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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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).
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.
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.