It’s that time of year, where everyone wishes they could escape holiday gatherings and just hide in a corner and read. Wait, is that not you? At any rate, if you’re buying a gift for a space enthusiast, here are some of the best books to buy in both fiction and non-fiction, with the obvious caveat that this list is merely scratching the surface.
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space draws readers through Carl Sagan’s take on the history of space travel and where it’s headed. Sagan taught astronomy and cosmology at Cornell, back in the day, and he had a unique reading list, which is itself worth a look.
Death by Black Hole: and Other Cosmic Quandaries, by Neil deGrasse Tyson, explores in his own inimitable style a variety of topics on cosmology and space, from what it might be like to be inside a black hole to why we see the sun as the color we do. It’s an accessible read for a newcomer to the topics it handles, and doesn’t make readers feel dumb.
The Universe in a Nutshell, on the other hand, is a Stephen Hawking opus that tackles big concepts about space and the universe, things like black holes and light cones and the shape of the universe, and now you or your giftee can experience the joy of reading it in Hawking’s auto-tuned voice. You don’t have to be a physicist to get a great deal of useful insight from this book. Hawking, too, has a toothsome reading list, which he includes in the back.
Earth and Space: Photographs from the Archives of NASA (example page pictured top) is an extremely gorgeous coffee table book, jammed to the gills with beauty shots from the places NASA has been and seen. From a backward glance at Earth, haloed by the setting sun, to galaxies and nebulae in the deepest skies, it’s endlessly rewarding to flip through and there’s always something to ponder and talk about. If they like space-related eye candy, this is the book.
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin, won the Hugo Award in 1970; she was the first woman to win a Hugo, by the way. The book follows a human ambassador from Earth to the planet outsiders call Winter, whose inhabitants are of ambiguous gender. It is gentle and unflinching in its ideas, lyrical in its language, and will leave you rereading it over and over, picking up new and meaningful things every time.
Redshirts is a John Scalzi novel that examines just how strange life might look to the cast of a TV show like Star Trek if they had to examine the strange inconsistencies, plot holes, and sudden twists of life without knowing they were “on” a TV show at all. It’s an irreverent send-up of dozens of science fiction tropes and obviously named after one in particular.
Glory Road, by Robert Heinlein, was Heinlein’s major foray into fantasy. This excerpt, the classified ad the protagonist answers to send him on his epic journey, should give you all you need to know about whether to buy it:
ARE YOU A COWARD? This is not for you. We badly need a brave man. He must be 23 to 25 years old, in perfect health, at least six feet tall, weigh about 190 pounds, fluent English, with some French, proficient in all weapons, some knowledge of engineering and mathematics essential, willing to travel, no family or emotional ties, indomitably courageous and handsome of face and figure. Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger. You must apply in person, rue Dante, Nice, 2me étage, apt. D.
Those of you looking for a hefty sci-fi series set in a universe distinct from the usual Star Wars / Star Trek fare should consider the Night’s Dawn trilogy (volume 1, volume 2. and volume 3), by Peter F. Hamilton. Hamilton excels at creating vast, sprawling civilizations with their own distinct cultures and goals, without losing focus on his core group of characters. I picked the series up on a whim a few years back and have not been disappointed.
The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov, is another classic series that’s absolutely worth a read if you’ve never come across it. It tells the story of the fall of the Galactic Empire and the psychohistorian Hari Seldon’s efforts to minimize the chaos and galaxy-wide dark age which will follow in its wake. The Empire cannot be saved, its decline is too far gone, but Seldon’s Foundation is destined to rise in its stead — provided, of course, that it isn’t destroyed by its enemies or the fading remnants of the Galactic Empire itself.
Once upon a time, pawing through my uncle’s bookshelf, I discovered Expendable by James Gardner, the hardcover edition. Festina Ramos is physically flawed: she has a birthmark like a port-wine stain on her face, so she’s consigned to being an Explorer. Under the quasi-benevolent leadership of the League of Peoples, Explorers are sent to exoplanets in order to get boots on the surface — expendable boots the League of Peoples doesn’t really want back. But that’s not how the story’s going to end if Festina has anything to say about it.