Below, find two dozens of your best recommendations, from childhood favorites to Mars colonization to, yes, alien sex. And be sure to comment below if anything is missing.
The Rama series by Arthur C. Clarke
I remember picking up Rendezvous With Rama from my school library in 7th grade (yeah I was that popular) and couldn’t put them down until I finished Garden of Rama. I was quite ecstatic when I found out that Rama Revealed was set to be released later that year. Gentry Lee (who co-wrote the last three books in the series) also wrote two outstanding books set in the Rama universe. They are Bright Messengers and Double Full Moon Night. If you liked the Rama books GET THEM! They help flesh out the universe, and answer a lot of questions from the later Rama books that went unanswered.
Ringworld by Larry Niven
I loved it for its wildly fantastical yet legitimate sounding feats of engineering. Also its bizarre explanation of the origin of humanity. Some of the weird alien sex seemed kind of shoehorned in there but somehow I got over that.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
There is only one book for space travel, and it has the words “DON’T PANIC” written in large, friendly letters on the front. What more could you need?
The Expanse Trilogy by James S A Corey
I keep going back to the Expanse Trilogy by James S A Corey. It’s a ripping yarn, but the cool thing is the science of living in space: the effects of microgravity, the fungal foods, the availability of fresh water, the problems of drinking coffee at half a G, the long periods of acceleration and deceleration for interplanetary travel, and ship design. It’s a great series that sucks you right in. Start at Leviathan Wakes.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
That was my first serious SciFi book I read and never felt like SciFi but at the same time I geeked out on all the space traveling stuff and the social impact on earth.
Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert Heinlein
Have Space Suit-Will Travel, Robert Heinlein, 1958. Loved it as a kid. I tried to make my own space suit out of some coveralls and a fish bowl. Looking back, I’d have to say the results were mixed.
Titan by Stephen Baxter
This book is a personal favorite of mine in the “all things interplanetary and near-real tech” department. It’s not a very optimistic book, but it really stuck with me. There was a core theme about the forces of ignorance and militarism corrupting, and ultimately prevailing over, the “old school” people of NASA that still believe in science and human advancement that resonated with me. It wasn’t the voyage of the central characters (to Titan, using re-purposed Shuttle technology) that I found memorable, it was the way the world deteriorated after they left. A Christian fundamentalist was in the White House, science education was pushed out of schools, mysticism and superstition came to dominate everyday life, and by the time the astronauts completed their years-long voyage, only a few people cared enough to watch the landing on a grainy web stream.
In the end, the worst nihilistic impulses of humanity are on display at large scale back on Earth, and at tiny, claustrophobic scale among the remaining astronauts. Baxter has always had an unhappy view of human nature, but the plausibility of his future was what really rocked my world. I still read it about once a year.
Solaris by Stanisław Lem
Not much space traveling going on, but a lot of psychological tricks played on humans by a planet that is believed to be one entire living organism. Ultimately shows how little we can hope to understand the universe as flawed human beings.
The Night’s Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton
Epic, grand scale, planetary colonization, “Speciesization” of humanity across space, warfare, the afterlife; space opera at its best, and a lot of fun.
The Mote In God’s Eye by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven
If I’m feeling serious, it’s the Mote In God’s Eye. A great hard SF series. But the book I have read, probably more than any other, is the Hitchhiker’s Guide It’s been my constant companion since I first read it in 1980, when I was ten years old.
– thisusernameforsale [Amazon]
The Lost Fleet by John G. Hemry
Not sure if this exactly counts as being about Space Travel, but The Lost Fleet series is one of my favorite Scifi novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. One of the few books I’ve read that included visual lag based on the distance of a target in space.
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
I just finished reading the whole series. Fantastic hard sci-fi space opera. Reynolds takes time dilation into account by having the story lines take place decades apart until they all “catch up” to each other.
Vacuum Diagrams by Stephen Baxter
The Zeelee Saga is probably one of the most scientifically accurate portrayals of space travel and aliens that I’ve ever read.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
I was hoping someone was going to suggest this book. I think The Sparrow and Children of God are two of the best books I’ve read in recent years, and I read a lot of books and a lot of science fiction. I suppose these books would fit more under the umbrella of “First Contact” books, but there is space travel, and the characters, the writing, the premise, the philosophy/religion are all just superb.
The Gap Cycle by Stephen R. Donaldson
Examines psychological effects of FTL jumps. Also very realistic descriptions about air scrubbers and gravity drives etc. This is not to mention a gripping, twisting, plot. Great books. There are 5 of them.
Primary Inversion by Catherine Asaro
Gotta be Primary Inversion by Catherine Asaro. Picked it up in a used bookstore, and I’ve since real loads of books by her. She’s a physicist that has great characters, storylines and believable science.
She might be a rock star too … not sure. That image is linked from her website.
The Genesis Quest and Second Genesis by Donald Moffitt
Best is hard to say, but one I don’t see in the comments so far is The Genesis Quest and Second Genesis by Donald Moffitt. I don’t think it is a spoiler to include this from the book description on Amazon:
After intercepting a message from Earth, Nar scientists have learned the secret of human life. The alien species understands everything about human technology and culture and uses this knowledge to build on each breakthrough until they succeed in re-creating humans.
There is a lot more to it than that, and it deals with a lot of interesting concepts.
Raft by Stephen Baxter
So many great choices, but I just love Raft by Stephen Baxter. It takes place in strange universe where trees are uses as transportation and gravity is a billion times stronger than our universe. I recommend it highly!
The Star Web by George Zebrowski
The Star Web – really old pulpy sci-fi, but having to first of all figure out they’re ON a an ancient ship, and then how fast they’ve moving, and how to get home… Fantastic read, and really reminds me of Stargate Universe, as the ship may have telepathic influences, is ancient, and recharges inside stars.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
This probably isn’t the best I’ve read but it has some pretty cool sections and concepts that make it a really good read. One cool plot line revolves around a traveler visiting a lover on another planet but she ages way quicker because of his faster-than-light travel.
Ursula le Guin’s Hainish Series
I’m going to sound very strange here, but my favorites were always Ursula le Guin’s Hainish series. You’re probably thinking that this is a stupid choice because space travel is very rarely (if at all) a part of the stories. That’s why I love them… the absence of writing about the space travel makes these the travel itself be what it could only be for us in the early 21st century: beyond our imagination.
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
It’s a story concerning what happens, when we finally reach out in the galaxy only to find out that a whole lot of other creatures beat us to it, and now we have to fight for every inch of what we find. Sort of. At the same time it’s also a story of how you as an American gets teased with another life after life. When you reach 75 you can sign up for basically a space marine program, governed by the private cooperation who controls the only way man can leave earth. CDF promise you that you will get a new life beyond the stars and that’s the promise, the protagonist of Old man’s war travels for.
It’s part of a series and the two first sequels are equally great but the first novel will always hold a special part in my heart. It combines the dreams of “what will happen, when we finally get away from here” with some truly great writing that never alienates the reader and tells a very human tale, if that makes sense. (English isn’t my native language so I apologize for every single error. I hope it can be read without a lot of trouble.)
TLDR: Old Mans War. Read it.
The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson
To be sure, a masterwork about space travel and colonization. Hell, a not insignificant chunk of Red Mars alone is just about getting to Mars.
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Anathem by Neal Stephenson not only includes an exciting space travel sequence but themes tied in with quantum mechanics, parallel universes and a heaping dose of philosophy.