Everyone has heard of The Martian, right? Andy Weir’s debut sci-fi novel has been made into a film starring Matt Damon (which, incidentally, I haven’t seen) and has just generally been raved about by everybody who has read it, myself included. It follows the story of astronaut Mark Wattney, who is left stranded on Mars after his crew depart the planet, convinced that he has died in a freak dust storm. Armed with a rapidly dwindling stash of supplies, his wits and a rather wicked sense of humour, Mark must survive completely alone on Mars until a plan can be formulated back on Earth to rescue him.
This book is, I think, the perfect introduction to sci-fi for the new, uninitiated and ever-so-slightly intimidated. It’s comparatively short, full of uproariously irreverent humour and incredibly fast-paced. I am NOT scientifically minded, and whenever Wattney’s calculations or scientific explanations went over my head, I was usually too busy laughing at his jokes or even just the narrator’s tone of voice to mind. The flicking between perspectives, from Mars to Earth and back, lends the novel its incredible pace and an almost thriller-like intrigue. The next few books I am going to recommend for fans are all incredibly well-written, (for the most part) standalone sci-fi novels that are sure to jerk you out of your The Martian-induced reading slump. I listened to all four on audiobook – there are some really stellar performances here.
- Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
A child named Rose is out cycling when she falls into what appears to be a large crater in the ground, but which later turns out to be a giant hand made of a mysterious, little-known metal. 17 years later, Rose has become a scientist and is now working as part of a crack team of experts to uncover the hand’s secrets. When the discovery is made that the hand is not alone on Earth but simply one of many giant metal body parts scattered around the globe, they are forced to confront what their discovery could mean for the world… and for the wider universe.
This is not really anything like The Martian in plot, but I feel that it has a lot of other similarities. Narrated mainly through interviews between Rose and her team members and a mysterious, unnamed interlocutor who appears to know everything but about whom nothing is known in return, the snappy dialogue along with a plot that frequently jumps forward months or years in time gives this book a relentless pace. Kara Resnik, a barbed-tongued, sarcastic and outspoken helicopter pilot, brings the humour to the table in her constant verbal sparring with the interviewer, while the personal relationships between the team members offer a certain level of relief from the scientific and thriller elements of the plot. The science is well-explained and never overwhelming, making it another good introductory option for those wanting to get into sci-fi. Although there is nothing particularly original or ground-breaking in the plot, this book’s narrative style, its pace and the constancy of the new discoveries, twists and turns makes it a no-brainer for your TBR if The Martian was your thing.
- Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
This is an absolutely awesome sci-fi thriller that I absolutely loved. Great, expressive narration as well. Jason Dessen is a university physics professor who is pretty happy in life. He knows he could have been more ambitious in his career, perhaps, but he adores his wife and son and has come to accept his lot in life. However, one evening on his way home from seeing an old university friend, he is ambushed by a masked attacker and drugged. The last thing he hears before he passes out: “Are you happy in your life?” When he wakes up, it is to the unimaginable. He is now an incredibly successful, prize-winning physicist – but he is not married to his wife, they don’t have a son, his home isn’t his – this is not his life.
Wow. This novel had everything. A fast-moving plot, a credible, well-explained scientific back story, excellent characterisation and a race against time to solve the mystery at the heart of everything. This last element is the most reminiscent of The Martian. Also equipped with dwindling supplies, Jason becomes increasingly desperate as he only has a finite number of attempts to get back to his wife and son, which ratchets the tension up to almost unbearable levels. Compulsive is not even the word for this – I had my headphones on almost constantly, to the exclusion of almost everything else (sorry not sorry).
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Set 30 or 40 years into the future, America has been ravaged by the financial crisis, there are no jobs and real life is generally pretty awful. The only way to escape is through an incredibly advanced online virtual reality platform called the Oasis. People work, earn money, go to school, chat, go out and have relationships all online. When its creator, James Halliday, dies, a video is released explaining that he has left an Easter Egg hidden inside his creation – and that whoever finds it will inherit his billions. Cue an entire generation of diehard “Gunters” (Egg-Hunters), all of whom are walking encyclopaedias of 80s pop culture (the decade in which Halliday grew up) and all of whom are determined to find the Egg. Five years pass and nothing happens. Until, one day, teenage Gunter Wade Watts finds the first clue. And then the race is on…
This one really irritated me, but not for the reason you think. I had just posted my Top 5 Audiobooks and was feeling pretty pleased with the line-up, and immediately afterwards I listen to this and it jumps straight to the top (sorry, 11-22-63!) Oh my goodness. I listened to almost the entirety of this in one Sunday and it remains the best thing I’ve ever listened to. It’s funny, fast-paced and just breathlessly compulsive. There is literally no let up because for every discovery that Wade makes, each time he jumps up the leaderboard, you know that another player is hot on his heels. The book is also underpinned by a more serious discussion about what it means to live in an increasingly online world, and what we might be missing out on in real life.
- In The Darkness, That’s Where I’ll Know You by Luke Smitherd*
This is the only British book on this list and I actually really appreciated it for this. The author narrates it himself and, I think, does a damn good job of it. Charlie is in his 30s, lives in Coventry and is fairly happy working as a manager in a local bar. After a pretty heavy night out (none of which he seems to be able to remember), he wakes up completely naked in a pitch black room lit only by a large screen. This, as it turns out, happens to be the mind of a young woman called Minnie, who is understandably more than a little freaked out at the voice that is suddenly talking to her inside her head. As they scramble to work out what is happening to them both, an undeniable bond begins to grow between them. What is the Black Room? Why does Charlie feel like he knows Minnie when they have never met before? And will he ever be able to get out?
This book was so cleverly constructed and kept me guessing all the way through, answering just enough questions at a time to stop me literally exploding from the curiosity and suspense. Although I probably felt more of an affinity with this book because of its wonderfully ordinary Britishness, I defy anybody not to love this funny, fast-paced and, at times, breathlessly suspenseful sci-fi. It’s a little bit more different from The Martian than the other three, but if we’re following the introduction to sci-fi theme, this one has a lovely central relationship that should keep sci-fi novices engaged through the really wacky stuff. Also. There’s a twist in the middle of this that literally made me stop dead in the middle of a busy street with my mouth wide open. You have to read it just for that.
*Just a warning, there’s some particularly strong language in this one.
OK, that wraps it up for my top recommendations based off of the best-selling The Martian by Andy Weir. Have you read any of them? What did you think? Can you think of any that you’d like to add to the list? I’d love to hear from you!