With the holiday season kicking in and many people about to find themselves flush with downtime, we thought we’d try to answer a perennial question: what on Earth should I read next?
The search for the next good book is unending, so I messaged my bright colleagues here at Ars Orbiting HQ a few weeks back and requested they send over any books they’ve enjoyed lately.
Below you can find their responses, along with a few picks of my own.
To be clear, this list is not meant to be comprehensive. It’s not a “best books of 2021” roundup; it’s just a few works we liked enough to recommend to those looking to add something interesting to their to-be-read list. We kept it nice and free-form, mixing in books new and old, from sci-fi to memoirs, nonfiction to coffee-table fare. If you need something to settle in with over your holiday break—or if you’re looking for a good book to give as a gift—we think you’ll find some great options below.
Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
Imagine waking up one morning to find that you don’t know where you are. Come to think of it, you don’t remember who you are. Blinking into the harsh light of the room around you, you eventually piece together that you’re on some sort of spaceship. Alone. No, wait—in the other bunks are two… crewmates? And—yep, they’re both dead.
Such is the pickle that Ryland Grace, the star of Andy Weir’s newest sci-fi novel, finds himself in. And things get worse. As Grace’s memory gradually returns, he recalls that he’s on some sort of mission that could have grave consequences for all of humanity. If only he could remember what he’s supposed to be doing.
Saying more than that would spoil too much of the story, but anyone familiar with Weir’s freshman novel The Martian (or its movie adaptation) knows what to expect from Project Hail Mary. After taking a slightly different tack with his second book, Artemis, Weir has returned to his roots, spinning up a new lone protagonist who faces problem after problem—each seemingly insurmountable until it is met with the Awesome Power of Science.
Watching as Grace thinks his way through each catastrophe to come up with (at least somewhat) plausible solutions is exhilarating, and I found myself unable to put the book down. Hugely entertaining and highly recommended.
If you’ve already taken the plunge yourself, you can read our spoiler-filled analysis of some of the book’s themes.
—Aaron Zimmerman, Copy Chief
Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker
Composite Creatures takes place in a future UK where we’ve pushed the earth past the point of habitability. The birds have died, the soil burns through shoe bottoms, and every breath of air pushes the body closer to terminal illness. A health care corporation called Easton Grove has gained prominence as this process has taken hold, and the company promises stability, health, and fulfillment through a medical breakthrough—for those who can afford it.
This environmental dystopia is crucial to the novel, but it’s still mostly the backdrop. Composite Creatures is written from the perspective of Norah, a young woman who has been selected by Easton Grove to live in a new home and be part of the company’s special health care program. The corporation matches Norah up with a romantic partner, Arthur, and together the new couple are tasked with looking after a pet-like…thing, which Norah names “Nut.”
The pleasure of Composite Creatures is in the information it withholds. Hardaker cooks her story at a slow boil, always giving you just enough unsettling detail about her world and characters to nudge you forward until she reaches the book’s terrifying finale. What starts out as an odd tale about an unusual relationship eventually grows into a crushing portrayal of complacency, anxiety, and the emptiness of choosing comfort and self-preservation over ambition and truly living.
I realize all of that sounds depressing. Composite Creatures isn’t exactly cheery. But if you don’t mind the drip-feed pacing, the book’s constant intrigue, layered writing, and multifaceted exploration of its themes are a treat. It is horrifying in a good way, and then even more horrifying when you realize that you might see yourself in it.
—Jeff Dunn, Senior Commerce Editor
My reading tastes tend toward history, anthropology, and space opera, so it’s not often that I’ll pick up a memoir or anything off the autobiography shelf. But I had to make an exception for The Night the Lights Went Out: A Memoir of Life After Brain Damage, which details the aftermath of a near-fatal brain injury suffered by columnist/novelist Drew Magary at a Deadspin holiday party in New York in 2018.
Using interviews with eyewitnesses, doctors, and family members, Magary pieces together the events of that fateful night and the subsequent weeks spent in a medically induced coma in his usual, hilariously profane manner. The book then shifts to the long (and still underway) recovery, which involves learning to hear all over again via a cochlear implant, the loss and partial recovery of his sense of taste, and sadness over his inability to smell his own farts.
If you’re familiar with Magary’s writing, which appears at Defector and SF Gate, among other places, you’ll love The Night the Lights Went Out. If not, check it out. It’s rare to find writing that so creatively and poignantly commingles anger, humor, despair, and bodily functions.
—Eric Bangeman, Managing Editor