I’ve got space on the brain, partly because I keep rewatching the stop-motion GIF of a NASA satellite slamming into a bumpy little asteroid in the hopes of bopping it off its orbit.

It’s the science-fact version of a science-fiction idea dreamed up long ago, and I just love that kind of stuff. I’ve got bookmarks in several old pulp novels with comets and spaceships and aliens on the cover. I watch as many rocket launch livestreams as I can. (An app called Next Spaceflight sends me alerts. Recommended.)

I’m also dreaming of starry skies thanks to a nifty new novel called Singer Distance by Ethan Chatagnier. It’s set in an alternate history in which humanity’s smartest scientists dig canals in the desert, fill them with gasoline, and light them on fire in an attempt to communicate with Mars. In a startling turn of events, the Martians write back. And so a centuries-long conversation begins with the unseen denizens of the Red Planet scrawling complicated math questions across their planet and the best minds on Earth struggling to work out the solution to send back.

Avid readers of niche-y, atmospheric, weapons-free sci-fi — there are dozens of us! — may recognize this business of sending messages to Mars via fiery trenches in the desert. It’s pretty much the crux of Equilateral, Philly author Ken Kalfus’ lovely 2013 novel about a Victorian scientist’s obsessive attempts to construct such a site despite harsh conditions and a great personal sacrifice.

Singer Distance feels like a recent, character-driven indie film in the vein of Safety Not Guaranteed or Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Equilateral has more of a Fitzcarraldo-via-Merchant-Ivory vibe.

Pretty much the only thing the books have in common is the whole fiery text message to Mars conceit. I have no idea whether some previous book or movie test-drove this premise before, and I have no idea whether this method of communication would actually work. I don’t want to know. I’m smitten with the low-tech Jules Verne-iness of the concept.

And I’m very much into the tradition of sci-fi authors building on each other’s ideas, remixing them, and putting them in new contexts. Both books have made their desired impact on me.

And now here are a few more books that could knock you off your orbit.


‘Our Missing Hearts,’ Celeste Ng

We live in a golden age of dystopias (see: the last decade of books, TV shows, the news), so it’s understandable if you’re getting tired of all these inventive iterations of the world at its worst. But don’t skip this one. Celeste Ng, who scored a runaway hit with 2017′s Little Fires Everywhere, returns with an intense and stirring coming-of-age story set in a near-future where the United States is terrified of losing its economic edge to China. In order to raise upstanding little patriots and rein in troublemakers, Congress passes a shrewd piece of legislation called the PACT (Preserving American Culture and Traditions) Act. That’s what a young Chinese American boy named Bird is up against when he starts asking questions about his mom, a fugitive poet whose books have long since been recycled into toilet paper. Ng will be at the Parkway Central Library on Oct. 7. (Penguin Press, $29, Oct. 4)

➡️ Buy it now on bookshop.org | Borrow it from the Free Library

‘When They Tell You To Be Good: A Memoir,’ Prince Shakur

Youth is rarely an upside when it comes to memoirs, but Prince Shakur — a queer, twentysomething Jamaican American Youtuber/podcaster/writer/activist — uses his tender age to his advantage, emphasizing the emotional landmarks along his journey. Shakur recounts it all in vivid prose: investigating the murder of his father, coming out to his mother, losing friends, nurturing his political mind, finding joy and confusion and heartbreak in the Philippines, Paris, Standing Rock, Ferguson, etc. Edited by Hanif Abdurraqib and released by respected indie publisher Tin House, When They Tell You To Be Good is moving, illuminating, occasionally gorgeous, and often powerful. (Tin House, $27.95, Oct.)

➡️ Buy it now on bookshop.org | Borrow it from the Free Library

‘Saturnalia,’ Stephanie Feldman

Two things stuck with me after the AWP writers conference last April: One was COVID, and the other was the thought “I cannot wait for Stephanie Feldman’s Saturnalia.” Those lucky enough to attend a sold-out reading by members of the famed Claw authors enclave came back buzzing about this wild novel set in a shadowy, fantastical Philadelphia. I’m happy to say Saturnalia was worth the wait. Feldman spins a web of intrigue and wonder across a city beset by dark powerbrokers, climate upheaval, deadly mosquitos, and lavishly costumed pagan social clubs marching down Broad Street in celebration of the winter solstice — and somehow never uses the M-word. (Unnamed Press, $28, Oct. 11)

➡️ Buy it now on bookshop.org

‘Liberation Day,’ George Saunders

Sure, he won the Booker prize for his 2017 “experimental novel” Lincoln in the Bardo, and breathed nerdy vitality into classic Russian literature in last year’s nonfiction master class A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, but any George Saunders stan can tell you: Short fiction is his wheelhouse. Hilarious and doomy but rarely gloomy, the stories in Liberation Day (many of which were road-tested in the New Yorker over the last several years) are set in worlds just a few multiverses away from our own, where our fears and foibles can be observed with clear eyes and deadpan wit. In “Love Letter,” a grandfather reminds his grandson to keep his head down in a next-gen Trump dystopia. In “Ghoul,” actors in a subterranean haunted house attraction try to navigate a pedantic, bureaucratic hell. Everything is terrible; you’ll love it. (Random House, $28, Oct. 18)

➡️ Buy it now on bookshop.org | Borrow it from the Free Library

‘Seven Empty Houses,’ Samanta Schweblin

You could read this slim story collection in a day, no problem, but its images of domestic discomfort will stick with you: white cheese, low-calorie marmalade, a deflated soccer ball, tire tracks on a lush green lawn, clothing strewn on geometric bushes. Argentine author Samanta Schweblin (Fever Dream, Mouthful of Birds) has an eye for smudges in the manicure, those people and moments polite society doesn’t know what to do with — a grieving mother, naked grandparents, an unhinged thief burying a stolen sugar bowl in her backyard — all described with care and grace. (Riverhead, $25, Oct. 18)

➡️ Buy it now on bookshop.org | Borrow it from the Free Library

Also out this month:

‘Revenge of the Librarians,’ Tom Gauld

The revered Guardian cartoonist collects his dryly witty and slyly brilliant literary cartoons. Gauld will read from and sign Revenge of the Librarians at Partners and Son (618 South Sixth St.) on Oct. 5, 6-9 p.m. (Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95, Oct. 18)

➡️ Buy it now on bookshop.org | Borrow it from the Free Library

‘The Hero of This Book,’ Elizabeth McCracken

A grieving writer looks back on her relationship with her charismatic, enigmatic mother in this highly anticipated novel by the author of Bowlaway and A Giant’s House. When it comes to blending humor and heartache, Elizabeth McCracken is the best in the biz. P.S. She’ll be at the Parkway Central Library with Yiyun Li Oct. 6. (Ecco, $26.99, Oct. 4)

➡️ Buy it now on bookshop.org | Borrow it from the Free Library

‘Nights of Plague,’ Orhan Pamuk

The Nobel-prize winning author of My Name Is Red, Snow, etc., delivers a mischievous historical novel set on a fictional island between Greece and Turkey during the fall of the Ottoman Empire. (Knopf, $34, Oct. 4)

➡️ Buy it now on bookshop.org | Borrow it from the Free Library

‘Dinosaurs,’ Lydia Millet

A lonely man walks from New York to Arizona in an attempt to reset his life after a bad breakup in this oddly uplifting new novel by the author of A Children’s Bible. (W.W. Norton, $26.95, Oct. 11)

➡️ Buy it now on bookshop.org | Borrow it from the Free Library

‘Muppets in Moscow: The Unexpected Crazy True Story of Making Sesame Street in Russia,’ Natasha Lance Rogoff

In this hilarious, eye-opening memoir, an American TV producer recounts her adventures in bringing Bert, Ernie, Oscar, and friends, to post-Soviet Russian television in the mid-’90s. (Rowman & Littlefield, $26.95, Oct. 17)

➡️ Buy it now on bookshop.org