As an avid reader and watcher of science fiction, it’s really no surprise that I also love listening to music with a little sci-fi flair, as well—cue Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds! But in addition to songs that are directly based on sci-fi books, there are also some tunes that are not inspired by literature and yet feel eerily reminiscent of specific books anyway. In that vein (and in the spirit of this previous list!), here are five song-and-book pairings that unintentionally, but perfectly, complement each other.
Song: “Run Away to Mars” by Talk
Book: The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud
The entirety of Nathan Ballingrud’s The Strange (2023) is set on Mars, while Talk’s “Run Away to Mars” (2022) is about being on Earth and hypothetically running away to the Red Planet. Along with their shared Martian imagery, there’s a sense of loneliness and a desire for connection that ties the song and book together.
The Strange follows fourteen-year-old Anabelle Crisp, who lives in a small colony on Mars with her father. Her mother had to return to Earth and after communication between the planets was severed, all Anabelle has been left with is a recording of her voice. One night a group of bandits break into her father’s diner and inadvertently steal the recording. With the law refusing to help, Anabelle boldly sets off into the Martian wastelands to recover her mother’s voice. It reads like a Western by way of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), along with a dash of weirdness and horror—basically the recipe for a perfect book, in my eyes.
The opening verse of “Run Away to Mars” nails a couple of The Strange’s key elements: “It’s a wild, wild world / And you’re a wild, wild girl.” Anabelle is certainly a wild (and prickly and audacious) girl in what is essentially the Martian version of the Wild West. But beneath her sharp surface, she just misses her mom (“Three, two, one, I miss you / I’m sorry, I got issues”) and longs for connection, something that’s hard to come by, given the vast emptiness of Mars (“It’s an empty world up here”).
Song: “Rocket Man” by Elton John
Book: “I’m Waiting for You” by Kim Bo-young (translated by Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu)
Elton John’s 1972 hit “Rocket Man” was actually inspired by Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Rocket Man,” which can be found in The Illustrated Man (1951). But aside from its brief mention of Mars, it’s also a great match for Kim Bo-Young’s short story “I’m Waiting for You,” which is told via letters written by a man to his galaxy-traveling fiancé. The laws of relativity mean that she will only be waiting a few months until their wedding, while he must wait years back on Earth, and so he decides to hop on a spaceship to speed towards the big day. But a series of mishaps in space keep the couple apart for far longer than expected.
While in “Rocket Man” the singer’s wife remains on Earth—“I miss the Earth so much I miss my wife”—his longing for her across space and time mirrors the same longing in Kim’s “I’m Waiting for You.” For much of the story, the main character is a “Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone” and it’s definitely “gonna be a long, long time / ‘Til touchdown brings me ‘round again to find / I’m not the man they think I am at home.” But not only does the experience change him, the passage of time also changes Earth in absolutely fascinating ways. The woman’s side of the story—also told in epistolary format—is called “On My Way” and is included in Kim’s short story collection I’m Waiting for You: And Other Stories (2021).
Song: “Light Up the Night” by The Protomen
Book: Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill
“Light Up the Night” is from a 2009 rock opera-style concept album inspired by the Mega Man video games, but it’s also a great fit for C. Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust (2017). The novel is set after humankind has been wiped out by robots, but the world hasn’t become a machine utopia. One World Intelligences (OWI)—massive AI mainframes that assimilate other robots—are now in control, but main character Brittle is desperate to hold onto her individuality.
The Protomen’s song—which has a short film as a music video—is about a couple of people trying to fight back against the evil man who is using robots to control humanity. Sub out “man” for “OWI” and “humanity” for “robots” and you’ve got Sea of Rust. The lyrics “It’s like they gathered up the city, they sold it to the devil, and now / It’s gone to hell and they wonder how” perfectly describe the state of things in the novel. Brittle isn’t a traditionally heroic character, but she finds herself compelled to join the fight when she realizes that “Cut me down or let me run—either way it’s all gonna burn / The only way that they’ll ever learn / We’ve got to turn it off.”
Both the book and the song tell bleak stories set in robot-filled dystopian/post-apocalyptic worlds, but a spark of hope propels both narratives forward.
Song: “We Will Become Silhouettes” by The Postal Service
Book: Wool by Hugh Howey
The Postal Service’s “We Will Become Silhouettes” (2003) is sung from the perspective of someone who can’t leave their house because “the air outside will make / Our cells divide at an alarming rate / Until our shells simply cannot hold / All our insides in and that’s when we’ll explode.” Hugh Howey’s Wool (2012) is about a whole society living in a massive underground silo because an unknown event many years earlier turned the air toxic.
In the top level of the silo is a video feed of the barren landscape outside, but as humans aren’t naturally subterranean creatures, every so often someone cracks and wants to venture out. Reminiscent of this is Ben Gibbard cheerily singing “I’m looking through the glass / Where the light bends at the cracks / And I’m screaming at the top of my lungs.” While in the song “all the news reports recommended that I stay indoors,” in the book this is enforced by the silo’s secret-keeping authorities, which do occasionally allow someone to go outside—somebody’s got to clean the cameras after all!
Song: “The Astronaut” by Jin (of BTS)
Book: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
BTS are no strangers to using space imagery in their songs and a couple of eldest member Jin’s solo songs have followed suit, namely “Moon” and “The Astronaut.” The latter song was released as a gift to BTS’s fans, known as ARMY, before Jin’s military service (mandatory in South Korea) started at the end of 2022; it also happens to pair perfectly with Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary (2021), which is about a lone astronaut tackling a critical mission in space.
[Spoiler alert for Project Hail Mary.]
In Project Hail Mary, Ryland Grace is aboard a spaceship light-years from Earth when he comes across another solo astronaut, a Labrador-sized spider with a rocky exoskeleton, who he appropriately names Rocky. While trying to solve the complex problem of how to save their solar system’s respective suns—and by extension, their home planets—Grace and Rocky come to rely on each other both scientifically and emotionally. In the (translated) words of Jin, “Just as the Milky Way shines upon the darkest roads / You were shining towards me / The only light found in the darkness.” Grace and Rocky share one of my very favorite fictional friendships.
The music video for “The Astronaut” is also about interspecies friendship, with Jin playing an alien (one that admittedly just looks human) who has crash-landed on Earth and befriends a little girl. In Weir’s novel, Grace was a school teacher before being sent on his planet-saving mission and while he loved his job, he didn’t have much direction. Similarly, Jin sings, “Like that asteroid drifting by without a destination / I, too, was just drifting along.” But Grace’s mission and his connection to Rocky gives him purpose and at the end of the book he decides to live on Rocky’s planet, just like Jin deciding to stay on Earth at the end of the music video for “The Astronaut.”
Have you get any suggestions for songs and books that share similar themes? Or any songs that you think match these books (or vice versa!) better than the ones I’ve chosen? Let me know in the comments below!