The Best Space-Travel Science Fiction Novels
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The Best Space-Travel Science Fiction Novels

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Seriously Random Lists | September 12, 2012 | Comments ()


The other day on Facebook, our very own (and otherwise flawless) Brian Prisco solicited recommendations for space-travel based science fiction, on account of having never really enjoyed any outside of Ender's Game. This is a situation that needs rectified, a tragedy of astronomical proportions. So here are the thirteen places that I most strongly feel he should start. The comments are of course where you can correct me or add to the list.

Dan Simmons: Simmons has written other works, but conversation always comes back to The Hyperion Cantos and rightfully so. Four novels, spanning hundreds of years, set in the far future of a galaxy spanning human empire. It has a sense of poetry that is the envy of most science fiction; it is a meditation on the nature of the universe and man's place in it as much as it is about starships and time travel.

Isaac Asimov: Asimov's three great trilogies (Empire, Foundation, and Robots) all end up connecting together into the same fictional universe in later books, but it was always Foundation that touched me the most. Asimov wrote no aliens into this universe (a fact he explains in another related story), but the exploration of different human societies, of trudging through a graveyard of our own grandfathers, that is awe inspiring stuff.

Alastair Reynolds: He tends to write very hard science fiction, and his most famous books (the Revelation Space series) are very slow moving, but ultimately extremely satisfying. But as a starting point? Pushing Ice is a beautiful stand alone book that tells of the first humans to travel beyond the solar system, a simple mining vessel caught up in the wake of an alien craft just passing through our little corner of the universe.

John Scalzi: Old Man's War and its subsequent sequels are fantastic forays into military science fiction with a philosophical bent. Who are we if not our memories?

Vernor Vinge: He's not the most prolific of science fiction writers, but when he nails it, he nails it. A Fire in the Deep and A Deepness is the Sky are both fantastic stand alone stories, of man tentatively exploring the vastness of the universe.

Robert Heinlein: He's the godfather of them all. Not all are based on space-travel (and some of his most famous like Starship Troopers are the weakest, but Stranger in a Strange Land and various Lazarus Long novels are mandatory reading for the budding science fiction reader.

Elizabeth Moon: She's written rather prolifically, and has two science fiction series in particular of note: The Serrano Legacy and The Vattas. They're not deep and profound like much of the rest of the list, but they are quick reading and quite fun.

Philip Jose Farmer: Okay, Riverworld and its sequels are not space-travel, but they technically take place on an artificial world in the distant future and feature aliens. That's close enough to get these absurdly creative books on the list.

Stephen Donaldson: The Gap into Conflict is all space-travel and is one of the darkest science fiction series that I have ever read. Under the aliens and space-travel and horrifying events inflicted on its characters is a meditation on the nature of power.

Simon Green: Green's Deathstalker novels are the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. They're all swashbuckle and dashing between stars, with contrived technological context so as to preserve the constant need for sword fights. From one point of view, these novels are terrible. From another point of view, they are so much fun that they don't need to be good.

Jack Campbell: A lot of space opera leans towards the military science fiction, and most of that is not particularly good. They tend to spin out endless sequels, each more fascist than the last, all the while badly imitating Startship Troopers without any of the verve or irony. Campbell avoids these cliches, and although his extended series get a bit long in the tooth, his initial series crossing The Anabasis and the myth of lost kings is fantastic.

Charlie Stross: Stross gets around within the science fiction sub-genres. He's got his Merchant Princes alternate universe series, The Laundry series that integrates spy novels and Cthulu, and he has a whole pile of other stand alone novels set in space-travel. Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise are the best of these, and possess a humor too often in absence in science fiction.

Jack McDevitt: His best work is A Talent for War, and any reading should start there. Despite the title, it isn't a military science fiction novel at all, but a historical mystery set thousands of years in the future.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Purplejebus

    L. E. Modesitt Jr.

  • I_Sell_Books

    No CJ Cherryh? Wtf?

  • BierceAmbrose

    I didn't know Stephen Donaldson did a space series. Damn you.

  • SabrinaHatesDisqus

    Elizabeth Moon... They’re not deep and profound like much of the rest of the list, but they are quick reading and quite fun.

    "Oh sure, I'll include a ladyfingers on the list to appease the two female scifi fans who exist in the universe, but I will also protect my reputation by noting that she is not deep and profound like the MAN WRITERS and their hard sci-fi."

  • Guest

    I call bullshit on this list and it's lack of Richard Matheson AND Philip K Dick.

  • Radu Serbanescu

    Hamilton, Banks, Orson Scott .. don't get me started

  • Truly

    What? No James Tiptree Jr? One of the most fascinating men in science fiction, who in fact was a woman all along, (Alice B. Sheldon), and no one found out for years? Admired by all the top sci-fi writers, her novels and short stories are so beautiful and surreal, unlike anything else. Start with "And Her Smoke Rose up Forever."

  • no one

    Nothing wrong with the books on this list, but best? Asimov makes the list but not sure of the rest.

  • Font Zombie

    Karl Schroeder and Greg Egan need to be added to this list as well. Only a couple of Schroeder's works deal with actual space travel but all of them are interesting reads and often great adventures.

    Egan is more of the angry hard sci-fi mindbender but very cool once you get into it.

    Another list that should be started is science fiction that actually features/involves scientists as major characters. It sometimes seems increasingly rare on the shelves I search these days.

  • BierceAmbrose

    No Sam Delany? "Nova" and "Dhalgren" are about everything else that gets weird when space travel happens.

  • ZombieMrsSmith

    Thanks for saying this. Delany gets no love anymore.

    I reviewed Nova for Cannonball II:

  • BierceAmbrose

    Nice review.

    I went and looked up Delany to get the right spelling for his name & for "Dhalgren." I discovered he was a semi-itinerant bohemian with a long-term "committed, open" same-sex relationship, plus a college level instructor without having a degree.

    Who knew? I just like the books. I had know idea how many political correctness points I'd rack up based on the author's rainbow-colored lifestyle. (That's how it's supposed to be, though, right?)

  • ZombieMrsSmith

    Absolutely, your correctness points are at an all time high.

    There's a documentary about Delany that showed up in my Netflix suggestions, but it's still not available, I've just got it in my "waiting" queue.

  • BierceAmbrose

    Oh, that documentary looks good. I love the stories of people who have had interesting lives. For example, I have several bios of Frank Zappa & Lenny Bruce. Books, not videos.

    You might like a couple extras on the extended cut DVD of the Dune series - er - mini-series. There's an interview with the writer / director, and a piece on the roots of the messiah story. They interview a Rabbi, a Priest, an Islamic scholar - the particular title escapes me, but kind of a religious scholar crossed with a church deacon in protestant terms - and a Jungian analyst.

    Either or both of those extras are worth the price of admission. Of course, the second miniseries had none of the juice of the first one. The first one was successful, so the sponsoring network turned the second one into an effects-fest / adventure with a different director. Idiots. It's an opera / epic, and was made as a labor of love. Do the next one that way, too.

    I am grateful for the actress who plays Alia in the second one, but that's just me being shallow. (I gotta burn off some of those PC points - bad for the ole image.)

  • Prisco

    Thank you all for the recommendations. SLW has left off Douglas Adams, the Dune series and certain others because he knew I had already read them, or folks had already recommended them to me in my initial Facebook post. It's not oversight on his part. His additional suggestions became so overwhelming that he thought the best route was simply to write a Pajiba post rather than write a dozen paragraphs. Now you can all benefit!

    And what prompted the post was that it was true. In reading Dune I realized that I never read a sci-fi book about space travel that I genuinely enjoyed. And to further the oddness, I had also noticed that I never read space books, but watched a bunch of space based films that I quite enjoyed, and conversely, I had read many, many fantasy books (mostly based on the O.G. Cannonball Read suggestions) and yet there were very few fantasy movies that I genuinely enjoyed. Dick Sergeant, Dick York, Sergeant York.

    Anyway, y'all are peaches, but SLW is the mothafuckin' tree.

  • Peter G

    I know someone has mentioned the master, but you have listed a series of OK writers and great sci if thinkers, and vice versa.

    Peter F Hamilton stands head and shoulders above this list, for storytelling and hard science in equal measure.

    Don't even get me started on syntax.

    Comon, kids, are we still rewarding reynolds, Baxter et al, for lazy storytelling?

    Demand more.

  • lcann

    James Blish's "Cities In Flight" was a fave of mine, as well as Alfred Bester's "The Stars My Destination" (where is the movie base on that story?).

  • glyn

    I love the Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space universe. You get a little bit of everything. Great great books but it paints the universe as a very hostile place for humans and by the end it is quite bleak. I'm on the last book of the Hyperion Cantos by Simmons and its been a very good series too. Richard K Morgan is another one to check out. Altered Carbon and the sequels are some very good books. Sci-fi meets noir meets cyberpunk.

  • John G.

    You're right, it might be time for another visit to the Hyperion universe. Dan Simmons here I come.

  • Anonymous coward

    A misleading title, I was expecting "best spacetravel" in scifi-novels. Instead the list is closer to best scifi-novels that happen outside Earth.

    Decent list, though omission of Dune is a disgrace. However, for actual space-travel novels where the travelling is in an actual role and/or I'd have to put out David Webers Honor Harrington series, Douglas Adams' hitchhikers series (come on, how big a role did Heart of Gold have!). And how about Clarkes 2001? Now there's a book about spacetravel... Finally, David Brins Uplift series, there are some awesome spaceships and spacebattles!

  • $2786243

    Dune was the very first book that popped into my head when I saw this post title.

  • AlabasterSalamander

    Apparently I'm the only one in the world who likes Ben Bova.

  • I'm afraid you are. Rather dull and pedestrian stuff.

  • Judge_Snyder

    What happens to the survivors of humanity in Test of Fire is much like The Road in parts.

  • Hank Mohaski

    I haven't noticed the Polish SF grandmaster Stanislaw Lem mentioned here, and that's a shame. He wrote plenty about space travel, often about how fucking mundane it is. Good and brilliant stuff, quite different in tone and style than many of the usual suspects mentioned here. Try his stories about Pirx The Pilot, The Star Diaries, or Memoirs Of A Space Traveller ("space travel" is in the title, for fock's sake)...

  • I_Sell_Books

    Ijon Tichy 4eva! Pirx the Pilot! Memoirs Found in a Bathtub! Lem, yeah!

  • thegoattt

    I think The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell are fantastic and both deal with the issues of time and space. Some of the best reading ever!

  • ek

    Steven, I want to know what you think of Alfred Bester's Demolished Man and the Star's My Destination! You should have a regular science fiction column - there is such a rich historical context for the genre now, which would make for for exciting analysis of modern pieces.

  • LoudVal

    Finally someone mentions Bester! Gold star!

  • Does Douglas Adams not count? I wouldn't be reading any space travel novels if I hadn't been introduced to it with humor.

  • Mayanwolfe

    Stephen Baxter writes some pretty hard SF and it can be hard to swallow for new readers sometimes, but Vacuum Diagrams is an awesome book of short stories that manages to tie together century-spanning journeys exploring the farthest corners of the universe. Awesome list, though. I really want to read the Hyperion books at some point.

  • jzhz

    Wow, no Octavia Butler?!?

  • maripo5a

    Yes, that's what I thought!

  • BierceAmbrose

    I don't remember her being all that "space-y." I've read only a little of her stuff, so might be missing something.

  • Ty

    Joseph Haldeman's "The Forever War" is an amazing analysis of the effects of long-distance space travel using black holes. The black holes cause incredible time-dilution and, in effect, time travel, and seeing the characters deal with the world(s) they're living in is amazing.

  • logan

    IMO Dan Simmons Hyperion is the cream of that crop. i would love it if a great director tackled that book. Never happen but i would love it.

  • Landon

    I add my endorsement to Greg Bear and David Brin. I am surprised - even shocked - that a list about space-travel novels that included Heinlein DIDN'T mention either "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel" (which someone else mentioned, thankfully) or "Between Planets." Both are supposedly young adult fare, and both suffer from Heinlein's characteristic last-chapter deus ex machina problem, but they're both good, hard sci-fi that focuses heavily on the details of space travel.

  • MissAmynae

    Chiming in to recommend Rama II by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee. I didn't like the first one (Rendezvous with Rama), but this one fascinated me at age 10, and I still enjoy it, especially the audiobook version. Hopefully this fits the genre you're looking for.

  • stryker1121

    It took me ages to finish the second-to-last Gap book, and I'm reluctant to get into the final book at this point. Donaldson is dark as dark can be, his fantasy stuff is the same way.

  • space_oddity

    It's not about space SHIPS per se, but deals a lot with issues of interplanetary travel (via FTL narrowcast of one's self, digitally): Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs novels. They're fabulous sci-fi-noir in the vein of Philip K. Dick meets Donald Westlake. The first one, easily, is the best, Altered Carbon.

  • Eva

    Stellar list! I would add Galactic North to the recommendations by Alastair Reynolds.

  • BrianK

    Saw it mentioned above but another vote for Iain M. Banks. Not nearly enough people are reading his sci-fi books.

  • Phil

    Larry Niven?
    how is he not on this list?

  • Judge_Snyder

    Liked the stuff he did with Jerry Pournelle too. The Co-Dominium world is very cinematic.

  • Claus

    Was just thinking that. Ringworld is amazing.

  • Simulacrum 1138

    Came here to say this. Time to jack in and head to the Ringworld.
    Legalize wireheading!!!

  • ClaireB

    Dan Simmons. Always and forever. Hyperion, Endymion, Ilium, Olympos. Mythic.

  • MikeRoorda

    Just a thought, but these would be even BETTER lists if they had Amazon links so I could immediately indulge my instant gratification monster and download them before I have time to think about it.

  • BierceAmbrose

    If he / they are willing, the Overlords could even do the merchant / sponsored link thing(*), and support Pajiba that way. No reason somebody else should get the rake off from traffic they drive.

    (*) I know Amazon is the Borg, and the legion of the AntiChrist, and ZikZak / Tyrell / Blue Sun, but they're what there is. Or maybe see if B & L, or dare I hope Powells does the merchant links thing. We'll lose in the end, but all that matters is what you do.

  • QueeferSutherland

    Kim Stanley Robinson has a case here. His works often struggle to function as hyperkinetic fiction but the ideas and insight into our future are unparalleled.

  • Meggrs

    Completely missed CJ Cherryh's Merchanter-Alliance universe in the military sci fi genre. The Hugo-winning Downbelow Station is the jumpoff point--from there, you can pick up the loosely-connected stories based on various points in the timeline.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Now that I'm done being annoyed, I'd like to specifically recommend LeGuin's Worlds of Exile & Illusion and Four Ways to Forgiveness. Both are collections (the first 3 novels; the latter short stories). Both touch on the toll of the time required to travel through space, among other concepts.

  • Stephen Nein

    My daughter's name is Aenea, if it's any clue as to how much I like this list.

  • RaulEndymion

    Great choice!

  • Harris K Telemacher

    Totally agree on Pushing Ice. When I saw this post's title I hoped it would get some love. I love Alistair Reynolds. Also, Snath's recommendation (The Algebraist) is a good one. Weirdly I hated the other two of Iain M Banks' books I read.

  • Jannymac

    Neal Asher's Ian Cormac series is some of the best hard sci fi I have ever read. Gridlinked is the first book, but my favorite is "Brass Man" which has one of the most thrilling space ship chase sequences I have ever read. But all of the books are dark, gritty, violent stuff, that aren't particularly philosophical.

  • BWeaves

    RE: Heinlein

    I've always liked Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, if only for its mention of Three Men In A Boat in the opening chapter. It's a bit of a kid's story, but still fun.

    I also mentally cast the movie version of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress when I read it.

    Starship Troopers SUCKED. I couldn't imagine how they were going to turn that into a movie since nothing happens in the book. It's just signing up for the army and waiting around, so you can get citizenship.

  • Wednesday

    Sorry, I can't abide Heinlein. I just can't. Even his non-"young adult" novels recycle the same tired male-centric crap too often. He may as well have started all his stories with "Dear Penthouse" as far as I'm concerned.

  • space_oddity

    Well of course you thought Starship Troopers sucked, if you read it as a fictional narrative, rather than a political treatise on military fascism. Either way it's still pretty dull and I think Verhooven's movie is eternally awesome in that he took the whole message of the book and turned it around as satire.

    (plus, how can anyone not love Doogie Howser in an SS uniform?)

  • BWeaves

    Yes, Starship Troopers and Frankenstein are two movies that greatly surpassed their book counterparts.

  • Jannymac

    I still re-read Have Spacesuit upon occasion, though it's kind of funny now with its 50's, gee willikers attitude. However, that forced march across the moon's surface while running out of air is still pretty scary.

  • RaulEndymion

    If we are talking space-travel then I would add David Brin's six novels from the Uplift Universe. John Varley's works from the Eight Worlds Universe (most are short stories), Greg Bear's two novels - The Forge of God and Anvil of Stars, and four novels in The Way universe. This has inspired me to reread the Hyperion Cantos.

  • MikeRoorda

    Almost the same recommendations I had! :-) I'm now adding The Way novels to my list. Hyperion Cantos is up first though, as I haven't read any of that yet, and you seem to share awfully similar tastes to my own.

  • RaulEndymion

    The first one - Hyperion - is definitely unique. Definitely in my top 5 all time faves.

  • the_wakeful

    Great list, but missing Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, for hard sci-fi solar system travel. It's mah favorite.

  • i was going to add this, even if it is about colonization--its totally must read

  • MikeRoorda

    David Brin. I just finished Startide Rising, the second in his first Uplift Trilogy. (Preceded by Sundiver and followed by The Uplift War.) Startide won the Hugo and Nebula awards and The Uplift War won one of those, but not the other. (Can't remember which.) I also read one of his terrestrial based novels, Earth, recently as well and it was also very, very good and includes aliens and whatnot.

    Greg Bear. The Forge of God and Anvil of the Stars are two really awesome scifi books with the second one taking place entirely in space on a hunt for the villains from the first. Another of his, Hull Zero Three, takes place on a dying ship in space populated by all manner of strange aliens with unclear intents. IMO not as good as the previous two mentioned but still pretty damn engaging.

  • Jannymac

    I had no idea that Greg Bear wrote a sequel to Forge of God. That's a must get, now that I'm past the scare that the first book gave me!

  • MikeRoorda

    Wow. I can't imagine reading ONLY the first one and then ending there. That would be... pretty dark. The second one is a quick read. Fairly sure I knocked it out over a few days on a Christmas break.

  • Bookmarking this page. I can never have too many good reading recommendations. Thanks, SLW!

  • DarthCorleone

    Thanks for this list, I've read a few of them, but most I never did. I'm adding them to my wishlist for future reference!

  • alwaysanswerb

    LeGuin? The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are required reading IMO

  • BierceAmbrose

    Going completely fanboy here, the best thing I've ever read about the purpose and utility of fiction, especially speculative fiction, is LeGuin's intro to a 1979 / 80 paperback edition of "Left Hand of Darkness."

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Seriously. Reading this list I thought "LeGuin, LeGuin, fuck you fuck you fuck you where is LeGuin?"


    Her ideas AND her writing are so amazing. Crystal sharp and beautiful. I love that almost all of her science fiction novels tie loosely together through the Ekumen.

  • alannaofdoom

    Absolutely! I reread The Dispossessed annually. Also, I'm a big fan of her novellas in the Hainish cycle, "Rocannon's World," "Planet of Exile," and "City of Illusions."

  • BierceAmbrose

    Also the novella "The Word for World is Forest." I don't know where to get this outside of the Dangerous Visions collection.

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    Peter F. Hamilton. It's some pretty hard core Science fiction but beautifully written and his books span millennia as well as space/time.

  • RaulEndymion

    The Night's Dawn Trilogy was incredible "space opera".

  • timothy conard

    Really need to add Charles Sheffield.
    Between the Strokes of Night is genius.

  • Snath

    This is a great list! I'd also recommend anything by Iain M. Banks, from either his fantastic Culture series or my personal favorite, The Algebraist.

  • hasta

    Iain M Banks is superb - although it's Excession for me!

  • Snath

    That was actually the first book of his I ever read. It was a good starting point, because it hooked me pretty quickly.

  • RekodeGallo

    I never see Gordon R. Dickson on lists like these. I read his Dorsai! series about 10 years ago and loved it. Too bad he died before he could wrap it all up.

  • Obst N. Gemuse

    Ah, you beat me to it. Yes, the Dorsai novels are mighty good reads. That's where I got the name "Ian" for my son!

  • Jakesalterego

    I am a big fan of Joe Haldeman's "The Forever War".

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