As an avid reader and writer, there’s no gift quite so precious to me as a book.
My best friend and I spent years exchanging books as birthday and holiday presents, often with a little inscription inside stating why we picked it out for the other person. Last Christmas, my husband deviated from his normal tech-related gifts (which I appreciate as well) to buy me something I had mentioned I would really value: books about writing. And I still remember when my mom purchased a copy of my favorite novel for me, as I’d told her once that I was collecting different editions of it.
These days, it’s rare to exchange books as gifts. Maybe it’s because so many books are digital now — and I’m fond of audiobooks, too. Still, I enjoy lending out copies of my favorite books or borrowing them from friends, and I find joy in sharing book recommendations with coworkers or updating my Goodreads account. Reading is such a special thing, with a unique ability to spark the imagination, explore challenging ideas, and transport us to other worlds. There’s a reason so many new TV shows and movies are based on books: it’s where the great stories come from.
If you love reading and want to share that passion with someone you think would appreciate it, don’t shy away from buying them a book. Get one from your local bookstore to support them if you can. Here are a few fantasy and science fiction recommendations for the people in your life — or for your own next reading fix!
For the Deep Thinker
We all have those friends or family members who like to discuss politics and climate change, government conspiracies and what artificial intelligence means for the future of the human race. If you have a someone like that in your life who could also do with a bit of adventure, Leviathan Wakes by the writing duo known as James S.A. Corey could be the perfect choice. It’s the story behind Syfy’s The Expanse TV show, if you want to get a sneak peek at what the story is like.
The reason Leviathan Wakes is a great option for intellectuals is because it has a little bit of everything: lots of action, elaborate world-building, and deep characterization. While it’s definitely a space opera, half of the book reads like a mystery novel as it follows a detective trying to find a missing woman. And while it touches on things like alien contact, it takes place in our own solar system and feels very grounded in what we know today as human — so not too much of a stretch for someone new to sci-fi!
I’d recommend the book for the debates it can spark. Does it depict a realistic future? What do you think of the class structure between the Earthers, Martians, and Belters? Should Holden have shared the intelligence he did, or should he have kept it a secret? The list of fascinations to contemplate can go on and on…
For the Rockstar Feminist
You want to read about badass women in space? Look no further than Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach or Grimspace by Ann Aguirre. Both features kickass female leads who go adventuring in space, where they meet aliens, fight bad guys, and uncover dangerous truths about their worlds. I’ve read both books twice — well, Grimspace more than that — because the characters are so fascinating.
In Fortune’s Pawn, Devi is a mercenary who’s hardcore about her armor, which is fitted to her and even has a name. Her goal is to become one of the elite bodyguards to the king on her planet — but to prove her mettle first, she takes a job on a spaceship known for its bad luck, with an eclectic crew and a mysterious cook who might be hiding something. I love how tough and confident Devi is, and as the series continues she only grows more interesting.
In Grimspace, Jax is a jumper — someone with the unique ability to navigate grimspace and jump ships extraordinary distances — who just lost her entire crew during a bad jump. When a new crew rescues her, she starts to realize she was being set up. Or maybe she’s just going crazy. Jax is one of my favorite characters in fiction for her combination of snark and utter vulnerability; she can wisecrack with the best of them, yet she still breaks down and worries how long she’ll last. She’s not perfect, but that’s exactly why she’s so lovable.
Both books feature romance as a subplot, which I really enjoy — but don’t worry if your feminist friend isn’t big on love, as it’s not the focus of either story. Just keep in mind neither book is quite PG-rated!
For the Adventurous Nerd
I say “nerd” with love here, because I consider myself to be a nerd. If you have someone in your life who already loves science fiction, reads a lot of books, or just enjoys being in school, Binti by Nnedi Okorafor offers something truly original yet relatable.
In the story, Binti is a 16-year-old girl from the Himba tribe in Africa, a real Namibian tribe. When she’s accepted to a prestigious university on a distant planet, she becomes the first of her tribe to leave, flying into space to meet aliens and explore the universe. But on the ride out, vengeful aliens called the Meduse attack the ship and kill everyone else onboard. Binti must cope with being the sole survivor — and figure out what she’s going to do next.
What I love about Binti is that it explores cultural identity and what it means to connect with others. It’s unfortunately rare to see Africans as the heroes of science fiction stories, but that’s what makes this story so eye-opening. Okorafor calls it Africanfuturism.
I’d recommend the book to anyone who can appreciate the story of a peaceful student exploring space and sharing a ship with warring aliens! As a short novella, it’s a quick read that your favorite nerd should be happy to add to their collection. If you think they’ll love it, you can buy its with its sequels as a book-length trilogy.
For the Free Thinker
If you have someone in your life who likes art, creative thinking, and maybe even the occasional mind-altering substance, you have to get them reading Jeff VanderMeer. He’s a pioneer of the New Weird, a type of mind-bending fiction that’s daring, dark, and oftentimes just delightful.
The most famous example of his work would be Annihilation, which was made into a movie in 2018. In it, a group of four researchers head into a strange place called Area X, where previous expeditions have gone awry; the explorers who went ahead of them disappeared, committed suicide, or lost their minds.
This Southern Reach trilogy is what I would recommend as a starting point, but VanderMeer has a little library of strange reads. Another your free thinking friend might enjoy is Borne, which is about a young woman who finds a creature engineered by a biotech company; she raises it like a child, but in time wonders whether it will grow into a monster.
Anyone you know who might appreciate something a little off-the-wall can embrace the surreal in VanderMeer’s work!
For the Sweetheart
I don’t just mean your sweetheart — although if you have a significant other, they may like this book! By “sweetheart,” I refer to anyone with a kind soul who likes to learn about people and the world. Do you have a friend or family member who’s always rooting for the good guys? They’re probably compassionate people who are always there for you when you need them, and they long for a little more goodness in the world.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet could be the perfect way to bring them joy this season. This novel by Becky Chambers follows the crew of a spaceship that tunnels wormholes in space for future travelers. The book’s main character, Rosemary, is a relatable blend of shy but curious. At one point, she manages to save the day using her unique skillset: paperwork. This is the kind of action you can expect to see in The Long Way, yet that’s what makes it such an original read.
Most of all, the book explores multi-faceted characters — many of them aliens — and makes you fall in love with Rosemary and the crew of her ship. I actually teared up at the end of the story. It’s full of heart, which is why I recommend it for anyone in your life with a good one!
Do you ever buy people books as gifts? I’d love to hear more sci-fi book recommendations too!