As stated by Captain James T. Kirk, space is the final frontier. And it makes for some excellent science fiction.
Whether an author wants to explore alien planets, examine colonization, create dystopias and utopias, or simply dive into the terror of the unknown, space offers the perfect setting for it all. Here are ten sci-fi books that explore the perils of deep space in exciting, horrifying, and entertaining ways.
After recovering artifacts and a preserved alien body from a cluster of spaceships, the Terran spaceship Streaker crashes on the unknown water planet of Kithrup.
Alien armadas chase them down, forcing the small crew of humans, uplifted dolphins, and one uplifted chimpanzee to fight to protect their secret. The cluster of vessels holds the key to the Progenitors, the First Race who uplifted every other species.
The award-winning second book in the Uplift Cycle, Startide Rising gives us an incredible array of aliens, humans, and uplifted species throughout the book. It can be read as a standalone novel, but the rest of the books give a much broader understanding into the political structure and background of the universe.
The spacecraft Lenora Christine sets out to travel 30 light years towards a new planet the crew intends to colonize. Because the ship will travel close to the speed of light, time dilation occurs, slowing time down so the crew experiences the journey in only five years. But when they travel through an interstellar dust cloud, everything changes. As Lenora speeds up, the distance between ship-time and space-time widens.
Tau Zero takes place almost entirely on the spacecraft, as the crew hurtle ever-faster through space. Anderson's novel focuses on the experience of the physics of the universe itself, in both a Big Crunch and a new Big Bang. This offers a new, and wildly interesting, perspective on deep space travel.
Hugo Award-winning author James Blish called this deep space drama "the ultimate hard science fiction novel."
It’s 3172, and politics in the galaxy are still complicated. Ilyrion is one of the most powerful energy sources in the universe, and is necessary to terraform new planets. Captain Lorq Von Ray believes he can collect the most Illyrion by doing the one thing no one has ever dared: flying through the heart of an imploding star.
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There’s a lot to love in Nova. We get to visit different worlds as the crew races to a newly-imploded star to collect the Illyrium. There’s revenge, secrets, and lies. And of course, the crew has no idea that Von Ray intends on taking them into the star, rather than collecting the element around it.
When physicist Shevek tries to understand General Temporal Theory, his theories end up threatening the structure and beliefs of the entire planet he lives on, Anarres. Shevek heads for the mother planet, Urras, to use his theory to change the nature of society at large and work towards actual peace.
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A book that is just as political and philosophical as it is full of science, The Dispossessed is stunning in its range. Through these planets set in a distant galaxy, we experience the similarities of our cultures while being surprised by the alien nature of the environments.
Shevek’s theory ends up playing a critical role in the rest of the Hainish Cycle, even though this was the fifth book published in the series.
The Luminous Dead
Caver Gyre Price lies to get on a foreign planet, expecting an easy gig mapping mineral deposits. But she isn’t the only one with secrets on the expedition.
As Gyre descends into the cave, mysteriously missing supplies and unexpected changes in navigation throw her off-balance. Lost and disoriented, Gyre finds herself alone in alien terrain. And maybe it’s paranoia, but she can’t shake the feeling that something is following her.
The Luminous Dead takes us into the psyche of what it would be like to be trapped and alone on a strange planet. It’s tense, feeding on the claustrophobia of being stuck underground. But really, it’s the vulnerability of relying on someone else that really adds to the alien atmosphere. Especially when that someone can’t be trusted at all.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Arthur Dent is saved seconds before Earth is destroyed to make way for a galactic freeway. His friend, who has been pretending to be an out-of-work actor, is really the author of the eponymous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The pair use the guide to travel all over space. Throughout, Arthur can only try and enjoy himself, remembering the guide’s best piece of advice: Don’t Panic.
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Get ready for an imaginative, hilarious, and zany journey through the galaxy in this delightful series from Douglas Adams. Throughout the series, we travel all over the galaxy, including The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (also the title of the second book). These are hilarious reads, filled with fun characters, nonstop hijinks, and some surprisingly heartwarming moments.
Binti: The Complete Trilogy
A young Himba girl, Binti is the first of her people to be offered a place at Oomza University. Despite her family’s concerns, her abilities make her a prime candidate.
In the first novella, Binti, the titular character travels to Oomza University. Surrounded by strangers who don’t observe her customs, she begins her interstellar journey only to be attacked by the alien Medusae. They slaughter everyone on the ship, leaving her the sole survivor. Now, five days from landing, Binti has to figure out how to save the planet the ship is hurtling towards.
What began as three novellas has been compiled into one complete omnibus, with stunning results. Filled with flawed but compelling characters, Binti stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page.
Binti deals with issues like being looked down on due to culture, and the difficulty in maintaining a strong sense of self and connecting with people who are different than you. She also deals with PTSD and trauma in the bonus new short story, "Binti: Sacred Fire".
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Seske Kaleigh has been raised to inherit command of a biological starship, carved from the insides of a space beast.
Seske's clan is hard at work harvesting the bones for buildings, and rerouting the circulatory system to accommodate mass transit. It’s a cycle the clan has followed for centuries: Carve the beast into a barely-living shell, use its resources until it dies, then cull a new beast and start over every 10 years. But Seske and the woman she loves make a discovery that changes everything.
Escaping Exodus is a violent, often grotesque examination of power and the terrors of exploiting resources to extreme levels. It’s heart-breaking on so many levels, highlighting the cruelty, carelessness, and privilege humanity often embraces.
To Sleep in a Sea of Stars
When Kira Navárez discovers an alien relic on an uncolonized planet, she accidentally initiates terrifying first contact.
As war erupts across the galaxy, Kira is transformed. When Earth and its colonies face complete destruction, she may end up being humanity’s only hope.
Every detail of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars immerses readers in a galactic future. There are advanced aliens, rogue space crews, terraforming planets, colonization efforts, and more, all set in a fast-paced book that somehow manages to capture the vast emptiness of space while filling it entirely. It’s an epic space adventure that sci-fi fans won’t want to miss.
Project Hail Mary
Ryland Grace wakes up the lone survivor on a ship that was meant to be humanity’s last hope. But Ryland doesn't remember the purpose of the mission; he only knows he's alone, in space, with nothing but corpses for company.
As Ryland's memories return, he realizes he has to figure out how to stop an extinction-level event all by himself. It seems impossible until he finds an unexpected ally, and hope.
Fans of Andy Weir will once again be enthralled with his easy narration mixed with impressive science. As he did in The Martian, Weir creates a captivating story centered around one man desperate to survive space. Project Hail Mary is a thrilling and informative ride that will leave readers satisfied in the end.
This article first appeared on The Portalist.