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  • Writer's pictureSteve Haywood

Top 12 Best Exploration SF Novels

I was recently discussing best books on the theme of 'exploration' and someone said, what, you mean science fiction novels? I didn't mean that but realised that exploration and SF are a perfect fit, because some of the best SF novels are about exploration, whether that's of another world, our solar system or even the entire universe! Here's 10 books for you to enjoy.

Gateway by Frederick Pohl

Gateway by Frederick Pohl – This is big concept stuff – a huge spaceport left by long vanished aliens, a ton of spaceships each pre-programmed to go someplace. Desperate human prospectors take their chances, they might come back rich, or not at all…

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson – Kim Stanley Robinson is best known for his Mars trilogy, and also for his more recent near future ecological SF, but Aurora is different, it’s a mission on a generation starship to colonise another planet round a distant star. This author always keeps his books realistic, which actually makes it more exciting in this case, because this sort of mission could happen…

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke - I just had to include at least one book in this list by Clarke, and I decided to go for the obvious choice - I mean how could you possibly leave out a book like this on a list about SF exploration? I could equally have included other books by Clarke in this list be Rendezvous with Rama or The City and the Stars - this is something he did very well!

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin – I really like all of Le Guin’s books, and particularly her ‘Hainish Cycle’ of science fiction novels. The Left Hand of Darkness is the most space exploration-y of all of the books I’ve read by her, it is the story of an emissary who goes on a quest across a very alien world. The most notable thing about this book is that the aliens in it can and do change their gender from time to time. I don’t know if Le Guin was the first to do this, but I believe it is considered a classic of feminist SF.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams - This is another book that I couldn't leave out, could I? An ordinary human guy, Arthur Dent, goes out and literally does explore the galaxy, in a rather comical way. I'm including all five books in the series with this one, as you can't really separate them, together they make some of the best, funniest science fiction goodness!

Ringworld by Larry Niven – What could be bigger than exploring the worlds within a gigantic ring surrounding a star? The mind has a difficult time getting a grip on the sheer scale of the place, but Larry Niven really does his best to engender a true sense of wonder.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury – Okay so this is a book written in the 1940s about exploring and colonising Mars, and it is a Mars with alien civilisations, which even when it was written was starting to become out of date. That however is completely not the point of this wonderful, lyrical book. In this loosely connected collection of stories, you get the real sense of alienness of the place, awe, wonder and adventure. It took me a long time to get around to reading this, because I thought it would be too old fashioned, but instead I found it wonderful. There are obvious echoes back to the American exploring of the Old West, but that just increased the enjoyment for me.

Proxima by Stephen Baxter – This is a relatively recent book by British author Stephen Baxter, and is about the exploration and colonisation of a planet around one of our nearest stellar neighbours. This – along with the aforementioned Martian Chronicles, is probably my favourite science fiction colonisation stories.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Another recent novel, this is exploration across a huge canvas of time and space. It that sense of wonder and sheer scale that I love in an SF novel. Humanity’s last survivors escape the ruins of Earth to seek refuge among the stars, following the trail blazed by their ancestors. Out there, they find a planet terraformed and prepared for humans, but did something get there first?

The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell – This is a big thinking, philosophical science fiction novel, about a group of explorers who go on a mission to make first contact with an alien civilisation, after radio signals were incepted coming from their world. Unusually, the mission is not organised by governments or corporations but by an order of Catholic missionaries, so there’s quite a bit about God and the meaning of morality and faith. Heady stuff.

Revelation Space by Alasdair Reynolds – Nine hundred thousand years ago, something destroyed the Amarantin civilisation just as it was on the verge of developing spaceflight. Dan Sylveste, an archaeologist and scientist, is desperate to figure out why, before history repeats itself. This is large scale space opera, with ancient civilisations, aliens, massive spaceships, artificial intelligence, you name it.

Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon – This is the one book on the list that I haven’t read, but has been on my To Be Read list for perhaps longer than any other book! If you’re looking for epic scale and grand exploration, I’m not sure anything will beat this book, which is nothing less than a chronicle of the entire universe and the many alien races that inhabit it. Arthur C Clarke, one of the original grand masters of SF, considered it one of the finest works of SF ever written.

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