Where a good portion of science fiction publications are based on existing licenses or striking out in the brave new world of narrative design, the Terran Trade Authority book series was content to create a guide to an alternate universe. The future seen in the Terran Trade Authority universe was a striking, at some times bizarre glimpse into an alternate human timeline. And though the book series, originally published between 1978 and 1980, is largely out of print or and difficult to find these days, it's an earmark of science fiction that anyone who attests that they're well-versed in the medium should seek out and familiarize themselves with.
Written by Stewart Cowley and illustrated by various science fiction painters like Peter Elson, Chris Foss, Chris Moore and Jim Burns, the first four books that comprise the series are Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD, Great Space Battles, SpaceWreck: Ghost Ships and Derelicts of Space, and Starliners: Commercial Travel in 2200 AD. The first four volumes are lavish tomes with full-page, full-color illustrations with gorgeous artwork and engaging copy that acts as a fictionalized retrospective of the world depicted within. For example, Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD recounts the first 100 years of interplanetary space travel, all told from the perspective of one living in the game's universe.
To fully immerse yourself within the narrative the Terran Trade Authority books craft, you'll need to understand that in 2011 in that world, humans traveled to Mars and established a space station, and in 2036 one of our own ships made contact with the aliens of Alpha Centauri. It's mind-bending stuff, but absolutely fascinating to tear into such a painstakingly established universe that may have occurred in another world (or another dimension.) Author Stewart Cowley took the idea of a self-insertion fanfic and wove himself into the very fabric of the Terran Trade Authority, stating that he was a "veteran officer" of the Terran Defense Authority and having served a tour of Mars, which makes him an authority on the years ran down in the first TTA book and the volumes following it.
As the story goes, humans (affectionately known as Terrans within the mythos) became star explorers at the beginning of the 21st century after developing the DeVass Warp Generator, a special FTL (faster-than-light) drive. This method of travel ensured human contact with the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri (the Alphans), with whom humanity befriended and sided with, and the Proximans of Proxima Centauri after that. Of course, the long-running feud between the Alphans and the Proximans ended up in the decades-long Proximan War, which is explored in the Terran Trade Authority books.
The second book, Great Space Battles, is divided up into two parts, following the fictional Laguna War, one fought between Earth and Laguna, or Beta Hydri, in the year 2219. The entire volume explores stories written about significant battles in the Terran Trade Authority universe rather than the starliners of the future, and is interesting because, like several of the other books in the series, the illustrations didn't line up with the written explanations of the battles. This is due to the fact that some of the illustrations were created at a different time from the corresponding text.
SpaceWreck: Ghost Ships and Derelicts of Space is quite possibly the most harrowing of the series, with eerie depictions of disasters that had taken place in the universe as well as dangerous planets that aren't fit for human travel. With derelict spaceships, wreckage and other bits and bobs of abandoned technology and space stations, it offers a glimpse of areas long lost to time and iniquity. There's a mournful lilt to the imagery depicted within the book that can be credited to Cowley's excellent writing.
Finally, Starliners: Commercial Travel in 2200 AD is a callback to the first book, Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD, serving up another helping of illustrated spaceships and their descriptions. However, there's no war going on during the stories in this volume, and it mainly focuses on commercial companies that offer flights to exotic vacation planets or destinations that speak to the "modern" consumer.
Interestingly enough, while the first run of the books are out of print and difficult to get your hands on right now unless you pay a premium price for most of them on eBay or used bookstores, there was a failed attempt at reviving the name and premise for a new wave of books licensed from Hamlyn, the original publisher, to roleplaying game publisher Morrigan Press. The original author, Cowley, was encouraging of the project, but they're largely considered inferior to the original collection due to their references to modern political events and the war on terror, including the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Considering the original books were conspicuously absent of any reference to any current events, fans aren't as engaged with these "newer" books as they were with the originals.
Later in his career Stewart Cowley was approached by Intercontinental Book Productions (Crescent Books in the US) to create a new series of books set in the same universe as the Terran Trade Authority volumes, but they're considered by fans to be largely non-canonical entries in the larger scheme of things. Notably, they were created by Cowley under the pseudonym Steven Caldwell (possibly to avoid blame for the lower-quality work) and featured selected pieces of art that had been rejected for the original, official Terran Trade Authority books.
Stewart Cowley's intriguing, well-written and ridiculously detailed world is well worth acquiring if you've got some extra funds on hand, especially if you're a fan of classic, trippy sci-fi illustrations or the fiction that goes along with them. There's a dearth of world-building content floating around in the genre these days, and it's worth supporting these excellent tomes if you get a chance to, especially if you're a fan of the artists' work that went into making them possible.