isn’t sure it wants to keep the place; the major local industry is smuggling; the merchant cartels want Honor Harrington’s head; the star-conquering, so-called “Republic” of Haven is Up To Something; the aborigines of the system’s only habitable planet are smoking homicide-inducing hallucinogens; and Honor Harrington has a single, over-age light cruiser with woefully inadequate armament.
But the people out to get Honor have made one mistake. They’ve made her mad.
In the not too distant future, while fleets of commercial space ships travel between the planets of numerous solar systems, a traveler named Virgil Samms visits the planet Arisia. There he becomes the first wearer of the Lens, the almost-living symbol of the forces of law and order. As the first
Green Lantern Corps Lensman, Samms helps to form the Galactic Patrol, a battalion of Lensmen who are larger-than-life heroes. These soldiers are the best of the best, with incredible skills, stealth, and drive. They are dedicated and incorruptible fighters who are willing to die to protect the universe from the most horrific threat it has ever known.
Thousands of years in the future, Earth is a desolate ruin. The first human ship to return in millennia discovers an abandoned wasteland inhabited only by a few degenerate or mutated human outcasts. But among them is a boy of immense native intelligence and determination who is captured, taken in, educated, and disappears—to grow up to become the force behind a plan to make Earth flower again. He is, if not immortal, at least very long-lived, and he plans to build an independent power base out in the galaxy and force the galactic empire to devote centuries and immense resources to the restoration of the ecology of Earth.
“Modesitt provides the very best in science fiction—thrilling adventure viewed through the crucible of the human spirit.”
― Romantic Times
For millennia, the Shaa have subjugated the universe, forcing the myriad sentient races to bow to their joyless tyranny. But the Shaa will soon be no more. The dreaded empire is in its rapidly fading twilight, and with its impending fall comes the promise of a new galactic order… and bloody chaos.
A young Terran naval officer marked by his lowly birth, Lt. Gareth Martinez is the first to recognize the insidious plot of the Naxid—the powerful, warlike insectoid society that was enslaved before all others—to replace the masters’ despotic rule with their own. Barely escaping a swarming surprise attack, Martinez and Caroline Sula, a pilot whose beautiful face conceals a deadly secret, are now the last hope for freedom for every being who ever languished in Shaa chains, as the interstellar battle begins against a merciless foe whose only perfect truth is annihilation.
“Space opera the way it ought to be… interstellar adventure has a new king, and his name is Walter Jon Williams.”
— George R.R. Martin
Shards of Honor is commonly considered the first book of the popular Vorkosigan Saga, a long-running space opera.
It’s unique in that the book takes place before the main character of the series, Miles Vorkosigan, is even born.
Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the most acclaimed writers in science fiction, having won four Hugo Awards for best novel, matching Robert A. Heinlein’s record.
It won the Hugo and Nebula awards, even though the New York Times felt that the plot resembled a “grade Z, made-for-television, science-fiction rip-off movie.”
Over one thousand light-years away, a star vanishes. It does not go supernova. It does not collapse into a black hole. It simply disappears. Since the location is too distant to reach by wormhole, a faster-than-light starship, the Second Chance, is dispatched to learn what has occurred and whether it represents a threat. In command is Wilson Kime, a five-time rejuvenated ex-NASA pilot whose glory days are centuries behind him. He comes across a deadly discovery whose unleashing will threaten to destroy the utopian Commonwealth… and humanity itself.
“Hamilton’s exhilarating new opus proves that ‘intelligent space opera’ isn’t an oxymoron.”
— Publishers Weekly
The Justice of Toren was a colossal starship run by an artificial intelligence. That intelligence also linked thousands of human soldiers, each soldier’s mind completely run by the AI. These AI-run soldiers are known as ancillaries.
In an act of treachery, the Justice of Toren is destroyed, and the AI—now going by the name of Breq—is a single human body filled with unanswered questions and a burning desire for vengeance.
Ancillary Justice is the only novel ever to win the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. Newspapers nationwide heaped praise on it.
And you know what? It’s a really good book. Clever, fun, inventive, occasionally shocking, and overall a great read with fascinating characters. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.
However, I was disappointed because all that praise made me think was going to be one of the most amazing science fiction books ever written, and that my life would be fundamentally different after reading it. It was good, but it wasn’t that good.
So, just make sure your expectations are a little more realistic than mine were, and you’ll probably love Ancillary Justice.
Do not read this book around other people, because you will annoy them by laughing so much.
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)
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.
The Three Body Problem is the first book of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, followed by The Dark Forest and Death’s End. All three books are excellent, and I strongly recommend reading all of them.
“Remarkable, revelatory and not to be missed.”
― Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
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.
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.
Dune is a sprawling epic of Machiavellian politics, personal betrayals, secrets within secrets, giant monsters, and delightfully flawed characters. It’s often called the “Lord of the Rings of science fiction.”
Just for fun, here are a few things you may not know about Dune:
1. It was inspired by a trip to Oregon
Perhaps the most surprising fact about Dune is that Frank Herbert was inspired to create his all-desert, water-starved planet during a trip to the soggy Oregon coast. He watched people planting grass to keep the shifting dunes from swallowing up vacationers’ houses.
2. It was published by an outfit known for its car repair manuals.
It took Frank Herbert six years to write Dune.
But… Herbert couldn’t sell his book. Publishers said it was too long. People who read science fiction, they said, don’t like long books (Apparently, neither do fantasy readers, since this was same reason given to J. K. Rowling when she was rejected multiple times for the first Harry Potter book).
After twenty rejections, an editor at Chilton (a publisher known for its car repair manuals) gave Dune a chance. It sold slowly at first, but eventually well enough that Herbert was able to become a full-time writer.
3. It has no authoritative visual look.
If Dune is so popular, why are there no conventions? Why don’t you see people dressing up as the hero Paul Atreides at various Comic-Cons? Where are the stillsuit costumes?
One possible reason is that there is no authoritative visual. If you wear something from the book, you have to tell someone it’s from Dune or they’d never know. Quick, what does an ornithopter look like?
The Dune movie by David Lynch was, well, awful. Various TV shows have tried to capture the essence of Dune, with limited success. One movie had the potential to become this vision, to declare This Is How Dune Looks, but sadly, it was never made. This film was documented in Jodorowsky’s Dune, a fascinating film in its own right. The specter of what might have been—the marvelous, surreal spectacle of a true Dune movie (e.g., designs by H.R. Giger, the man who created the monster for Alien, and starring Salvador Dali as the Emperor) is almost overwhelming to consider. (However, one of Jodorowsky’s other movies featured a literal golden turd, so maybe it’s for the best.)
4. It has eighteen sequels and prequels.
The success of Dune allowed Herbert to create a number of sequels, each slightly more disappointing than the previous. To enjoy these books after reading the original, lower your expectations. See the other novels as children playing around the feet of a wise old grandpa, and you’ll have a good enough time of it.
The Dune books by Frank’s son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson are more typical page-turners than heavy opuses like the original, but they’re still a lot of fun. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.
Here’s the Dune rundown:
Psychohistory is one of Asimov’s best inventions: using a combination of history, psychology, and statistics, one can accurately predict the behavior of large groups of people.
Foundation is arguably the first time a believable galactic empire was created in print. Unfortunately, Asimov’s characters tend be one-dimensional, but his stories are so entertaining that it’s easy to forgive that lapse.
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.
Bonus Book, Just for the Heck of It
Six million years ago, at the very dawn of the starfaring era, Abigail Gentian fractured herself into a thousand male and female clones: the shatterlings. Sent out into the galaxy, these shatterlings have stood aloof as they document the rise and fall of countless human empires.
“A thrilling, mind-boggling adventure.”
—The Times (UK)