The best books about botched space colonization efforts

The Books I Picked & Why

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

By Philip K. Dick

Book cover of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Why this book?

Gorging on Philip K. Dick novels in the 1970s made me a full-blown science fiction fan. Written in 1964, this is likely his best. It is dazzling in its twists and turns, philosophical, comic, and at times, downright creepy. The earth has become nearly uninhabitable—with temperatures reaching 180 degrees on a typical day—and the UN is forcing people to colonize Mars, Venus, and the moons of Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn. The colonists, miserable outcasts, get their kicks while gathered around a Perky Pat layout, complete with small dolls and accessories. They ingest the alien lichen Can-D which “translates” them into a shared Ken and Barbie-esque fantasy of 1950s-1960s’ life. Billionaire entrepreneur Palmer Eldritch introduces a rival to Can-D called Chew-Z, a diabolical substance that further threatens humanity. Dick was one science fiction writer who had his doubts about the glorious future that space exploration or technological innovation promised.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Hull Zero Three

By Greg Bear

Book cover of Hull Zero Three

Why this book?

This book has the ideal traits I appreciate in science fiction—as with H.G. Wells’s classic tales, it’s reasonably short and can be read as pure adventure or allegory. We meet the archetypal figure of the “Teacher” birthed by a bioprinting machine on a starship soon to terraform an exoplanet. The Teacher has to grapple with survival, his purpose, the ship’s mission, and his realization that everything is haywire in this high-tech Eden full of monsters. Hull Zero Three is a detective tale with philosophical undertones as the Teacher slowly makes sense of the chaos that surrounds him, contends with his earlier clones, and undergoes a quest. Anyone who has ever experienced the drudgery of actual teaching will appreciate Bear’s creation of the Teacher as a mythic archetype.  

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.


By Kim Stanley Robinson

Book cover of Aurora

Why this book?

Robinson, a science fiction master, has no qualms promoting views that are science fiction heresies. After publishing his acclaimed trilogy about the terraforming of Mars, in Aurora, Robinson argues that the astrofuture premise of science fiction dating back to its earliest days is wrong. The grand goal of evolving beyond the planet is doomed to fail. In Aurora, a generational starship arrives at its target exoplanet, but what seems a promising terraforming mission is stymied. As Robinson said to me in an email exchange, “The new paradigm might be that life is a planetary expression, and away from its home planet, life withers and dies.” Robinson has since turned to writing “cli-fi” books about how humanity can adapt to and forestall earthly environmental disaster. 

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Dreaming the Biosphere

By Rebecca Reider

Book cover of Dreaming the Biosphere

Why this book?

The Biosphere 2 project was the wackiest multimillion-dollar enterprise to emerge from the New Age movement. This book is a nonfiction account of how a New Mexico commune, with a charismatic leader, developed a plan to test the viability of off-planet living by creating a sealed-off biosphere, which would be a self-sustaining and organizing ecosystem in which humans could survive. The goal was to create not a sterile environment but one that supported life that would make off-planet living appealing. The four men and four women sequestered for two years in the 3.14-acre domed-off area outside Tucson grew into two factions that hated one another. All came close to starvation, CO2 poisoning, and madness. For readers that simply must have narrative in fiction form, T. Corraghesson Boyle’s The Terranauts is based on this same early 1990s episode. 

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Stars My Destination

By Alfred Bester

Book cover of The Stars My Destination

Why this book?

Alfred Bester, a colleague of Philip K. Dick’s, had as wild an imagination, but preferred his heroes in the Nietzchean mode. Gully Foyle, in The Stars My Destination, is a crude-speaking rogue, out to wreak his revenge on those who left him in space to die. While trying to make his way back to Earth after being marooned, one of his stops is at an asteroid inhabited by the “Scientific People.” These are descendants of lost scientists who chose to live in outer space “practicing a barbaric travesty of the scientific method they remembered from their forebears.” Foyle smashes his way off the asteroid via spaceship. Eventually, after a variety of crimes and fortune gathering, Foyle becomes the first to master the art of “space jaunting” or teleporting himself to distant planets; in the process the sinner man becomes something of a saint. It is a nutty, wild ride. 

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Distantly Related Book Lists