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Hard Sci-Fi = Great Summer Reading

stem 3You know something that makes summer vacation so great? Well, besides the lake and hiking and all of that. You guessed it: reading a good book. But while school is out, it doesn’t mean we (and our kids) can’t have fun while our brains are growing.

Hard sci-fi is a sub-genre that emphasizes science, technical details and realistic explanations. So, no sharks falling from the sky because of global warming or finding a magic time travel portal in a closet here. (Not that those things aren’t completely awesome).

Here are just a few ideas, courtesy of our friends at Nevada STEM Hub.

  • Though Stephen Hawking is probably most well-known for A Brief History of Time (and his appearances on The Big Bang Theory), he and his daughter Lucy have created a series of illustrated books for kids of all ages. George’s Secret Key to the Universe follows George and the adventures he finds through Cosmos, a super-computer that allows him to travel to other planets and a black hole. While keeping the kids (and us) engaged with George’s adventures, we also learn about physics, time and the universe. The third book in the series even includes a graphic novel of how the Big Bang happened. In reverse.And if that’s not enough, Amazon.com shares: “Garry Parsons’ energetic illustrations add humor and interest, and his scientific drawings add clarity; there are also full-color inserts of scientific photos.”
  • Arthur C. Clarke was a British science fiction and science writer, futurist, inventor, undersea explorer and television host. He was also very interested in space travel. Perhaps most famous for 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s hard to go wrong with a book with his name on it. However, BestScienceFictionBooks.com names Rendezvous with Rama as their No. 1 hard sci-fi book, saying, “It’s a work of exploration, discovery and strange new worlds — what more could you want?”
    • In case you want more detail than that, here’s what Amazon.com has to say: “An enormous cylindrical object appears in Earth’s solar system, hurtling toward the sun. A ship is sent to explore the mysterious craft, which the denizens of the solar system name Rama, and what they find is intriguing evidence of a civilization far more advanced than ours.”
  • One of Clarke’s contemporaries, Robert Heinlein, wrote 32 novels, 59 short stories and 16 collections during his lifetime. Starship Troopers is very loosely based on his book by the same name. Since we have to pick one book to recommend, we’re going with Stranger in a Strange Land. Published in 1961, the book is the sci-fi version of The Jungle Book, with an Earthling born on a spaceship on Mars, raised by Martians and then sent back to Earth to try and assimilate. In 2012, the US Library of Congress named it one of 88 “Books that Shaped America.”
  • Isaac Asimov taught us the Three Rules of Robotics, but he also wrote or edited more than 500 books. According to GoodReads.com, “most of Asimov’s popularized science books explain scientific concepts in a historical way, going as far back as possible to a time when the science in question was at its simplest stage. He often provides nationalities, birth dates, and death dates for the scientists he mentions, as well as etymologies and pronunciation guides for technical terms.”
    • With more than 500 books to choose from, it’s hard to narrow it down, but we’ll recommend Foundation, the first in the Foundation trilogy (mostly because it’s BestScienceFictionBooks.com’s #2 recommendation). From GoodReads.com: “For 12,000 years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future – to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last 30,000 years.”
  • If you enjoyed The Martian starring Matt Damon, you’ll want to read the book by Andy Weir. Weir is the son of a particle physicist and has a background in computer science. As he wrote, he studied orbital mechanics, astronomy and spaceflight to make the book as realistic as possible, based on existing technology.
    • From Amazon.com: “Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive — and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.”
  • If you went to high school in Northern Nevada, you’re probably familiar with George R. Stewart’s Ordeal by Hunger (if you haven’t already, read this, it’s incredible), the story of the Donner Party tragedy. In 1949, Stewart published Earth Abides, a post-apocalyptic novel set in the Sierra Nevada. Told from the point-of-view of a graduate geography student survivor, the book explores biological controls on population, ecology, contagion and basic biology.
  • Called China’s answer to Arthur C. Clarke, Liu CIxin is a contemporary Chinese science fiction author, with numerous awards next to his name. the Three-Body Problem is the first in a trilogy set against China’s Cultural Revolution, exploring a secret military project sending signals into space to make contact with aliens.
    • In its review, com says, “This is hard SF, full of lovingly lengthy passages of technical exposition about everything from quantum mechanics to artificial intelligence. But Cixin Liu supports all of that brain-twisting theory with empathetic characters and a strong action-thriller backbone.”
  • If you don’t know Michael Crichton by name, you have almost certainly seen a movie or TV show based on his work — Westworld, Jurassic Park, ER, The Andromeda Strain and Congo, just to name a few. But the man who wrote novels to help support himself while attending Harvard Medical School has made an indelible mark on best-seller lists worldwide, while exploring medical technology, genetic engineering, chaos theory, computer science and more. We’ll admit that Michael Crichton is one of our favorite all-time writers, so it is hard to recommend just one book, but since Jurassic Park is also one of our all-time favorites (book and movie), we’ll go with that one. And what better way to while away a summer day than to read about dinosaurs and the technology that could make them really exist in our world? Then you can go to the “real” Jurassic Park at Universal Studios to experience a dinosaur adventure of your own.

And yes, researching this post has made us want to put down the laptop and go read a book.

Please share your favorite summer hard sci-fi reads with other families on the Nevada STEM Hub Facebook page.

Nevada STEM Hub is a project of the Nevada State Office of Science, Innovation and Technology. Its goal is to collect and share STEM information from throughout our state to help students, parents, educators, businesses and community members better understand STEM and the opportunities a STEM education offers.



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