Books about expeditions, exploration, and experiencing the unknown

This list began when I was looking for books similar to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space. My research, however, quickly branched out in several directions and broadened its scope far beyond my original goal.

The final list weaves together several themes from the genres of science fiction, weird fiction, and horror. Its primary focus is on narratives about the exploration of the unknown. This can refer to stories about literal expeditions into strange and fascinating places; however, in some of the books listed, the exploration is more metaphorical and does not require much movement through space.

Several prominent sub-genres and tropes of science fiction are represented here. The first is the first contact tale, since “the unknown” in sci-fi is often represented by extraterrestrial life. A related trope is that of Big Dumb Objects, which are typically alien megastructures that the characters endeavor to investigate. Another genre is xenoarcheological adventure: a caper in style of Indiana Jones, involving the recovery of artifacts from ancient alien cultures. Finally, several of the books belong to what can be called zone fiction: tales about traveling through mysterious spaces excluded from the normal order of nature, in which familiar objects and phenomena take on new forms.

The related themes of strange landscapes, haunted spaces, and the metamorphosis of nature are common in weird fiction. The crucial difference is that there the unknown cannot be accounted for in scientific terms, and its internal workings cannot be explained. It has nightmarish or hallucinatory qualities and remains truly uncanny, beyond the reach of our conceptual schemes.

In the case of horror, there is a long tradition of narratives about doomed expeditions to hostile and isolated locations. Such stories very often devolve into survival horror scenarios, with characters desperately attempting to overcome a variety adversities ranging from extreme weather conditions to monstrous creatures.

As you can see, the selection provided is quite eclectic. This applies not only to the themes and genres of the books included, but also to their perceived artistic merit and cultural reputation. While some of the tiles fall squarely into the category of “literary” speculative fiction, others are lighter page-turners that can serve as an entertaining diversion.

The list