We humans

Gift guide: Mysteries, thrillers and science fiction

Nov 20, 2019

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams (TED Talk: Parrots, the universe and everything)
This book makes me giggle out loud every time. Overshadowed by Adams’ more famous work — The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series — the Dirk Gently novels are a delightful read. They’re chock full of his trademark humorous writing and lovable character creations, like the Electric Monk (a labor-saving device that believes things for you so that you don’t have to) and a bored horse. The horse is my favorite.
— Kate Darling (TED talk: Why we have an emotional connection to robots)

City of Thieves by David Benioff
There is nothing I like more than a WWII-era historical fiction, and I’ve read many such novels but this one sticks out. It breathes so much warmth, color and interest into what I now realize I’d mistakenly whitewashed and overlooked as bleak, cold, war-torn, Stalinist Russia. The plot is unexpected and quick, and I promise that Lev and Kolya are protagonists you want to spend hours trudging through the snow with as it unfolds.
— Elizabeth Lyle (TED Talk: How to break bad management habits before they reach the next generation of leaders)

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Parable is one of the best books possible to both acclimate yourself to your new struggle for survival and provide a narrative for how, even in a dystopia, one can rebuild civilization and lead a path to the stars. In the mid-2020s, when society has effectively collapsed due to climate change and ineffective social governance, a young woman from Southern California is forced to go on a dangerous journey to the Pacific Northwest to try to find safety. Through her many shocking and harrowing trials, she remains driven and inspired by a future where humanity can still find a way to leave the Earth and build a new home in the stars despite its flaws and failures. Together with its sequel, Parable of the Talents, it is arguably the greatest story ever told about the power of spaceflight that features no spaceships.
— Alex MacDonald (TED Talk: How centuries of sci-fi sparked spaceflight)

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis
This is the first installment in a detective series set in ancient Rome. This book will make you realize crime, corruption, cops and crime fighters are not a new concept. Davis places her modern crime/detective stories in a well-documented, accurate, historical background. Her charming characters live realistic everyday lives, fighting crime back in the old Rome of the Caesars. It’s a fun read.
— Julio Gil (TED Talk: Future tech will give you the benefits of city life anywhere)

Mooncop by Tom Gauld
Gauld’s book about a police officer looking for hope on a moon colony was a favorite for me. Too often, graphic novelists tend not to leave much for the imagination. Mooncop, on the other hand, contains long, beautiful and thought-provoking silences. It is a fast read, and I smiled the entire time.
— Safwat Saleem (TED Talk: Why I keep speaking up, even when people mock my accent)

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
This is a dark, highly inventive, very fun, very funny and exhilarating story. I loved how it bridged some of my favorite genres — fantasy, historical fiction and mystery. It describes how the world ends up on the verge of an apocalyptic war between gods from the Old World and gods from the New World, and it’s up to a single man to save the planet. The writing is so good that it stayed vivid in my mind long after I finished it.
— Simone Bianco (TED Talk with Tom Zimmerman: The wonderful world of life in a drop of water)

The Native Star and the other books in the Veneficas Americana series by M.K. Hobson
I’m not a cli-fi fan. As a climate scientist, I find reality to be bad enough, thank you, without reading apocalyptic books about what will happen if we don’t get our act together soon. For my vacation reading, I prefer books that have nothing to do with what I study but once in a while one of them sneaks up on me. That’s what the Veneficas Americana series did. It takes a few books to figure out what’s going on, but when Earth reveals herself and her plan of vengeance, the connection to climate change and the environmental degradation that we humans have inflicted on her is clear. Watch out!
— Katharine Hayhoe (TED Talk: The most important thing you can do to fight climate change? Talk about it)

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison
This is the first book in a Hugo award-winning trilogy that takes place on an earth-like planet with significant geologic activity (think earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.) that occur at random and create the title’s “fifth season” — a nuclear winter. The whole society is structured around surviving these fifth seasons. In this world, there are people who can sense and control the planet’s activity, and they are feared, shunned and used by society for their powers. This book describes an incredibly detailed world that makes a commentary on how our own society uses and abuses people who are different. It’s an easy, engrossing and super profound read; I could not put it down.
— Erika Hamden (TED Talk: What it takes to launch a telescope)

The Rapture by Liz Jensen
Everyone is now aware of the warming planet, but when I read Jensen´s compelling thriller after it was published in 2009, it was the first time I had seen the warming planet portrayed almost as a character in itself. The heroine, Gabrielle, is a wheelchair-user — which adds to the odds stacked against her — in this story brimming with action and emotional conflict. In spite of the dark subject matter, I came away from it with renewed hope for humankind.
— Özlem Sara Cekic (TED Talk: Why I have coffee with people who send me hate mail)

The Changeling by Victor LaValle
I started this book on the day slotted for back-to-school clothes shopping for my kids, and we never made it to the store — thus, my kids wore too-small clothes to the first day of school in 2017. LaValle’s snappy prose, fabulous characters and penetrating observations made this one of Time Magazine’s Top 10 Books of the Year. Be warned: This book leans scary — not my usual fare but it was worth it — as LaValle leads the new genre of “literary horror.” It’s the kind of smart escapist fare that will make you forget you are on a desert island.
— Dolly Chugh (TED Talk: How to let go of being a “good” person and become a better person)

The Changeling is folklore in its purest most sublime form. LaValle had me believing in the possibility that evil giants and portals to otherworldly realms really did exist all over New York City. Protagonist Apollo Kagwa’s journey to save his son froths with danger and hope — it’s everything the Brothers Grimm seared into their fairy tales and more.
— Gabby Rivera (TED Talk: The story of Marvel’s first queer Latina superhero)

Tishomingo Blues by Elmore Leonard
A high diver witnesses a murder, the Mississippi mob and a Detroit drug ring edges southward, and it all culminates in a Civil War reenactment. So slick and it would make an amazing movie.
— Jonathan Wilker (TED Talk: What sticky sea creatures can teach us about making glue)

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
I’m re-reading my favorite gothic horror book in its original French format. Leroux was a popular mystery author in the early 1900s. The book is far from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s romanticized musical version, and it’s frightening in the most compelling way.
— Alix Generous (TED Talk: How I learned to communicate my inner life with Asperger’s)

The Three Body Problem trilogy (The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End) by Cixin Liu
This is the trilogy that brought contemporary Chinese science fiction to global prominence. It’s simultaneously a history of earth’s future after Chinese scientists make first contact with aliens, a theory about the (brutal) geopolitics of the universe, a 21st-century update to Asimov’s Foundation series, and a fascinating exploration of how differently Western and Eastern cultures see individuals and institutions and their respective roles in shaping history. No more teasers — read it, and enjoy this majestic ride through space and time.
— Romain Lacombe (TED Talk: A personal air-quality tracker that lets you know what you’re breathing)

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
It’s a great novel about urban crime that just happens to have Batman in it.
— Chip Kidd (TED Talk: Designing books is no laughing matter. OK, it is)

LoveStar by Andri Snaer Magnason
This novel by Icelandic writer Magnason is set in the future when technology has been entrusted with many aspects of human interaction, including identifying and bringing together soulmates, while “unscientifically validated relationships” are callously wrecked. Young, blissfully-in-love couple Indridi and Sigrid have their perfect lives threatened, along with Indridi’s sanity, when they are “calculated apart” and forced to go to extreme lengths to prove their love. A suspenseful and inspiring novel about man vs. machine, the imperfections that make us human, and what it is that really matters in life.
— Thordis Elva (TED Talk: Our story of rape and reconciliation)

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
I’m sure I’m not the only one to put this book on the top of a vacation reading list, but I’d be remiss not to name it. It was a pure guilty pleasure and my definition of a great read. The characters, the storyline and mystery — even if you have seen the equally wonderful HBO adaptation — make this book nearly impossible to put down. It’s escapism at its best.
— Wendy Troxel (TED Talk: Why school should start later for teens)

Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley
This mystery, which is part of the Easy Rawlins series, focuses on art, friendship and storytelling. I love the mysteries explored here and what the book says about life and relationships.
— Deborah Willis (TED Talk with Hank Willis Thomas: A mother and son united by love and art)

Version Control by Dexter Palmer
This novel treads a fine line between modern literature and science fiction, perfectly adapting the evocative prose and mystery of one and the excitement and uncertainty of the other. Primarily following the middle-age crisis of Rebecca — a woman who feels something is deeply wrong with her universe — the book explores whether her ennui is caused by the banality of modern life, a mysterious family tragedy or something that’s gone terribly wrong with her physicist husband’s “causality violation” experiment. While it’s set in a not-too-distant future of autonomous cars, pervasive social networking and online dating, the struggles of the characters to find meaning, purpose and love are timeless.
— Natasha Hurley-Walker (TED Talk: How radio telescopes show us unseen galaxies)

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
I really enjoyed this fast-paced novel that focuses on strong but flawed female protagonists set in two different time periods: World War I and post-World War II. This fictional account of women spies blended a description of German-occupied France with the characters’ gritty personal stories, and it was fascinating to read.
— Casey Brown (TED Talk: Know your worth, and then ask for it)

Ice Station by Matthew Reilly
Military fiction is quite a popular genre, but there’s no one better than Reilly to take you on a rollercoaster ride. Set in Antarctica and part of a series, Ice Station is like a Hollywood action movie in a book. It’s crazy fast paced and has a tough-as-nails hero, and it’s one of those reads that make you forget you need to eat and sleep. If you like action flicks, you need to discover this book. Just make sure to start reading on a slow day, because you won’t do anything else until you finish it.
— Julio Gil (TED Talk: Future tech will give you the benefits of city life anywhere)

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s landmark Gothic novel recently passed and I was drawn again to this masterpiece, because I study how microscopic organisms live and behave and how to alter their genes and environment so they can be used as cellular factories and environmental sentinels. Shelley explores the moral and societal dilemmas of scientific exploration and the ethics and responsibilities that stem from it. It’s a must read.
— Simone Bianco (TED Talk with Tom Zimmerman: The wonderful world of life in a drop of water)

Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan
This WW II tale is one of the most extraordinary adventures ever written. It’s fiction based on real-life events with so many twists and turns it reads like the best mystery novel you have ever read. But it is true.
— Juan Enriquez (TED Talk: The age of genetic wonder)

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Willis is an expert at exploring speculative concepts through lovable, quirky characters. Here, her time-traveling Oxford University professors become embroiled in a Victorian-era farce of mistaken identity, temporal paradox and love.
— Stephen Webb (TED Talk: Where are all the aliens?)

Go here to see the other book categories in the gift guide 

Do these recommendations look familiar? They’ve been curated from TED’s reading lists