Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

A (Literary) Journey to Outer Space

space 1

Last week’s Hannah’s Bookshelf had a bit of an intergalactic theme – inspired by British astronaut Tim Peake‘s return to Earth after six months on the International Space Station – and I featured some of my favourite books set in outer space. If you missed the show, you can catch it again on the player below. But, as promised, here’s a list of the books I featured on the show. Let me know if I missed your favourites!

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1917)

princess of mars

Not one of my favourite books, but definitely an interesting place to start for a run-down of books set on other planets. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s ‘planetary romance’ was originally published as a serial in All-Story Magazine (1912), but reissued in hardcover in 1917. It tells the story of John Carter, a Confederate veteran of the US Civil War, who is mysteriously transported to Mars while prospecting for gold in Arizona. There, he meets a tribe of Tharks (green Martians), rescues Dejah Thoris (the eponymous princess and one of the humanoid red Martians), gets involved in Martian politics, wins the girl and saves the day. A mixture of romance (in the older sense of the word), Western and swashbuckling adventure, A Princess of Mars is a significant early example of extra-terrestrial fiction, and it’s been cited as an influence by both fiction and non-fiction writers.

The book spawned ten sequels, including The Gods of Mars, Thuvia, Maid of Mars, The Master Mind of Mars and Synthetic Men of Mars. Like H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, the depiction of Mars in the books (though undoubtedly a fantasy of the colonial imagination) actually draws on contemporary ideas about the red planet, particularly the writings of Percival Lowell (Mars (1895), Mars and its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908)). A Princess of Mars was adapted into a film by The Asylum, the makers of Sharknado and Snakes on a Train.

Solaris by Stanisław Lem (1961)


Written in Polish, and translated from Polish to French then French to English in 1970, Solaris is probably Lem’s best-known work (in the Anglophone world, at least). The book is set on the Solaris Station, a research station orbiting an oceanic planet (the ‘Solaris’ of the title). For decades, scientists have been studying the enigmatic planet (giving rise to the scientific discipline of ‘Solaristics’), but have been unable to penetrate the mystery of its (living) ocean. Kris Kelvin arrives at the station shortly after the planet has been bombarded with high energy X-rays – just in time to experience the unexpected results of the experiment. An unsettling and philosophical exploration of the human psyche and the implications of attempts to know the unknowable, Solaris is a bafflingly beautiful (or beautifully baffling) book that, like much of Lem’s writing, is as much about the human conscious as it is about extraterrestrial life.

Solaris has been adapted for the big screen three times, by Boris Nirenberg (1968), Andrei Tarkovsky (1972) and James Cameron (2002). Outside of Solaris, however, Lem’s work remains rather under-read in the English-speaking world. For a great (and, at least for me, home-grown) introduction, I recommend the Lemistry anthology, published by Comma Press.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl (1972)

glass elevator

Dahl’s sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory begins where the first book left off, with Charlie and his family riding in the glass lift that will take them to the chocolate factory. When Charlie’s grandmother Georgina mistakenly prevents Wonka from directing them back to the factory, the lift shoots off into orbit and the party find themselves docking at a newly opened space hotel. The travellers are initially mistaken for aliens by US president Lancelot R. Gilligrass, the party soon have some actual aliens to contend with – in the form of the Vermicious Knids. Let’s hope Wonka had the foresight to make his great glass elevator Knid-proof…

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator has never been adapted for the screen, apparently as a result of Dahl being disappointed in the 1971 adaptation of the first ‘Charlie’ book. Dahl intended to write a third ‘Charlie’ book, which would pick up where Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator left off – entitled Charlie in the White House – but only the first chapter of this book was written. The manuscript chapter of Charlie in the White House is held by the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick (1965)

palmer eldritch

Another unsettling and mind-bending sci-fi choice now – and an interesting companion to Lem’s Solaris (particularly when you find out about the odd relationship between the two authors). In Dick’s trippy dystopia, global temperatures have risen to the point where Earth is near enough uninhabitable and humans have set out on a massive project of colonization and expansion. In order to facilitate this, a ‘draft’ has been introduced, signing up unwilling settlers to be relocated to the harsh and primitive off-world colonies. For many, the only way of coping is to take the illegal drug Can-D while staring at a ‘Perky Pat’ layout, and to lose themselves in a shared hallucination of Pat and her happy little world. The novel follows the intersecting stories of Barney Mayerson (a ‘precog’ who works for P.P. Layouts and is facing involuntary resettlement to Mars), Leo Bulero (the head of P.P. Layouts and a recipient of extensive genetic modification or ‘evolution therapy’) and Palmer Eldritch (a merchant adventurer, rescued and shielded by the UN on his return from Proxima Centauri, amid rumours that he has brought back an alien hallucinogen – nicknamed Chew-Z – that’s even more potent than Can-D). It’s difficult to say exactly what happens next – but that’s pretty much the point of the book. It’s a complicated and uneasy read, where you’re left more with metaphysical questions about the nature of reality, rather than a solid understanding of plot.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)

hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy

Based on the 1978 radio series, Adams’s novel tells the story of hapless galactic traveller, Arthur Dent, who is recused from the destruction of Earth by his friend Ford Prefect (who, it transpires, is a Betelgeusian field researcher and writer for the titular travel guide). After hitching a ride on the Vogon Constructor Fleet, Arthur and Ford hook up with Zaphod Beeblebrox (President of the Galaxy), travel to Magrathea and discover that Earth’s true purpose was to serve as a super-computer tasked with calculating the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything’ (the answer to which, as computed millennia earlier by another super-computer called Deep Thought, is 42). I probably don’t need to say much more about it here though, as Adams’s novel is incredibly popular. In 2003, it was voted no. 4 in the BBC’s Big Read search for the nation’s best-loved book.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the first book in an ‘increasingly inaccurately named’ trilogy. It was followed by The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (the first two books in the series cover the events of the radio serial and 1981 TV series, though not in exactly the same order), then Life, the Universe and Everything, So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish and Mostly Harmless. In 2008, Eoin Colfer wrote a sixth novel for the series, entitled And Another Thing….

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin (1972)

word for world is forest

Le Guin’s Hainish cycle of novels and short stories is set in an alternate universe in which the people of Hain long ago colonized all nearby planets (including Terra, or Earth), leaving a legacy of human beings (or humanoid beings) who are remotely related, but who have long since stopped communicating with one another. That’s an awfully simplistic way of introducing the complex backstory to the cycle, but it’ll have to do. The full Hainish history – and its array of worlds and people – is revealed gradually across a number of works, with each book or short story concentrating on a particular period or planet. The Hainish cycle comprises the novels and novellas: Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, The Word for World is Forest and The Telling, as well as seventeen short stories. I did toy with the idea of talking about other books, but I decided that The Word for World is Forest was an apt choice for this list, as it returns us (in a way) to some of the concerns that were swashbucklingly glossed over in A Princess of Mars.

The Word for World is Forest is set on Athshe, a forest planet inhabited by a pacifist people. Before the story begins, Athshe has been partially colonized by Terra, who have set up military logging colonies to strip the planet of its precious timber. The novella is told from three alternating first-person perspectives: Captain Davidson (a Terran military leader), Selver (an Athshean rebel who instigates an attack on Davidson’s camp in retaliation for the rape of his wife) and Raj Lyubov (an anthropologist who participates in the League of Worlds enquiry into the rebellion). The novella is more strident (almost didactic) in tone than the other Hainish stories, and its ecological and anti-war message is hard to avoid – it’s been described as an ‘angry’ book, which I think is a fair assessment. But as angry sci-fi goes, it’s undoubtedly one of the best.

And so I ended my extra-terrestrial edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on a somewhat downbeat note (or maybe it was a warning note). If you’d like to hear more about any of these books, or my reasons for choosing them, you can catch the show again here:


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