It’s hard to pick books like Project Hail Mary, because it really lives in a class by itself. The books most like it are the other books by Andy Weir, The Martian and Artemis.
But what about books from other authors?
This list is broken into three sections: Survival Stories, Space Travel/Futuristic Fiction and Adventure/Suspense.
There is a mix of fiction, non-fiction, fictionalized history and middle grade fiction. What they have in common is similar themes.
What is it about Project Hail Mary that we’re drawn to? Curiosity about space travel and the possibility of life on other planets? What would it feel to be the one in the space suit? How would we react if we were fighting nature for survival?
Besides outer space, there are other frontiers that set the stage for survival against the odds. One of those is sea voyages. The classic struggle of man against nature occurs there. The same thing applies to deserted islands and the great white north.
The elements of adventure and suspense and imagining the future are themes that make a good story. I chose books that fell into those categories.
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My top picks for books like Project Hail Mary
The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet
In the Heart of the Sea
If you enjoy adventure stories that defy death by overcoming the odds this is your place. Some are true, some invented, all contain the epic battle of man and survival, battling the elements, fighting nature and winning. Modern life doesn’t often pit us against the elements any more since we tend to live a more temperature controlled life. But there is something compelling about survivor stories.
To Build a Fire by Jack London
A novella with the classic story of man against the elements. No one can paint the great white north like Jack London. This story intrigued me as kid and I never forgot the impact a simple story can make. Even though it’s short it packs a punch.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand tells the fascinating, incredible life story of Louis Zamperini. Starting with his early years striving for Olympic fame as a runner, then all the twists and turns of his military career in the South Pacific and finally his return to civilian life and redemption.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
The story of Ernest Shackleton’s leadership to bring his whole crew out alive after their vessel is lost in the South Pole Seas is inspiring.
It’s a good study in leadership and teamwork. It’s an amazing triumph over the elements, even though the primary mission wasn’t accomplished. The feat was bringing back everyone alive.
The difficult decisions faced, the feats of survival, the human interaction: these are the elements of the story that draw you in and keep you turning pages.
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Tracing the journey of the the captain and crew of the the whaling ship, Essex, the author employs extensive research of the mostly Quaker community on Nantucket, to whaling in the 1700s and background on the 20 men aboard the Essex.
Interesting from a leadership and psychological standpoint, it chronicles the different choices man makes in his most desperate hours.
The journey was supposed to take 2 to 3 years, so the community wasn’t alarmed but they didn’t know the turn of events that faced the captain during his first command and a partially green crew.
The writing style moved the story along even while providing informative comparisons to others in similar situations. Another interesting tie in was the influence this journey had on Herman Melville as an inspiration to write Moby Dick.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
In 1996, eight mountain climbers lost their lives while attempting to summit Everest. Jon Krakauer is a journalist and climber who survived and wrote about it.
There’s a lot of competing forces at play: people who spent a lot of money to summit, the commercialization of summiting, magazines that would pay a lot for the story, advertisers looking for heroes.
No one seemed to know that there was a storm blowing in.
One of the critical factors in the deaths was the enforcement of the turn around time. Hall, the team leader, had been so strict about that for other teams, but with this one, he wasn’t. He didn’t communicate clearly whether the turn around time was one o clock or two clock. On the actual summit day, people were summiting at 4 and 5 o clock.
Should a leader be making decisions that are unquestioned? Does that actually put his team at greater risk because they don’t follow their own wisdom? Actually, the genius of Hall’s leadership was to make the decisions ahead of time, not in the heat of the moment. And the actual breakdown came in not following through with those wise decisions.
The safety net wasn’t there when it needed to be.
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
“The true story of one man’s miraculous survival after a mountaineering mishap high in the Andes of South America.” (from Amazon)
I’ve been on the prowl for another great family read aloud, along the lines of Endurance and Unbroken.
There’s a lot of climbing terms and concepts that I didn’t understand and it took a while before the story became compelling. If I hadn’t known what was coming, I’m not sure I would have stuck with it. The account is a testimony to the human will to survive. Although it was only given a passing reference, it’s also a testimony to the prayers of Joe’s mother.
It’s fascinating to me to analyze the decisions you make in the face of death. What motivates you to keep going when it’s hopeless and what motivates you to give up?
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Thirteen year old Brian Robeson is the only survivor of a small plane crash in the Canadian wilderness. Figuring out how to stay alive becomes his journey of self-discovery. I read this as adult and loved it.
Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
What if you were marooned on an island with your wife and family of four boys? How would you survive? What would you do for food and shelter? Maybe stories of survival intrigue us because we’re all ultimately on a survival track.
Space Travel and Futuristic Fiction
Great writers can create worlds with words that we want to visit. Whether they are imagined or just brought to life on page, stories of possibility draw us in.
The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron
I loved this story as a kid. Yes, you have to suspend belief. Two boys are flying into space in a homemade rocket. But, if you can get past that and accept a little bit of magic and mystery, it’s a sweet story about bridging the gap to other planets and the life forms there. Very satisfying.
Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis wrote a space trilogy that is not as well known as many of his other works. Interplanetary travel and civilizations on other planets set the scene for other classic Lewis themes of the intricacies of human and divine nature.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
This book is based on actual events that took place during the global race to the moon. It covers many aspects including racial prejudice, science and mathematics, teamwork and the human elements needed to accomplish the goal of putting a man on the moon.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Not all dystopian novel are equal. In Station Eleven, civilization has disintegrated and the luxuries we know today are not available. Travel is limited, material goods are not easily accessible. Alliances must be made to survive and it’s time for new leaders to emerge.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
What if you could buy an Artificial Friend your child? What would it be like to have life like robots available for purchase? What implications would that have on your life? And what if they had a life of their own where they had awareness and could communicate with other robots? Interesting speculations. A well-woven tale.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Ernest Cline tells a great story. Part dystopian, part gamer geek, part Charlie Bucket looking for the golden ticket, part coming of age, part 80s trivia. Cline has a lot to offer.
The book is set in 2044. It’s always interesting to see how people envision the future. Cline has a great imagination. Pair that with engaging characters and some unpredictable plot twists, and you have a winner.
Although there were a couple elements that I wasn’t happy with, over all this was a great read.
Adventure and Suspense
Whether true or imagined, there’s nothing like adventure and suspense to help us temporarily forget our current reality and live another one.
Dead Wake by Erik Larsen
A fictionalized account of the sinking of the Luitsania. Larsen follows the stories of different passengers, what they brought with them and what sank to the bottom of the ocean. A detailed, in depth story.
The Water Keeper by Charles Martin
Murphy Shepherd is a man of secrets. He’s a tortured soul with a strong sense of justice and the needed skills to find criminals, rescue and protect girls in danger.
The Tehran Initiative by Joel C. Rosenberg
I had never read a Rosenberg book before and this one surprised me by drawing me in.
I don’t read very many people who know that much about what’s going on in the Middle East. I found it fascinating. I felt like he did a good job of keeping the plot unpredictable.
I liked the characters, too and found myself rooting for them. And, always, the critical element of every page turner, what’s going to happen next?
It’s the first in a three book series.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
Time travel with a twist. The rules are restrictive. Regret drives this story—when you wish you could go back and make things right. I liked the basic message of this story. It reminded me of It’s a Wonderful Life in the aspect that sometimes you need perspective on your relationships and the choices you made. Sometimes you need to realize that you didn’t screw things up as badly as you thought.