In its earliest days, science fiction was almost always about space travel. Back in the bad old days of the 1920s and 30s, when the genre was gathering steam in the American pulps, heavily muscled spacemen and bug-eyed alien monsters predominated. It was only when John W. Campbell Jr. took on the editorship of Astounding Stories in 1937 and began to recruit as contributors the likes of Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein that sci-fi started turning respectable (in its own eyes, if in few others at the time).
Science fiction . . . or “speculative fiction?”
Later, widely acclaimed writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Doris Lessing began writing science fiction even though they denied that was what they were doing. And that was when critics started referring to the genre as “speculative fiction” while casting aspersions on mainstream efforts in the field. But that was a mistake. By then—the 1950s and 60s—the best science fiction authors were producing stories that could stand up to the best that the “literary” critics could point to . . . if only they weren’t looking down their noses with such disdain. And that is most assuredly still the case today.
Are space operas really about space travel?
Nowadays, space travel is merely one of a number of themes commonly explored in science fiction. While novels of that ilk still frequently appear, they’re matched by equal numbers of stories about artificial intelligence and robotics, dystopian visions of the future, speculation about time travel, and other themes. Thus, although I’ve read hundreds of science fiction novels and nonfiction books about science and technology, I find that only a few dozen are truly about space travel. Admittedly, thousands of space operas have been sold which, in my view, are only tangentially about space travel. They’re . . . well, the literary descendants of the old “horse operas” from the era of the pulps. And they rarely give any sense of what the experience of living and working in space might actually be like.
Now, I love good space operas. I’m a particular fan of the long-running Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, who has won numerous literary awards for the books. (You can find my reviews of those stories at The pleasures of reading the complete Vorkosigan Saga.) But I don’t regard these novels as casting any light on the reality of space travel, so I’m not listing them here.
Good books about space travel, including both nonfiction and fiction
The lists that follow include only those individual books that directly concern space travel. In several cases, trilogies or longer series of novels include only one such book, and that’s the only one I’m listing here. Also, I’m including only those books I’ve awarded scores of @@@@ or @@@@@ (4 or 5 out of 5). Numerous others that received lower scores don’t appear here.
I’ve listed five nonfiction books first. The rest are novels. In both lists, titles appear in alphabetical order by the authors’s last names.
Books about space travel: nonfiction
The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos by Christian Davenport—Four billionaires, private space companies, and humanity’s future in the cosmos
Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey—A colony on Mars? Really? An astronomy professor thinks so.
The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth by Michio Kaku—From the moon and Mars to the multiverse
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach—The nitty-gritty details of space travel, funny and otherwise
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance—Elon Musk wants to build a colony on Mars (for real)
Books about space travel: novels
Tau Zero by Poul Anderson—In this great example of classic hard science fiction, humankind reaches the stars
Neptune Crossing (Chaos Chronicles #1) by Jeffrey A. Carver—Chaos theory triggers an interplanetary adventure
Retrograde (Retrograde #1) by Peter Cawdron—What life on Mars would really be like
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1) by Becky Chambers—A delightful modern space opera that’s all about character development
Skywave (Rorschach Explorer #1) by K. Patrick Donoghue—A private space company threatens a decades-long government coverup
The Forever War (Forever War Trilogy #1) by Joe Haldeman—This classic science fiction war novel won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards
The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal—This novel shows just how good hard science fiction can be
The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut #2) by Mary Robinette Kowal—An astonishingly good science fiction novel about the first manned mission to Mars
The Relentless Moon (Lady Astronaut #3) by Mary Robinette Kowal—The third Lady Astronaut novel doesn’t live up to the promise of the first two
If Tomorrow Comes (Yesterday’s Kin #2) by Nancy Kress—In this highly anticipated science fiction sequel, surprises are the order of the day
Noumenon (Noumenon #1) by Marina J. Lostetter—A visionary science fiction novel with hard science at its core
Before Mars (Planetfall #3) by Emma Newman—A psychological thriller in a science fiction setting
Binti (Binti Trilogy #1) by Nnedi Okorafor—An African student travels to the stars in the first book of the Binti Trilogy
Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas by John Scalzi—Diabolically clever, and very, very funny
Across a Billion Years by Robert Silverberg—A science fiction master imagines a uniquely advanced alien civilization
Children of Time (Children of Time #1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky—Accelerated evolution is the theme in a superior science fiction novel
The Martian by Andy Weir—Hard science fiction at its best
For further reading
For more good reading, check out:
- The ultimate guide to the all-time best science fiction novels;
- Great sci-fi novels reviewed: my top 10 (plus dozens of runners-up); and
- The top 10 dystopian novels reviewed here (plus dozens of others).
You might also check out Top 10 great popular novels reviewed on this site.
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.