Sci-Fi / Fantasy Novels with Travel to Unique and Well-Imagined Places
July 23, 2013 5:08 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a particular type of escapist literature. For financial reasons, I can't travel that much at this stage in my life. So, I would like to read some fantasy or science fiction novels in which the characters travel to interesting and richly imagined worlds. I would like travel or exploration to be a significant part of the novels. I don't want to read about the same old faux-Tolkien worlds or generic galactic empires.
posted by Area Man to Media & Arts (41 answers total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
Surely you've read Consider Phlebas and other Iain Banks "Culture" novels? If not check em out, the exotic locales are plentiful!

I'm in the middle of classic Sci-fi retelling of Canterbury Tale "Hyperion" and it's pretty great. If your idea of travel writing includes "Heart of Darkness" check it out too.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:17 AM on July 23, 2013 [8 favorites]

Have you read a lot of SF and fantasy? I mean, I would recommend eg The Left Hand of Darkness but if you like this sort of stuff chances are you've already read it.
posted by Segundus at 5:17 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Child of Fortune, by Norman Spinrad, is about a young girl taking her wanderjahr, and her travels to different planets. If you read it and like it, please then try The Void Captain's Tale, set in the same universe but is a radically different story about adults.

Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, by Samuel Delaney, isn't about travel per se, but contains some really cool worlds/cultures.
posted by Gorgik at 5:34 AM on July 23, 2013

I recommend it all the time in AskMe, but for this question it really is perfect. The Monster Blood Tattoo series.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:35 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Diana Wynne Jones' "A Tale of Time City" has some incredibly imaginitive and detailed settings, and travel does take up a large portion of the book. It's really like nothing I've ever read before.
posted by lemerle at 5:42 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I liked Lord Valentine's Castle by Robert Silverberg for this reason. The book has humans and non-humans interacting on a world with diverse geography that the characters explore on their way to their destinations.
posted by dragonplayer at 5:48 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Connie Willis, Uncharted Territory. One of her shorter books; all about exploration on a far-away planet.

Daniel Abrahams' Long Price quartet includes travel and has some of the best-realized cultures and settings in modern fantasy.

Scott Lynch's Red Seas under Red Skies has travel (although it's the second book in the series; the first book is excellent, though).

If travel can include time travel, both Kage Baker's The Company novels and Connie Willis's time-traveling historians are great.
posted by pie ninja at 5:56 AM on July 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Robert Silverberg's Star of Gypsies is all about describing the numerous alien worlds that the protagonist has lived on, some exquisite, some horrific.
posted by anansi at 6:04 AM on July 23, 2013

Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith, a sorta-classic adventure story with a mystery and a lesbian society. One of the best escapist-adventure-y SF novels I've read.

Triton, by Samuel Delany. Also his novel Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand - that is a genuinely novel and bizarre set of worlds - the cliff-dug city of Morgre, the commune/art-installation/museum/family residence Dyethshome; the multiple-tongued and polyvocal lizard-dragons who form families with the humans. The Family and the Sygn! Vaurine travel! And Rat Korga, a victim of Radical Anxiety Termination. Now, Stars is an experimental novel in terms of language, so it might take a while to get into....but it became one of my very favorite novels once I did.

I also just read a very favorable review of Jack Vance's Emphyrio.

And also I'd suggest Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. Technically it is set on a far, far future earth, but it might as well be another planet.
posted by Frowner at 6:05 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds: A Novel of An Ancient China That Never Was. Fantastic, vibrant, non-Western.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:06 AM on July 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

Banks' Culture novels were the first things I thought of, too. Since Potomac Avenue already has you covered on that one, how about Larry Niven's Ringworld series?
posted by DingoMutt at 6:06 AM on July 23, 2013

I'm going to third Iain Banks' Culture series and also put up China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and The Scar for weird, cool, insane world-building.
posted by mean cheez at 6:10 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

You want Avram Davidson's Doctor Eszterhazy series, collected in The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy (1975) and The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy (1991). The kingdom of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania is a weird and wonderful place, and Davidson was a weird and wonderful writer (you can get an idea from here).
posted by languagehat at 6:24 AM on July 23, 2013

oh god! What a wonderful question.

The Sparrow, by Maria Doria Russel. Music from outer space is discovered in the near future; Jesuits (of course) scramble an interstellar mission to meet and greet the society. Something goes terribly wrong. Amazing characters (both human and alien).

Changing Planes, by Ursula K. Leguin. The narrator discovers a method for shifting between planes of existence (on this plane, only possible at airports) and writes a chapter on each of the unique societies she visits. Each one is absolutely wonderful.

The Left Hand of Darkness, also by Leguin. An emissary from the intergallactic organization comes to a planet and must navigate the murky waters of political allegiances, foreign cultures and societies, and nation-states in a tense state of conflict.
posted by entropone at 6:29 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

As much as everyone else in the world seems to hate the series, this sounds like a job for the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Well, at least the first two series (he's almost done with the third and last). Modern-day writer (and, incidentally, leper) Thomas Covenant is hit by a car and wakes up in "The Land". Over the course of 6 books, he travels across The Land, and the World, looking to find a way to stop Lord Foul.

Donaldson describes much of this travel in great, almost microscopic, detail.
posted by hanov3r at 6:35 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nthing Banks for lots of travel to weird places.


Terminal World by Aliester Reynolds.

Solaris By Stanislaw Lem

Roadside Picnic by Boris Stugatsky

The Scar by China Mieville (I'm reading Railsea at the moment - it has a pretty nuts world, I don't yet know if travel is a component.)
posted by Artw at 6:39 AM on July 23, 2013

Elizabeth Haydon's Rhapsody spend a fair amount of time, in great detail, traveling from one world to the next with a whole lot of world building in the "new" one. There's a decent amount of time dedicated to describing the new world and how it came to its current status. But it is still more fantasy than it is world-building.
posted by jmd82 at 7:21 AM on July 23, 2013

Eleanor Arnason's A Woman of the Iron People has lots and lots of traveling in an alien society. There's also a fair bit of travel and exploration in The Steerswoman and its sequels by Rosemary Kirstein.
posted by Janta at 7:36 AM on July 23, 2013

I'm a big fan of Dan Simmons. 'Hyperion', 'Fall of Hyperion', 'Endymon', and 'The Rise of Endymon' all have a wonderfully imagined universe that characters travel around all over the place. His books 'Illium' and 'Olympos' are limited to just far-future Earth and Mars but the characters never seem to stop going from one place to another

He also has a historical-ish novel called 'The Terror' if you're interested in travelling into the frozen north with a failed British expedition searching for the northwest passage (plus some super-natural stuff).

There's also the Greg Bear series, The Way which involves some trans-dimensional exploration

Of course, there's always Douglas Adams.
posted by ghostiger at 7:43 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

China Miéville's The City and the City perhaps. Not exploration exactly, but a highly realized sense of a foreign place with rules and customs you learn as you go along.
posted by tyllwin at 7:44 AM on July 23, 2013

I'd like to suggest Terry Prachett's Discworld, a 30+ book series that starts out as parody of Sword and Sorcery genre and evolves into a fully fleshed out world chock full of Social Satire and memorable characters. I can't recommend this enough. It starts out "generic" but becomes, if anything, highly and wonderfully idiosyncratic.
posted by capnmarrrrk at 7:54 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Guy Gavriel Kay uses history as the launching point for his fantasy work, often to re-imagine points where things might have gone differently. I'd suggest The Lions of Al-Rassan (medieval Spain), the Sarantine duology Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, (Byzantium and an alternate Justinian and Theodora), his two books set in an alt-China, and perhaps - although you may want to read his early, playing-with-Tolkien-tropes trilogy first, Ysabel, set in current-day Provence but with deep mythic ties to the history of the place.

Also, I think Doris Egan's Gate of Ivory might work very nicely - the main character is stranded on a different planet and it's charming and anthropological and very wry and delightful.
posted by PussKillian at 8:00 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Any of Lois McMaster Bujold's books. Her worlds are so well put together, and there's a lot of travel in most of them without feeling too "quest-y".
posted by Kriesa at 8:12 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Possibly of interest: Q: What are your favorite “road trips” in science fiction and fantasy? What makes a good road trip in a genre story? Answered by several SFF authors.

I feel like I should have about a hundred answers for this, but I can't seem to gather my thoughts, except to say that I really, really, really love "The Scar," that others have mentioned, and also "The Etched City" (– and I so wish K.J. Bishop were continuing with that world, but it seems not to be the case).

Not so sure about how much this one aligns with the travel requirement, and depending on your tastes (and of course all these suggestions depend upon your tastes!), you might also like the unusual "Engineer Trilogy" (link to first book), which features an exile and alien (not that kind of alien) in the land of his nation's enemy, and is a style unto itself, I think. Plus, no one knows who the author actually is (another "KJ" – pseudonymously, anyway), which is kind of fun-mysterious. One review of the trilogy here.
posted by taz at 8:24 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

To chime in on PussKillian's recommendations (which I wholeheartedly agree with!), if you read any of GGK's books, read The Lions of al-Rassan. There's a lot of journeying, both physically and spiritually, and it's just flat out an amazing book. The fantasy aspect is barely there, the world is richly detailed (based on an alternate universe medieval Spain), and the plot is driven by people's actions, not some overarching, nebulous "evil". And the characters are fantastic. Lions is GGK's best book to date (which is saying something, given that most of his other novels are great too), as far as I'm concerned, and one of my favorite books of all time.
posted by ashirys at 8:30 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you don't mind an odd vein of '70s and '80s contemporary culture in your psychedelic high fantasy, my favorite escapist fantasy series is Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber. The protagonists Corwin and Merlin (no particular relation to the Arthurian Merlin) travel to one richly imagined, vividly detailed fantasy setting after another. The world-building is really incredible. Rather than building one strongly consistent world (like Tolkien or Iain M. Banks), the stories have sort of a nexus of worlds at the center and branch out into wildly varied locales from there. The books are a breezy read, loosely plotted and quickly paced. You can get them all in one combined paperback.
posted by mindsound at 8:54 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was also going to recommend Changing Planes, but really any of LeGuin's sci-fi will probably scratch that travel itch since they're mostly about representatives of an intergalactic government travelling to new planets.

I just read A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan, which is written as an actual travelogue by a Victorian dragon naturalist.
posted by natabat at 9:43 AM on July 23, 2013

If you are looking for picaresque travel:
Jack Vance's Dying Earth & Wolfe's Urth of the New Sun are some of the best wandering from scene to scene in worlds full of wonders. Jernigan's No Return is a more recent take.

This was also a big style in the 1970s/80s. In addition to the Amber series, Nifft the Lean, Jack of Shadows, etc.

George R R Martin's Tuff series (and all of his SF short stories in Song for Lya)
posted by blahblahblah at 9:46 AM on July 23, 2013

Apparently I like this sort of book too, because many of my favorites are listed above.

For your consideration:
A Woman of the Iron People
Golden Witchbreed
Mission Child
The Steerswoman's Road

These all have a journey as a major plot point.
posted by maryrussell at 9:59 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

When you start with China Mieville, don't stop with the books mentioned above. Also add Embassytown to your list. Travel over incredibly long distances is a central point to the plot, as are its efffects on society and politics. The other worlds are unique and well-described, right down to the language in one of the most distant worlds (which coincidentally plays a huge role in the plot).
posted by whatzit at 11:17 AM on July 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'd second Niven's Ringworld series, but even more so his Integral Trees series. It's an almost entirely novel world, whereas the Ringworld at least has recognisable features.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars series has some great, detailed exploration of different places on Mars, though it can be bit of a dense story at times.
posted by lucidium at 11:45 AM on July 23, 2013

late to the party but Wil McCarthy's "Bloom."

Survivors of a nanodisaster on Earth and the inner system are leading an austere existence among the Jovian moons. They decide to see what is happening on the worlds now taken over by Technogenic Life and have a stop over in the asteroid belt where they meet other survivors that have taken a vastly different approach to survival.
posted by codswallop at 12:05 PM on July 23, 2013

It isn't exactly science fiction, but Jan Morris's Last Letters from Hav is a pseudo-travel book about a very richly imagined fictitious city. It's vivid, wonderfully written, and so plausible that (according to the preface to my edition, which is by Ursula K. Le Guin) when the book came out travel agents found themselves flooded with inquiries about travel to the nonexistent Hav.
posted by zeri at 1:19 PM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

A lot of the regular scifi I would have suggested has already been covered. One thing out of left field that might scratch your itch though is a fantasy novel series called the Cloakmaster Cycle, set in the AD&D universe. The series takes place in the Spelljammer setting, which is basically magical starships travelling between different solar systems, some of which have truly unique worlds, peoples and societies. Questing and exploration in service of the quest are the main themes of the series.
posted by barc0001 at 1:36 PM on July 23, 2013

Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente is about a dark and strange Wonderland that can only be visited after... ahem. It is not a book for the prude, but I found it haunting and beautiful and just a tad depressing. In a good way.

I'll also 2nd anything by Mieville already recommended, his worldbuilding is outstanding.
posted by Roommate at 2:06 PM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

What about richly illustrated imagined worlds?
Previous question answered with 'Tour of the Universe'
posted by anonymisc at 3:41 PM on July 23, 2013

John Varley's Gaea trilogy: Titan, Wizard and Demon. Cool, they are some of my favorite books but I think this is the first time I ever recommended them here! Fantastic world building and really all three books, particularly the first one, are basically travelogues.
posted by mygothlaundry at 6:19 PM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven by Mark Twain; not a novel but rather a short story and a very fun and funny short story it is, Twain lampooning the conventional ideas of heaven. Twain was upset, he had anger about and toward religion, it's various buffooneries and stupidities.

So Captain Stormfield dies, and journeys to heaven, and tells us what he sees there, what he learns. Great fun. A good read, and you can find it free all over the internet. I sure recommend it.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:38 AM on July 24, 2013

And don't miss Letters From The Earth, another fantasy journey written by Twain, really something. Reading Twain young brought me real comfort, to know that I wasn't the only one not fitting into the mold.

Yet again, he's more than a little angry about the lies and conceits in that big ol' book that messes up so many lives, he's more than a little angry at the people who just refuse to think with any clarity.

Again, this one is freely available all over the 'net, and it sure is a great read.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:50 AM on July 24, 2013

Gene Wolfe's Book Of The New Sun
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:22 AM on July 25, 2013

Maureen McHugh's Half the Day is Night
posted by ansate at 9:52 AM on July 27, 2013

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