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10 Space Archaeology Novels You Must Read

A past-focused discipline like archaeology would seem to be a subject far removed from the future-focused science fiction genre. But as the literature of the scientific revolution, science fiction adopts archaeological themes to illustrate the concepts of deep time and cosmic indifference (as well as to provide ‘sensawunda’).
I’ve read a lot of sci fi, so I’ve put together a list of ten must-read novels featuring archaeologists or archaeological themes. I think this is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the way science fiction deals with archaeology, or who wants a good read.
Serendipitously, it’s worked out to be a pretty good spread of authors over the past 80 years, so you should find something you like.

  1. At the Mountains of Madness (1936), by H. P. Lovecraft
    A major work in the hugely influential horror writer’s Cthulhu Mythos, this novella about a 1930 expedition to Antarctica revolves around the discovery of an ancient, cyclopean and inhuman city. It has been argued that Lovecraft’s tales of creatures from the stars visiting earth in prehistory influenced Erich von Däniken’s ‘ancient astronaut’ theories.
  2. Rogue Moon (1960), by Algis Budrys
    Another seminal work, this Hugo-nominated novel about the exploration of an utterly incomprehensible and deadly structure on the Moon illustrates the sensory and intellectual limitations of humanity in the face of forces we’re not evolved to deal with and technology far beyond our comprehension. Think of J. B. S. Haldane’s line about the universe being queerer than we can suppose (or stranger than we can imagine, in the common paraphrase).
  3. Across A Billion Years (1969), by Robert Silverberg
    A fun adventure story featuring actual archaeologists exploring the remains of an ancient civilization. It’s a good example of the archaeological subgenre in which the study of alien ruins becomes a search for the surviving creators.
  4. Rendezvous With Rama (1972), by Arthur C. Clarke
    A hard science fiction classic, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, about a huge automated alien spacecraft passing through our solar system. The novel is archetypical of tales in which the exploration of a huge alien structure is basically the entire plot – the ‘ticking clock’ of a limited window of exploration adds some tension to the story. Don’t bother with the sequels.
  5. Total Eclipse (1974), by John Brunner
    An archaeological expedition studying a civilization to determine the cause of its extinction is a fairly typical storyline. But while the novel has its flaws, the mysteries of the Draconian race are intriguing and original, and the depiction of the mission itself is vivid and detailed. Typically of Brunner and I think of 70s science fiction, there are political and economic woes on Earth that jeopardise the mission.
  6. Where Time Winds Blow (1981), by Robert Holdstock
    A superb science fiction novel from the late Robert Holdstock, an author usually associated with fantasy.  Set on a somewhat surreal world where the eponymous Time Winds can carry away the unlucky, but also deposit strange and valuable artefacts, which are sought after by scavengers and scholars. This is a wonderful book which depicts the treasure-hunter subgenre of archaeo-SF.
  7. Icehenge (1984), by Kim Stanley Robinson
    Robinson is a hard science fiction author best known for his Mars trilogy, and this novel about a Soviet-dominated future Mars is a good companion to those later works. The novel tells the story in three parts of the way an uprising is represented by eyewitnesses, history and archaeology. (This could be the best novel on the list!).
  8. Queen of Angels (1990), by Greg Bear
    This isn’t really an archaeological novel. In fact, it’s more crime/police procedural. I’ve added it to the list, though, because of a fascinating subplot involving a space probe exploring an Earth-like planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. This is hard science fiction at its finest and most adamantine, and the robotic AXIS probe in this book is one of the best depictions of how an archaeological survey might be conducted in another stellar system (in a universe where faster-than-light travel is impossible).
  9. Engines of God (1994), by Jack McDevitt
    This list wouldn’t be complete without something by Jack McDevitt. Almost all of his novels feature archaeological, historical or antiquarian plots. This is one of his better works, and the first of the Academy/Hutch series. Like Across a Billion Years, it’s an adventure yarn about archaeologists following a trail of discoveries across the galaxy, this time to discover what connects a series of vanished civilizations.
  10. Wasteland of Flint (2003), by Thomas Harlan
    An alternate future where the Aztec empire rules human space, and first in Harlan’s great ‘In the Time of the Sixth Sun’ series. Starring a xenoarchaeologist, this is a fast-paced action space opera featuring ancient civilizations and immensely powerful technology.

Written by

Founded spacearchaeology.org to promote the emerging fields of space archaeology and space heritage.

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21 Responses to "10 Space Archaeology Novels You Must Read"

  1. nikolas says:

    interesting book, read it

  2. lewis says:

    Can any of these be downloaded from internet either free or paid?

  3. Steve Wilson says:

    lewis :

    Can any of these be downloaded from internet either free or paid?

    At the Mountains of Madness is online here: http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/mountainsofmaddness.htm

    The others are probably still copyrighted, but if you click through the Amazon.com links you might find ebook editions to purchase.

  4. John says:

    Hello,
    I am looking for more treasure hunting archeo-SF books. You mentioned that this is almost a sub-genre of archeo-SF but I am having a hard time finding more examples. There is something about that genre that really does it for me… I recently read Joan D. Vinge’s Heaven Chronicles where they “prospect” an asteroid field from before the war that wiped out most of humanity (the book was reasonable but not fantastic). Any suggestions would be much appreciated.

    Thx

    John G

  5. Steve Wilson says:

    Hi, John – have you read Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy? Or Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict books?

    Both of those series feature commercial artefact-hunting.

  6. speroni says:

    No ringworld?

  7. Verigan says:

    I’d also suggest reading “Jupiter 5″ by Arthur C. Clarke. It’s not as in-depth as Rendezvous with Rama, but it’s a pretty cool concept.

  8. Steve Wilson says:

    @speroni

    Ringworld is a classic “big dumb object” novel, but I thought Rama was a better example as the exploration is more scientific.

  9. Steve Wilson says:

    @Verigan

    Jupiter 5 might be on my 10 Space Archaeology Stories list ;)

  10. Rakesh says:

    If you like this subgenre don’t miss the tiny 3-page short “The Albian Message” by Oliver Morton… it’s in Year’s Best SF 11

  11. Alastair Reynlods says:

    Revelation Space

  12. okor says:

    First thing I wondered when I saw this was if Engines of God was on it; good to see it listed. :)

  13. Pip says:

    The Saga of Seven Suns has quite a bit of archaeology in there, it’s brilliant. Fantastic series in general, definite read.

  14. Kai says:

    One SF-archaeology novel I can highly recommend is Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan (1977). It’s the first part of the Giants series, if you so want, but I’d forget the rest of the series; none of the other parts comes even close to the first book.

    I have read Engines of God and Revelation Space and was highly disappointed by comparison. Inherit is the only book I’ve yet read that paints a somewhat convincing picture of actual futuristic science and archaeology, instead of just doing the old space opera routine with bits and pieces of ruins added and some ancient dates thrown in.

    Incredibly enough, the ebook has been made available for free on http://www.webscription.net/p-584-inherit-the-stars.aspx .

  15. Adam Klien says:

    Don’t for get Inherit the Stars by James P Hogan. It’s the first of a series, though I would stop with the first book.

  16. [...] list can be found here. A direct copy and paste of their choices [...]

  17. Jake says:

    Boundary by Ryk Spoor. A very nice use of paleontology as a vehicle for the discovery of alien visitation in the past, leading to finding an abandoned alien research station on Mars. It was followed by Threshold, continuing the research on Mars and finding indications of other stations farther out in the solar system. Space opera, but a good story so far, and I’m not just saying that because he named the archaeologist in the second book after me.

  18. Steve Wilson says:

    Sounds interesting, thanks for the tip!

  19. David Evans says:

    That’s a good list, and I agree with most of your judgments. It’s nice to see Lovecraft there.

    I’ve seen it argued that the scenario in Inherit The Stars is impossible, because of light-travel time among other reasons. It’s still a good story.

    There’s a fine short story about Martian archaeology, Omnilingual by H. Beam Piper. It’s online at Project Gutenberg.

  20. Steve Wilson says:

    @David Evans

    See my accompanying list of 10 Space Archaeology Stories You Must Read:

    http://spacearchaeology.org/?p=219

  21. [...] Future archaeology. In outer space. Check out this list of 10 Space Archaeology Novels You Must Read. [...]

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