I love to see archaeology in my sci-fi. Meeting up with a living alien race can be exciting but the problems often revolve around the same-old intergalactic confrontations, with the desires of both species designed to be at-odds. That’s how an alien-encounter plot holds its tension, nothing wrong with that.
But there’s something unique about discovering a dead alien race. It makes them seem so much more vulnerable and… dare I say… relatable? The artifacts we discover through the story’s characters are just as exciting as if we discovered them in real life. There’s an unforseen level of creativity and mystery that goes into them that makes ooh and ahh and want to know more.
As we gain a rounded view of the extinct civilization, we begin to see their weaknesses, their Achilles’ Heel that wrung them out; we see the challenges they faced and how much farther than us they got until they succumbed. We see a face much like our own and, rather than feel threatened or out-leagued by them, we’re empathetic and awed.
At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft (1936) is possibly the earliest example of this subgenre. Many books that have followed Lovecraft’s example have also used ancient worlds as a way of showing us just how little we know.
There are far more than 11 books on this list since most of these books come attached to a series, but we figure that’s a good thing. The more to choose from, the more to enjoy, the better. Read on for classic and modern reads that revolve around ancient societies, dangerous artifacts, and unparalleled discovery.
The Saga of the Seven Suns series by Kevin J. Anderson
In the year 2427, humans are conquering the galaxy. In an attempt to turn a lone planet into a sun so its moons can be inhabited, they wake a sleeping civilization. One who thinks humans are far too eager to colonize and are willing to go to war to stop it. Hidden Empire (2002) is the first in a seven book series called The Sage of the Seven Suns. Anderson writes a dense story full of lively characters and intricate world building.
Kevin J Anderson is an incredibly prolific author. He’s won a multitude of awards and has 165 books under his belt. He writes tales about Dune, Star Wars, and The X-Files; he’s also known for his Clockwork Angels series (steampunk) and his Zombie PI series (humor merged with horror). He owns a small publishing company with his wife.
Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erickson
Steven Erickson is a Canadian author who is a trained archeologist and anthropologist. His expertise shines through in his ten-volume series called Malazan Book of the Fallen. It’s a highly praised series of epic fantasy some called Erickson’s masterpiece. The setting for the series was originally devised as an RPB but the story grew to uncontainable heights. Gardens of the Moon was published in 1999 and the series’ last book, The Crippled God, was published in 2011.
In book one, Gardens of the Moon, we are introduced to the Malazan Empire, which is restless and saturated with violence. Our character, a weary Sergeant Whiskeyjack, is desperate for rest. But the Empress Laseen won’t resign her aggressive rule. Things are made even more perilous when dark gods turn their eyes Whiskeyjack’s way.
Planetfall by Emma Newman
The best and brightest of Earth follow the Pathfinder, a visionary to a new settlement on a new planet where they live in peace. Ren, the settlement’s 3D engineer, harbors a secret for the Pathfinder, one that would be divisive and destructive if it got out. When a stranger appears, much too young to be from the settlement, Ren feels herself unwinding. Her paranoia and anxiety get the best of her and her composure begins to crack.
Planetfall (2015) has been called a vivid, heartbreaking maze of a book. It’s a work of sociological science fiction that explores the connections between mythology and science. Emma Newman is a dark fantasy writer, audiobook narrator, and co-host of a Hugo nominated podcast called “Tea & Jeopardy.”
In the Time of the Sixth Sun series by Thomas Harlan
In an alternate history crossed with hard space opera, The Wasteland of Flint is a story about a world ruled by an Aztec empire. Humans have worked to become an intergalactic species, but only to be greeted by a universe that more closely resembled a tomb. Relics of past civilizations have been left behind and xeno-archaeologist Gretchen Andersson has made a career out of finding them.
Unexpectedly, Gretchen is recalled back to Earth to embark on a mission to search for a missing survey crew. But, to her horror, she’ll be traveling on a Japanese-commanded warship alongside an aristocrat who is both a judge and a sorcerer. Feeling like she’s out of her league, Gretchen soon finds out she’s far in over her head than she thought.
Akin to the work of Harry Turteldove, The Wasteland of Flint (2004) is full of unique culture, agile characters, and superbly developed plot-setting dynamic. It’s the first book in the series In the Time of the Sixth Sun by Thomas Harlan.
The Priscilla Hutchins series and the Alex Benedict series by Jack McDevitt
As an author, Jack McDevitt focuses heavily on contact with alien races and archeology. He may be the most invested author on this list and deserves a good look. Many of his books deal with the topic so there’s more than just one to recommend here. He’s a multi-award winning American author with over twenty books in print. The two series that he’s most well-known for, and that deal heavily in archeology, are the Alex Benedict series and the Priscilla Hutchins series.
Priscilla Hutchins is a pilot dedicated to exploring outer space. Earth in the 23rd century is a precarious place to live due to our inability to solve population and pollution problems. Hutch, as they call her, continues to find evidence for extinct alien races—a problem that makes her uneasy as it proves humans are up against a bigger chance of wipe-out than they think. This books in this series are: The Engines of God (1994), Deepsix (2001), Chindi (2002), Omega (2003), Odyssey (2006), Cauldron (2007), Starhawk (2013), and they do not need to be read in order.
Alex Benedict is an antique dealer living 9,000 years in the future. When his archaeologist uncle dies, he’s left with his uncle’s unfulfilled final mission, but that mission is shrouded in mystery. Benedict returns, book after book, to solve space artifact puzzles in a time when humans are combating a clever enemy. The whole series reads as if Isaac Asimov had written Sherlock Holmes. Titles in order: A Talent for War (1989), Polaris (2004), Seeker (2005), The Devil’s Eye (2008), Echo (2010), Firebird (2011), Coming Home (2014).
The White Space series by Elizabeth Bear
Ancestral Night is a space opera in which Elizabeth Bear built an engrossing story within a broad and sweeping civilization. Haimey and Connla are scrappers, browsing the galaxy for salvage. Aided by an A.I. working off a debt, they incidentally stumble on an entire alien ship—one with technology beyond what their current civilization is capable of—they suspect is from a long-dead race. Haimey believes the crew on that ship met an unfortunate end but before they can figure out what happened, they’re attacked… by space pirates.
Book one of the White Space trilogy, Ancestral Night (2019) is full of complex world building, political intrigue, and more trouble than the team can handle. It’s a book for readers who enjoy diverse space creatures, philosophical debates, and hard science. (Books two and three are still in the works.)
The Heritage Universe series by Charles Scheffeld
The Heritage Universe by Charles Scheffeld is about an ancient race called the Builders who left artifacts scattered about the galaxy. In an astronomical phenomenon that only happens every 350,000 years, Professor Darya Lang insists on being present on a planet called Quake. She studies the Builders’ artifacts and is sure some will be revealed on Quake as it passes near the sun. In Summertide: The Heritage Universe Book One (1990), Lang will discover the secrets of the planet and its Builders.
The Themis Files series by Sylvain Neuvel
When a little girl falls through the a hole in the ground, she finds herself in a space with glowing walls covered in strange carvings. What she’s actually sitting in is a giant metal hand. Rose grows up to become a physicist but the mystery of the hand is never solved. None of society’s sciences can determine where, or when, the hand is from. Sleeping Giants (2016) is a story about Rose as she tries to solve the world’s greatest mystery and learns that perhaps the answer is deadly.
The Themis Files is a high-concept, action-packed trilogy by Sylvian Neuvel about shadow governments and non-human life likened to World War Z and The Martian.
Natural History by Justina Robson
The Forged are genetically altered human-machine hybrids perform tasks too risky for “unevolved” humans. When Voyager Isol materializes from her 15 year exploration quest, she claims she’s found an uninhabited Earth-like planet. The Forged want to leave Earth’s solar system and claim their freedom on the new planet. Professor Zephyr Duquesne, an archeaologist and historian is sent to study the new planet and what she find there is a power great enough to have wiped out the civilization that once lived there and is still dangerous enough to take out more. The Forge have a choice. How much are they willing to give up for freedom?
Natural History (2004) is Justina Robson’s US debut. Her work has been nominated for multiple awards and compared to Ian M. Banks and Ken Macleod.
Empire Games by Charles Stross
A spin-off from the Merchant Princes series, this new series opens in the year 2020 with a new generation of travelers passing through parallel dimensions. It isn’t completely necessary to read the previous series because Stross catches new readers up (though they are said to be good reads). Empire Games: A Tale of the Merchant Princes Universe is an alternate-universe/alternate-history book that deals with a universe where the white house got nuked and a universe where France rules England. Our main character, Rita, a dimension walker, discovers her long-lost mother on the other side of the universe.
Where’s the archaeology, you ask? The synopses don’t talk about it much but there is a hefty subplot based on an archaeological dig that runs through these books. Empire Games (2017) is a book full of espionage, foreign invasion, and advanced technology. Charles Stross, a Hugo award winner from Scotland, delivers an addicting series that’ll keep you wondering what’s around the next turn.
What I notice is that a lot of the books on this list are dated. That does not, by any means, mean they aren’t worth a read. But it does mean there’s still plentiful room for archaeology stories in the sci-fi realm. Hopefully it’s a subject that will continue to make a lasting impact on the genre, as these books have done.