9 great reads for sci-tech and fantasy lovers

16 Dec 2015

As we count down the few remaining days until Christmas – nine, the internet hurried to tell me this morning – Siliconrepublic.com brings you one last gift guide, focusing on fantasy and sci-fi books.

There are few better gifts you can give than novels (graphic or otherwise) – they’re exciting and imaginative; they transport the reader to other worlds and other times; they’re a constant companion, not beholden to electricity or internet access, and, above all, they’re easy to wrap.

So, for the sci-fi or fantasy lover in your life – or for anyone at all, of any age, or any background – we present our final book guide.

Happy shopping, book geeks, and Merry Christmas!

The Martian – Andy Weir

Sci-fi books: The Martian

Andy Weir’s The Martian could do more for the chances of getting a human on Mars than any amount of NASA lobbying.

Hugely successful upon its release in 2014, The Martian has since been made into an equally successful blockbuster movie starring Matt Damon. It’s not hard to see why: the story is a modern retelling of Robinson Crusoe, with our intrepid hero Mark Watney stranded on Mars after his crewmates, believing him to be dead, abandon him during a sandstorm on the planet.

With nothing to keep him alive except his wits and a helluva lot of spuds, Watney realises very quickly that he is going to have to “science the shit out of it” if he is to have any chance of surviving.

While there’s never really any doubt about how the novel is going to end, this is a classic race-against-time thriller, told with enormous verve and great humour, and a real appreciation of the ingenuity that we humans are capable of when necessary.

Also, the science is solid enough to keep most pernickety-types happy.

The Last Policeman trilogy – Ben Winters

Sci-fi books: The Last Policeman

Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman takes place in a world on the brink of destruction. Under the shadow of an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, with certain destruction guaranteed, the world is a very different place. The series almost immediately forces you to ask the big questions: ‘What would I do if the world was ending? Would I give up on everyone and everything, or would I keep going to the bitter end?’

Winters’ exhausted hero, Hank Palace, falls squarely in that latter category. The title of the series, and of its first novel, is no misnomer. The first of the trilogy, also called The Last Policeman, opens with Palace at the scene of an apparent suicide. Unconvinced by the evidence, and undeterred by his impending doom, Palace is determined to investigate the murder and find justice for the victim, even in the face of his colleagues’ increasing exasperation.

While the mere fact of a detective refusing to stop detecting just because the world is ticking towards its end would be plenty to carry the books by itself, Winters injects them with even more mystery and intrigue. This is a whodunit with a difference. Palace isn’t just solving murders, he’s solving something much more important – the mystery, and possible conspiracy, of humanity’s looming fate.

At times bleak, and at other times bleakly funny, The Last Policeman is a great read that at once makes you despair of humanity and relish it.

Preacher – Garth Ennis, illustrated by Steve Dillon

Sci-fi books: Preacher

Preacher is one of the most revered comic series of recent years, almost universally adored. It tells the story of Jesse Custer, a Texan preacher who becomes possessed by the supernatural, all-powerful Genesis, the offspring of an angel and a demon.

Custer, disillusioned with his faith and now imbued with the power to command those who hear him speak, embarks on a journey across the US to find God, who fled Heaven upon the birth of Genesis. Along the way, he encounters a host (holy and otherwise) of enemies and obstacles.

During 2016, a TV interpretation will air on AMC – the home of big hitters Mad Men, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad – starring Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga, among an all-star cast. What better time to catch up on the source material?

The Culture series – Iain M Banks

Sci-fi books: Use of Weapons

Banks’ Culture series consists of 10 novels, starting with 1987’s Consider Phlebas and ending with The Hydrogen Sonata, published shortly before Banks’ death in 2013.

Each novel stands alone, set in the post-monetary utopian universe of the Culture, a vastly advanced, pan-galactic race of humanoids and sentient machines. The Culture is one of the most advanced civilisations in the universe and, as such, strives for the betterment of those less advanced, while nominally maintaining a policy of non-interference. Needless to say, it doesn’t quite work out like that.

Banks’ astonishing world-building ability, and his fierce imagination and own sense of morality, drive the series, which is a space opera without parallel.

While some of the middle novels lack pace, and can suffer from Banks’ tendency to get too caught up in his own creations, this is probably the single greatest body of work in science-fiction, and is absolutely essential reading. You could start with any of the novels but, for sheer punch-in-the-guts drama, Use of Weapons is hard to beat.

Sandman – Neil Gaiman, illustrated by various artists

Sci-fi books: Sandman

If there’s a list of the greatest graphic novels ever out there that doesn’t feature Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, we haven’t seen it.

Sandman follows Dream – also known by Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, and other names – as he is captured and held by an occult group, escaping 70 years later to avenge himself on his captors and re-enter the world. The series features stories within stories, all told with Gaiman’s characteristic flair and darkness.

Beautifully rendered by top illustrators, Sandman is as aesthetically pleasing as the glorious storytelling demands.

At times heartbreaking and hilarious, Sandman offers an unrivalled glimpse at the human condition and the worst excesses of the power-hungry and greedy. Gaiman carries the story through a lovingly constructed universe that takes in everything from the world of dreams to hell itself.

Rumours constantly swirl about a movie adaptation of Sandman, but none ever quite makes it to the big screen. If you read the graphic novels, perhaps you’ll see why. None have been worthy.

Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson

Sci-fi books: Cryptonomicon

Cryptography is very much in vogue these days, what with Messrs Snowden and Assange and their crusading ways, so this 1999 doorstopper by Neal Stephenson, loosely inspired by his landmark 1996 Wired magazine article Mother Earth, Motherboard – a history of the submarine cables that underpin the modern internet – definitely deserves a new audience.

A high-nerd classic, Cryptonomicon’s multi-stranded story takes place in the late ’90s and World War II, and serves as a primer on the history and science of cryptography.

While the modern sections pale in comparison to the WWII-set adventures, some wonderful characters – both fictional and real – and some exquisitely hilarious characterisation, make what could have been a dull subject into a rollicking adventure.

Also, Stephenson’s efforts to make Van Eck phreaking (look it up) a core plot point are nothing short of heroic.

Cryptonomicon is long, but extremely enjoyable, and you will surely come out of it with a better appreciation of what goes into making sure you can watch your cat videos all day long.

Discworld series – Terry Pratchett

Sci-fi books: Discworld

This October marked the exact date that Marty McFly travelled to in Back to the Future II. As Marty might have said of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series – were we to misquote him horrifically, and if he read even weirder fantasy novels than we know he does – this is an oldie, but a goodie.

With the Discworld series – an immense 41 novels, stretching from 1983’s The Colour of Magic to this year’s The Shepherd’s Crown (published after Pratchett’s death) – Pratchett introduced us to the bizarre adventures of a series of really quite crazy characters, bouncing them around his wonderfully-drawn Discworld universe with humour and aplomb, expertly skewering current affairs while he was about it.

There’s no bad place to jump into Discworld. Most of the Discworld novels are standalone pieces. While many of the same characters crop up from story to story, knowledge of the stories that went before isn’t necessary to enjoy the book in front of you.

Although it doesn’t reach the mad-cap heights that Pratchett scales in later volumes, Mort is as good a place to start as any. Where better to start, after all, than (nearly) right at the beginning.

Foundation series – Isaac Asimov

Sci-fi books: Foundation

Asimov’s magnum opus was, in many ways, the birth of modern science-fiction writing, bringing it into the mainstream in a way that nothing had before.

Foundation tells the story of the last days of the Galactic Empire, during which the mathematician Hari Seldon develops the science of psychohistory – a way of using statistical analysis of human behaviour to predict the future with a huge degree of accuracy.

Foretelling the end of the Empire, Seldon and a small group of acolytes set up the Foundation in a secret location at the far end of the galaxy, to ensure that the inevitable dark age after the fall is minimised to 300 years instead of 10,000.

While the writing style is indicative of the novel’s pulp magazine influences, the scope of the story and tight plotting ensure that the Foundation series remains a hugely enjoyable read.

Fables – Bill Willingham, illustrated by various artists

Sci-fi books: Fables

Fables is a graphic novel retelling of all the stories you know from your childhood, but – as with so many modern remakes – with a twist.

In Fables, Bill Willingham paints an immensely detailed world in which the main characters of the Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm Brothers fairytales get chased out of their homeland by a shadowy overlord known as the Adversary and, through the magic of portals and beanstalks, make their way to modern-day New York, where they build a new community.

With no small amount of humour, Fables addresses all of the issues you had with those childhood stories. Why were so many of the princes called Prince Charming (it was all the same prince – his exes aren’t big fans), was the big bad wolf a man or a wolf (both, and he goes by Bigby now), and did all of these characters ever meet (they have now).

Fables is a great choice for anyone who likes a touch of realism in their fairy tales. Much like last year’s Into the Woods, Fables shows us what happens after happily ever after, and reminds us that there’s no such thing.

Thanks to Joe O’Gorman for his contributions to this list. Joe is a systems administrator based in Limerick, and a fan of all things science-fiction.

Main image via Shutterstock

Kirsty Tobin was careers editor at Silicon Republic