Please recommend books with lots of exploding spaceships
February 20, 2019 11:35 AM   Subscribe

One of my favorite kinds of science fiction is “naval warfare in space”. I love strategy, huge fleets of ships, and long, slow setups to big explosions. I think “The Hand Of God” and “Resurrection Ship” were among the best episodes of Battlestar Galactica, but get bored with all the bits that aren’t talking tactics. If a book has a picture of battleships on the cover, I’m likely to at least pick it up. Please recommend your favorite “space combat” science fiction!

I’m a non-violent, liberal-to-leftist person, but stories about naval space combat are a guilty pleasure. They fee very much like chess or strategy games to me, only with interesting characters and where I don’t need to do all the work. ;-)

Strong preference for novels rather than TV or movies for this, as I don’t have much time to sit in front of a screen these days.

Some extra details/challenges:
  • Many MilSF stories have horrible gender or race politics, and that yanks me right out of the story and makes me throw books across the room. I can deal with one or two characters who are assholes, but not when they’re glorified for being so or obvious stand ins for the author.
  • I’m fine with the story including a larger political thriller storyline, or other interpersonal dynamics, but the actual combat scenario has to be a major part of the story.
  • I get annoyed when an enemy is made too obviously stupid to make it easy for our protagonist to win. For example, Walter John Williams’ Praxis novels occasionally seemed to dumb down the enemy to create moments of awesome for the heroes (as well as having some more problematic bits...)
  • I really prefer good character development and writing when possible, but that isn’t a must. These are my guilty-pleasure reads, I have other books for beautiful prose.
posted by a device for making your enemy change his mind to Media & Arts (52 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
It's not exactly warfare, but Neal Stephenson's Seveneves has plenty of orbital mechanics wonkery.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:38 AM on February 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: CJ Cherryh, author. Rimrunners, Downbelow Station and Cyteen...there may be others in her series, but that's all I can remember right now.
posted by LaBellaStella at 11:39 AM on February 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: John Scalzi's Old Man's War series
David Weber's Honor Harrington series
James SA Corey's the Expanse series
posted by bove at 11:47 AM on February 20, 2019 [8 favorites]

Alastair Reynolds and Jack McDevitt might be worth a try. (Reynolds usually does pretty well on gender and race, at least as far as I can tell. McDevitt is clearly trying and does better than most.)
posted by eotvos at 11:48 AM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't know if it's something you'd enjoy or not - and it's webcomic, not prose - but it was the "lots of explosions" that made me think of it. Howard Tayler, who is part of the Writing Excuses podcast, writes Schlock Mercenary. I know he publishes them into book form periodically. Might be worth a look?
posted by stormyteal at 11:50 AM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I haven't read it since I was approximately 12, so I can't say how well it's aged, but C.S. Friedman's In Conquest Born fits into this category.
posted by praemunire at 11:54 AM on February 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My naval-warfare academic husband loves the battle scenes in Weber's Honor Harrington series. Weber used to design space-battle games and it shows: he's put great thought into how tactics in three dimensions without gravity might work. The characters are bland, but not offensive.

For a little less battle but better characterization, I like the first two Miles Vorkosigan books (books 4 and 5 of the whole "Vorkosigan Saga" chronology). The Vor Game has some nice strategy and tactics.
posted by jb at 11:57 AM on February 20, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The Machineries of the Empire series by Yoon Ha Lee might work for you - space fights, explosions, weird combat, good female and queer characters. Warning: combat involves a lot of spaceships blowing up but is also seriously weird and there's not much exposition.
posted by dinty_moore at 11:57 AM on February 20, 2019 [6 favorites]

Presumably you've read The Algebraist already, because it feels like everyone has, but if it's a new one for you, then you are in for a TREAT.

A Fire Upon the Deep is half space battle, half planet-bound, but there were sections so dramatic I read them while holding my breath.
posted by DSime at 11:58 AM on February 20, 2019 [9 favorites]

Would Ender's Game fit what you're looking for?
posted by kellygrape at 12:01 PM on February 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

It's probably closer to guilty pleasure, but Saturn Run has a bunch of technical nerdery.
posted by ftm at 12:02 PM on February 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You so want Elizabeth Moon's Vatta's War series!
posted by teremala at 12:07 PM on February 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Also Moon's Serrano/Suiza books. Content warning for the one with the Space Texases, which has lots of direct sexual abuse of a mainish character.

Both series are actively if mildly antisexist and antiracist, but Moon has said some dumb/bad shit about gay folks at least once.

Lots of talking tactics (some naval combat and some personal combat in space), and lots of talking about systems management and other bureaucratic stuff that ends up being innerestin.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 12:14 PM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

R[ebecca].M. Meluch's books of the "Tour of the Merrimack" are about the USS Merrimack, a kind of space battleship with space fighters, which represents one of the two Earth powers in space, the other being the bland UN, in Earth's competition for habitable planets against Palatine, a human colony that rebelled against Earth, and which is a spacefaring Roman Empire. I don't mean that allegorically, I mean they speak Latin and live by the rules and laws of Rome, and consider themselves cultural descendants of that empire after living underground as a secret society for millennia. These books are right-wing enough to give the vapors to many MeFites.

Ditto the more libertarian series of John Ringo's Troy Rising series. A big ol' stargate opens up in our solar system, and the aliens who built it show up to get paid, because that's how interstellar law works. They commence to fleece the Earth, but one guy (author-stand-in, probably) finds some unique-to-Earth goods that he can trade for alien technology, and begins to build a series of defenses for Earth to get the alien boot off its back. (Naturally the US Government fights him the whole way.) Space battles aplenty in the later books.

Seconding the Honor Harrington books-- I enjoyed the first dozen or more books, but around the time Harrington got some telepathic cats, I decided that I could move on. As a fan of the Age of Sail books and history, I can tell you that HH books were definitely designed to capture that sort of combat sensibility. Any idiot can see that HH herself is modeled on Nelson.

I recently blitzed through the 7.5 books of the Expeditionary Force series. I enjoyed them, but they break your first prohibition in that the main character is transparently a stand-in for the writer. There's also a wise-cracking know-it-all super-advanced-AI character, and he and the main character spend a lot of time flapping their jaws. I just found them both really fun and funny, and the writer did a good job of writing the characters into problems that seemed insurmountable, and then wrote their thought process out as they solved them.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:16 PM on February 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Actually, you basically want a lot of Elizabeth Moon's space opera (as opposed to her fantasy): she goes deep on the mil side of mil-sf.

I also recommend R. M. Meluch's Merrimack novels; they're probably OOP by now, but they are pretty exciting mil-sf, and come with a cool justification for why the heroes carry swords. That said, the race & gender politics are not awesome. It feels very dated from a political pov, although they're not that old.
posted by suelac at 12:17 PM on February 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Not my favorite genre so I don't unreservedly recommend anything but I think these meet your criteria:

The Poor Man's Fight series is battle and espionage.
Vatta's War is a merchant captain sucked into battle, which is what she'd trained for anyway. First one has relatively litle ship-to-ship stuff but after that explosions abound.

(On preview: Vatta's War is Elizabeth Moon recommended just above.)
posted by mark k at 12:18 PM on February 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It’s been a long while since I read it, but Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War might scratch some of your itches. It’s more-or-less based on Haldeman’s service in Vietnam, but set in a militaristic space opera.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:26 PM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Have you read the "Lost Fleet" books by "Jack Campbell" -- Dauntless and then Fearless and then Courageous, et al.? Every single one of them culminates in a giant, pretty well-described space battle among large groups of ships.

Much zapping and booming and brave sacrifice and whatnot. They feel a lot like "Bolitho Among The Comets."

(The manly-man protagonist does have relationships with women, and he's not suuuper-deep.)
posted by wenestvedt at 12:29 PM on February 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Legend of the Galactic Heroes. I've only seen the 2017 anime reboot but the story is just massive fleets of space battleships doing space battleship things. You can catch the recent anime adaptation on Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Die Neue These. If the novels are better than the adaptations (as is the usual case) then they would be a good bet.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:29 PM on February 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, If you like spaceships and space battles you should check out the Spacedock YouTube channel. Dude has a ton of stuff about battles in space and tearing apart bad space battles and breaking down ships and strategies.

sorry not strictly book related but I do love me some space battles!
posted by zengargoyle at 12:36 PM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I did a quick ctrl + f and didn't see this, so: The Imperial Radch Trilogy!

One thing I especially loved about this series is that the protagonist's species doesn't use gender and the default pronouns for everyone are female!

This special boxed set includes the New York Times bestselling author Ann Leckie's complete Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, and Locus Award-winning Ancillary space opera trilogy.

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.

Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren-- a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose-- to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

posted by chatongriffes at 12:42 PM on February 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

Daivd Feintuch's Seafort Saga is basically Hornblower ... in SPACE... As is common with these things the first book is probably the best.
posted by Jahaza at 12:42 PM on February 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Three Body Problem has a lot of physics/spacetime strategy/tactics, some, but not a ton of combat.
posted by so fucking future at 12:53 PM on February 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Have you read the old "Lensmen" novels? These are the ur-spacewar books, and every man in them is lantern-jawed. The politics might be rough sledding, but you may find the pay-off worth the journey: as wikipedia notes,
The series contains some of the largest-scale space battles ever written. Entire worlds are almost casually destroyed. Huge fleets of spaceships fight bloody wars of attrition. Alien races of two galaxies sort themselves into the allied, Lens-bearing adherents of "Civilization" and the enemy "Boskone".
posted by wenestvedt at 12:59 PM on February 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Expanse series has a moderate amount of space combat too, generally not too stupid.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:00 PM on February 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The Stars Now Unclaimed by Drew Williams would definitely fit the bill. Fun read, kick-ass action, non-awful characters.
posted by dellsolace at 1:30 PM on February 20, 2019

seconding James SA Corey's Expanse. They (two authors under one name) get the physics right and the series also deals with colonialism, inequality, and racism/othering.

The TV series (originally SyFy, now Amazon) is excellent too.
posted by zippy at 1:37 PM on February 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My naval-warfare academic husband loves the battle scenes in Weber's Honor Harrington series.

Yes this one. It’s a great series and many people’s complaints are “why is there so much naval space battle, ugh! I don’t want 150 pages of naval space tactics!” So this seems right up your alley.
posted by corb at 1:51 PM on February 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding CJ Cherryh's series that starts (I think?) with Downbelow Station.
posted by crookedneighbor at 2:08 PM on February 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I really prefer good character development and writing when possible, but that isn’t a must. These are my guilty-pleasure reads, I have other books for beautiful prose.

If you like battles with lots of description and technical details, as well as good prose, and really excellent character might like the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian. Not spaceships, alas, but the British Navy of the early 19th century. Very technical wonkery on the running of ships, masts, spars, bowlines; victualing; the management of the ship's guns; and by God amazing, detailed battles scenes with lots of EXPLOSIONS, often based directly on the ships' logs of the era so they are actual real battles. Quite varied: everything from ship-to-ship fights to big line of battle extravaganzas and long stern chases. All with a beautifully-developing and increasingly satisfying friendship between the two main characters.

Disclaimer: alas, not a single spaceship in the whole series of 21 novels.
posted by Orlop at 2:25 PM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Seconding 'The Lost Fleet' - they're not fantastic literature, some of the religion stuff is hokey as heck, but a central theme of the series is space naval warfare with predominantly ships of the line. The conceit is that after decades of warfare, military strategy has devolved into battles of attrition - until someone rescued from cryo-sleep brings back 4D (3 planes + time) combat strategy.

During the first few, there's a lot of discussion about strategy and how it evolves as the other side starts picking up on the new ideas. One of things I really appreciated was that there was decent sense that "space is big" and "it takes a long time to get anywhere even though you're moving very fast."
posted by porpoise at 2:28 PM on February 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

David Drake. The Reaches Series. RCN Series.
posted by Splunge at 2:39 PM on February 20, 2019

nth Forever War
posted by pompomtom at 3:43 PM on February 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Iain M. Banks' Culture novel 'Excession' might fit the bill. It's been a while since I've read it, but it might work as a standalone book without having read other Culture novels (they're not written as connected though each book does set the universe).
posted by kokaku at 3:45 PM on February 20, 2019 [5 favorites]

I do love me some RCN. The Mote in God's Eye begins with a cool space battle (maybe only in the revised version?)
posted by BeeDo at 4:13 PM on February 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

Plenty that I find problematic in it, but even so I'm having enough fun with humanity as the bad-ass aliens that everyone else is afraid of that I'm a Patreon contributor to the free Deathworlders tale, with lots of crashing spaceships and at least one destruction of a planet-scale orbital ring.
posted by straw at 4:31 PM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Marko Kloos' Frontlines series might tick some of your boxes, and does have very good character development too :)
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 5:18 PM on February 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I love me some Marko Kloos, but I would file his stuff under "space marines" rather than "battleships in space". Kloos was a groundpounder in his earlier life, I believe, and IMO is at his best when he is describing small-unit combat. It's like Starship Troopers without the giant boner for fascism. Highly recommended within that genre though.

J.A. Sutherland's Alexis Carew series is 100% a paean to the Age of Sail but IN SPAAAACE and also with a female protagonist. They are a bit of a guilty pleasure but I think they're great. (Also if the gender politics in the first ~20 pages offends you... that's the idea.) They're only $3 each on Kindle, so you're not out too much if it's not your thing. Physics definitely takes a backseat to "how do we have ships-of-the-line IN SPACE" so don't expect 'hard' SF. Some of the plots are drawn, quite unapologetically, from British naval history.

David Weber's Honor Harrington and Jack Cambell's Lost Fleet books are also good, although the politics of the latter are pretty on-the-nose at times, as I recall. Still, fun reads. I read the Harrington books so long ago I don't really remember much about them, aside from the titular character being very clearly a stand-in for Hornblower (not that there's anything wrong with that). I think I might have burned out before reading them all.

H. Paul Honsiger's Man of War series, which begins with To Honor You Call Us, was decent insofar as I remember it. (The downside with reading a ton of HORNBLOWER IN SPACE books is they all tend to blur together after a while.) It's admittedly less Hornblower than Aubrey-Maturin (but still IN SPACE), and has a roguish young captain and a brilliant doctor sidekick as the lead characters.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:37 PM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Iain M. Banks (mentioned above) is the master of modern Space Opera. The 2 books mentioned ('The Algebraist' & 'Excession') have the most ships shooting at each other. I'd maybe add 'Consider Phlebas' to the list. All of his books have some ship conflict & space politics mixed to varying degrees, and also some fairly gritty physical violence.

If you haven't sailed yet, I'd also recommend the Aubrey-Maturin nautical histories by Patrick O'Brian. It's not sci-fi, but it has rather intricate descriptions of the technical issues of ships in conflict with each other, and often reads much like decent space opera.
posted by ovvl at 6:38 PM on February 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Three Body Problem trilogy by Cixin Liu has some space combat in it. The second book, The Dark Forest has the most exploding space ships. But the whole trilogy is really worth reading.
posted by Daily Alice at 7:05 PM on February 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Honor Harrington novels are very good, but I admit giving up when the political situation in opposition empire got too convoluted. But for anyone who loves science fiction and Hornblower (like me) they are pretty good. And the space battles...oh my.
posted by lhauser at 7:15 PM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Scott Westerfield’s Succession duology has many semi-realistic space battles and awesome action. It’s like a better version of the Praxis series (whose mix of satire and hard science fiction is sometimes great and sometimes tiring)

I find the Big Three Baen MilSpace writers (Ringo, Drake, Weber) to be pretty reactionary and a little repetitive, but of those Weber is the best. He has other stuff beyond Honor Harrington that are fun. Baen is filled with other options, if you look around.

Pandora’s Star by Peter Hamilton is one of my favorite science fiction series, and has some space battles, ground battles, and crazy alien attacks. Not as heavy on the naval stuff, though it is there.

If you want super hard SF space battles, Atomic Rockets has a great list.
posted by blahblahblah at 7:17 PM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

A few more that are not all combat, but where space combat plays a big role:

If you like progressive politics, space battles, and heists, A Big Ship at the End of the Universe has some great space fight scenes.

Embers of War by Gareth Powell has some awesome ships in combat, with AIs and moral choices.
posted by blahblahblah at 7:25 PM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Mary Ellen Carter: "Marko Kloos' Frontlines series might tick some of your boxes, and does have very good character development too :)"

Seconding - these are great novels. They're very quick and fun reads, they don't assume 21st century politics and attitudes will neatly map onto a future several hundred years hence and militarily they have a definite ring of authenticity (the author is an ex-Bundeswehr corporal, so has some military experience outside of the Anglosphere). Think Starship Troopers without the cryptofascism.

Plus a lot of ships exploding. And whole planets being bombarded, that sort of thing.
posted by Happy Dave at 12:14 AM on February 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thirding the Three Body Problem trilogy.
posted by moiraine at 3:06 AM on February 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff has a good deal of this, as does the last book in the trilogy. I found it to be a very fun read.
posted by nalyd at 3:28 AM on February 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Exordium series, by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge, features some great space combat that makes use of faster-than-light travel in really interesting ways.. For example, if a ship arrives and sees that a battle happened an hour ago, it can jump a little more than a light-hour away and watch what happened as the light from the battle "catches up" to it. This fan page has some more examples, and should let you know whether or not this is your cup of tea. I think it should satisfy your other conditions, although it has a fair amount of political intrigue and land-based action in between the spaceships fighting.
posted by Zonker at 5:10 AM on February 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Apropos of Weber's Honor Harrington books, I started to find the political slant a bit wearying from the second book on. They're not ugly race/gender politics (although Honor of the Queen has loads of plot-relevant in-story gender politics), but the more worldbuilding was put behind Haven drawing it as a thin parody of real-world welfare states, the more distracted I was from the good space-battle larks (plus in the second and third books what seemed to be shots at pacifism in the evolution of the Housemans from mewling pacifists to moustache-twirling villains).

I mean, there's good space warfare in there, and the first book is honestly lots of fun, but since the request called out dubious politics, know that there's lots of authorial political grandstanding.
posted by jackbishop at 9:06 AM on February 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

So.. I've been on a more comedic space-opera kick, and have had fun with these series;

There Goes the Galaxy - Jenn Thorson

Neon Octopus Overlord - L.A. Johnson

And the last likely has the most explosions/battles throughout:

Space Team - Barry J. Hutchison

The last 2 are multi-series.. so they've gone past the original trilogies into 2 or more new trilogies. They are irreverent, pretty safe for work, not elite writing. But when I start reading one, I tend not to want to put it down.

Pew pew pew.
posted by rich at 10:29 AM on February 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Thirding Cherryh's Downbelow Station, that's the first thing I thought of when you mentioned Galactica. Truthfully the naval combat is only a minor piece of it, but I think Galactica owes quite a bit to the whole book. Especially Michelle Forbes's character, the badass admiral with questionable morality, who seems almost deliberately lifted from one of the major characters in Downbelow Station.

Larry Niven's Protector has some great naval combat, a true chess game with intelligent adversaries. And this is early Niven so it doesn't suffer from right-wing craziness.

Thirding Excession too.
posted by equalpants at 10:18 PM on February 21, 2019

It was already mentioned above, but Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire series is fantastic. I'm on my second read of it.

Also mentioned above, and HIGHLY worth a re-mentioning: the Anne Leckie's Ancillary Justice series. It's literally a story about a human-cyborg who is all that remains of an exploded spaceship, and her attempts to explode other spaceships in her quest for spaceship justice.
posted by weed donkey at 11:48 PM on February 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: YAY! Thank you all for your recommendations. I’m especially excited by all the new series I’m seeing in this list.

I’ve got a couple of new books on my Kindle, and many additions to my goodreads and library wishlists. \o/
posted by a device for making your enemy change his mind at 8:45 AM on February 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

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