From Wells to Burroughs to Bradbury, the Red Planet has long been fertile ground for science fiction. And while enthusiasm for Mars-based sci-fi dampened a bit when we learned that the surface was actually an ice-cold, vacuum-sealed desert (with no fantastical civilizations or mysterious invaders to speak of), today's books solve that problem in the most logical way possible - sending people to Mars...
Red Rising, by Pierce Brown
"The Hunger Games" has spawned a hojillion like-minded works, but few are as engrossing as Pierce Brown's "Red Rising," the first in a (you guessed it) trilogy of novels:
In the book, Darrow is a member of a literal underclass of miners toiling below the surface of Mars. After realizing that his people will never be free so long as the ruling Gold class controls the planet, Darrow joins a rebellion against the Golds. His first task? To infiltrate the Institute, a school where the elite Golds fight each other for dominance - or die trying.
As you can tell, the plot is more than a little reminiscent of "Ender's Game," "Harry Potter," and dozens of other young adult books centered around scholastic mock warfare, but Pierce Brown's take on it features some nice inner turmoil. Of course, there's no question that our Hero will eventually win, but at what cost? Has Darrow, in imitating the Golds, become like his masters - cruel, sadistic, patrician?
The Martian, by Andy Weir
"Gravity" and "Apollo 13" proved that you don't need aliens to conjure up white-knuckle thrills in space. The lack of everything that makes life on Earth possible is more than enough danger to drive a plot:
"The Martian" presents the ultimate Robinson Crusoe scenario - if you were accidentally marooned on Mars, with limited resources and millions of miles away from the nearest human being, could you figure out a way to survive until help arrived? Astronaut Mark Watney is in just that predicament, when he is separated from his crew on one of the first manned missions to the Red Planet. The reader follows him through every failed plan, explosive decompression, and jury-rigged solution as he learns to live on Mars.
Aside from impressive attention to scientific detail, "The Martian" is good at generating sympathy for Watney, who approaches the struggle for air, water, food, and shelter with black humor and determined optimism. The downside, I guess, is that passages written from the perspective of other characters are a bit weaker. It would have been interesting to see what the book would be like without the occasional departure from Watney's POV, but "The Martian" is a fine page-turner nonetheless.