Please tell me what to read!
December 22, 2009 8:22 AM   Subscribe

Book-recommendation-filter: Can you help me find something to read? Parameters to follow.

I'm desperate for new reading material. I typically read SF/Fantasy and some mysteries (innovative and edgy, I know), and lately I've found myself reading more non-fiction, simply because it seems like most of the SF/F out there has a lot of hackneyed, overblown prose and predictable plots. What I'd really like to find is SF/Fantasy that plays with the genre's conventions a little bit, I think -- actually, I'm interested in any book that twists the conventions of its genre. Additionally, I prefer books with a good deal of action, and absolutely love it when the characters engage in "witty banter" (it should be genuinely smart dialog, though). I'm not super-fond of hard/military SF, though if it focuses on the people more than the science and tech, I'll give it a try.

SF/F that I've enjoyed recently: everything by Terry Pratchett, most of Lois Bujold's books, Scott Lynch, John Scalzi, John Varley, Charles Stross, Guy Kay, George Martin, and Ken Scholes.

Bonus-round: I just re-read Soon I WIll Be Invincible; do you know of any books that mess around with the whole superhero/supervillain/metahuman concept?

Thanks, MeFites!

p.s. -- I've done the usual googling, looked at past questions, tried BookSeer and What Should I Read Next, and haven't had much luck.
posted by Janta to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: oh, and p.p.s. -- vampires (of any level of sparkliness) need not apply.
posted by Janta at 8:35 AM on December 22, 2009

I just finished reading Anathem by Neal Stephenson, and I thought it was a great mix of SF, interesting characters, and really intriguing ideas/dialogue.

It was a bit slow going in the beginning, but when it did finally pull me in I couldn't put the darn thing down. It's really long, but I enjoyed it tremendously. Some of the words that are used are somewhat similar to English, but tweaked and that took some getting used to--luckily the author provides a dictionary!

Awhile back I also read the same author's Cryptonomicon which was also really long, but very, very enjoyable.
posted by Zoyashka at 8:39 AM on December 22, 2009

Iain M Banks' books have plenty of action and witty banter. The Culture series (start with Consider Phlebas) probably fits your criteria the most but his non-Culture novels are great too.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:41 AM on December 22, 2009

Best answer: Walter Jon Williams is great. So is Tobias Buckell. And Nancy Kress. Don't forget Connie Willis.

There are some great books in Kage Baker's "The Company" series and some so-so books in it--if you like immortal cyborgs, let me recommend Mendoza in Hollywood and The Graveyard Game.

Bonus-round: I just re-read Soon I WIll Be Invincible; do you know of any books that mess around with the whole superhero/supervillain/metahuman concept?

Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks is a lot of fun, as are Confessions of Super Mom and Super Mom Saves the World by Melanie Lynn Hauser.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:49 AM on December 22, 2009

Have you read any of Kate Wilhelm's early stuff? She's a mystery / legal thriller author now, but back in the seventies and early eighties she wrote some fantastic SF.

I haven't read everything she's written, but I can recommend Huysman's Pets, The Clewiston Test, and Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang in particular.

I also like her mystery stuff, so you may like her whole oeuvre. She's very clever, and explores humanity and relationships and inner life in a natural, narrative style that I love.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:50 AM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you like Pratchett, you might like Tom Holt. I think The Better Mousetrap is his best.

A. Lee Martinez's book Monster is also a lot of fun.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:50 AM on December 22, 2009

Gun...With Occasional Music, by Jonathan Lethem. (Very "slipstream".)
Slaughtermatic, by Steve Aylett. (Distractingly hilarious.)
Concrete Island, by J. G. Ballard. (Spare and eerie.)
Great Apes, by Will Self. (Cronenberg-as-comedian.)
Zod Wallop, by William Browning Spencer. ("Fantasy comes to life" done fresh.)
The Tenant, by Roland Topor. (More horror than fantasy.)

I've also just started reading Stephen King's Dark Tower series, and I like it quite a bit so far.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:52 AM on December 22, 2009

Best well-written interesting sf I have read recently includes:

- River of Gods (Ian Macdonald) - great sf, set in India
- Brasyl (Ian Macdonald) - great sf, set in Brasyl, multiple plotlines
- Farthing (Jo Walton) - alt WWII history, mystery plot
- Halting State (Charles Stross)
- House of Suns (Alastair Reynolds) - big-scope
- The Prefect (Alastair Reynolds) - complexly-plotted space opera with a mystery structure
- Life (Gwyneth Jones) - near future sf about a woman scientist, very well written
- read a while ago but come to mind: Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang and Nekropolis; Geoff Ryman's Air; Robert Charles Wilson's Spin and The Chronoliths; Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower; Justina Robson, Natural History. (I could go on but I will stop there.)

The Locus Magazine recommended reading lists are often good resources: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 (you can google earlier ones).

Just noting in conclusion that if you dig for reviews of good stuff and stay away from the books that big-box bookstores push in their SFF section, there are still a lot of wonderful books coming out - they're just overshadowed a bit by the majority that is crap.

On preview: no vampires in anything I have recommended, that's for sure.
posted by aught at 8:54 AM on December 22, 2009

Have you read Charles deLint? His stuff is a little new Agey but he was one of the first to do fantasy that's firmly set in our world, which sort of tosses the conventions around. I'm also going to second Iain M. Banks and Neal Stephenson. On the mystery front I recommend Lindsey Davis' Marcus Didius Falco books that are set in ancient Rome; they are not great literature but I am most firmly hooked.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:10 AM on December 22, 2009

Best answer: Elizabeth Moon's stuff is largely military SF/fantasy (she's written 3 mini(?)series to date - two SF and one fantasy) but I love them because the characters are awesome. There is much wittiness, many engaging characters, a lot of depth and not much 'hard' SF at all - it's told from the POV of non-techy people, so most of the sci/tech is handwaved.

I recommend her Serrano Legacy series in particular. (Ignore the stupid covers on the site - they've since been released as a set of 3 omnibuses with far nicer cover art.)
posted by Xany at 9:13 AM on December 22, 2009

seconding the marcus didius falco books from lindsey davis.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:16 AM on December 22, 2009

Also, at risk of pointing out the obvious: Neil Gaiman? I like Neverwhere most.
posted by Xany at 9:18 AM on December 22, 2009

I adore Alastair Reynolds, but there is not a shard of wit in any of his books.

Also, to anyone reading Century Rain--the idea that there is a US state named "Dakota" is an error by Reynolds, not an indication of a plot twist.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:28 AM on December 22, 2009

For superhero genre try Who Can Save Us Now?: Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories also try Hero by Perry Moore about a kid dealing with being a superhero and being gay. If you are into graphic novels I would highly recommend Kurt Busiek's Astro City and Marvels.

posted by crios at 9:29 AM on December 22, 2009

Oh! I missed the "mystery" bit.

If you want to read witty mysteries, Lisa Lutz's Spellman trilogy is a MUST.

Mark Gatiss's novels are wonderful affectionate spoofs of English adventure cliches.

Scarlett Thomas's mysteries (Dead Clever, In Your Face, and Seaside) are excellent. And her books PopCo and The End of Mr. Y are funny, weird, boundary-smashing craziness.

Matt Ruff's Bad Monkeys bridges the gaps between mystery and speculative fiction and postmodern weirdness.

Oh, and you might like Jasper Fforde, or you might find him too twee. (The Largely Mythological Husband likes him; I find him too twee.)
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:35 AM on December 22, 2009

Response by poster: Sio42: I remember glancing at that thread -- will have to give it another look, thanks!

Zoyashka: I should have mentioned Stephenson; I actually have Anathem in my "eventual re-read" pile.

Sidhedevil: Can you tell me what the first Company book is? I've heard them mentioned before, but I haven't been able to figure out where to start with them.

Mygothlaundry and Xany: funny you should mention Didius Falco -- read them, loved them!

So far, I've gotten about 10 books requested from my library off this list, so thanks everyone! Keep 'em coming!
posted by Janta at 9:41 AM on December 22, 2009

Seconding anything by Neal Stephenson, however be aware that his later book are fairly dense and somewhat slow going. You may want to start with his earlier works like Snow Crash or Diamond Age. You might also want to try Tim Powers, his stuff is very action packed and has good dialog. I would recommend The Anubis Gate or Last Call and good starting places. However, he tends a bit more toward fantasy/magic realism than the authors you listed. You also may like Richard Morgan. He has a bit of the space marine vibe, but its well written with good dialog.

For genre-bending mysteries, I would recommend Johnathan Letham's Motherless Brooklyn, a norish mystery with a detective with Tourette's Syndrome, and Jack O'Connell's Box Nine a very dark story with a hallucinatory SF edge (if you can find a copy).
posted by rtimmel at 9:47 AM on December 22, 2009

Can you tell me what the first Company book is? I've heard them mentioned before, but I haven't been able to figure out where to start with them.

The first one is In the Garden of Iden, but it's unfortunately not very good. (The second one, Sky Coyote, is better.) You don't need to read them in story order, though--Baker is good at giving background subtly in each one.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:53 AM on December 22, 2009

Best answer: Lots of good recs here so far. Might i add: Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan. Mixes cyberpunk with hard-boiled noir with lots of action and sex. there are two follow ups, but it's not a traditional cliff hanger trilogy because of the set-up, so you don't have to read more unless you want to.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:09 AM on December 22, 2009

I highly recommend China Mieville. My personal favorites have been Perdido Street Station and The Scar. Both are set in a fictional world called Bas Lag, and feature really engrossing story lines and strange creatures. His latest, The City and the City, is more of a mystery, but in a really odd setting, where two city-states overlap each other.
posted by lexicakes at 10:19 AM on December 22, 2009

A. Lee Martinez takes fairly standard noir/pulp fiction type detective story plot devices and sets them in different genres, so for example The Automatic Detective is a science fiction detective story. They're light hearted and a lot of fun, and definitely play with the boundaries of the genres. I think you'll like his stuff.

Also Fevre Dream by George RR Martin is a great fantasy detective story. It does have vampires but also steam boats and there's no sparkling. He's a quality writer so don't let the vamps put you off.
posted by shelleycat at 12:44 PM on December 22, 2009

Definitely second the Tokeshi Kovacs novels by Richard K. Morgan, that get a nod above. He's also written a fantasy book (the sequel comes out next year) that I wasn't convinced by, but still will give him the benefit of the doubt going forward.

Also highly recommend Joe Abercrombie and his First Law trilogy.

And Glen Cook's Black Company series is fantastic. Especially the first three books (now available in a compendium called "Books of the North".)
posted by papercake at 12:51 PM on December 22, 2009

A MeFi favorite, Cloud Atlas has several stories woven together, including sci-fi and mystery and much much more. I loved the book so much I had to force myself not to read more than 20 pages at a time so I could stretch it out. Lots of action, definitely some witty banter.
posted by ORthey at 2:04 PM on December 22, 2009

Clive Barker's Imajica is (like many of his novels) much more fantasy than horror. It doesn't precisely fit your description, but the prose is often beautiful and the action is pretty good (IIRC), so may be worth adding to your list.
posted by coolguymichael at 2:14 PM on December 22, 2009

Best answer: Here are some I haven't seen mentioned in this thread (from a big sf/f geek):

Jon Courtenay Grimwood - Arabesk trilogy
Karl Schroeder - Virga series starting with Sun of Suns: excellent space pirate/low-tech adventure fun.
Patrick Rothfuss - Name of the Wind
Carlos Ruiz Zafon - The Shadow of the Wind

and always in these threads I promote the well-read group of folks who hang out at George R.R. Martin's forums in the Other Literature portion.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 4:46 PM on December 22, 2009

Seconding Tim Powers. Especially Declare. He write some really strange stuff. It will stick in your head. I reread the Last Call books at least once a year. They're not exactly funny but they're way more fun than Anthaem, which is dry. Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is not. If you haven't tried it yet, skip Anathem and get started on Quicksilver. Or better yet, Declare. Strange book.

Steven Brust. The Khaavren Romances series makes me laugh out loud like nothing but Pratchett. Based loosely on the style of The Three Musketeers, this series is a little like Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds. Brust's Dragaeran series is pretty good as well.
posted by irisclara at 7:31 PM on December 22, 2009

If you want to avoid "hackneyed, overblown prose and predictable plots," maybe you'd enjoy these:

By Margaret Atwood
Handmaid's Tale
Oryx and Crake
The Year of the Flood

Pretty much anything by Ray Bradbury, but my favorites are:
Dark Carnival
The Illustrated Man
The Martian Chronicles
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Dandelion Wine

Although they're not necessarily convention-twisting, these are all beautifully written books in the sci-fi/futuristic domain.
posted by Paris Elk at 1:43 AM on December 23, 2009

Seconding ORthey's recommendation of Cloud Atlas. I was coming in to recommend it if no one else had.

I loved the book so much I had to force myself not to read more than 20 pages at a time so I could stretch it out.

This is exactly how I felt as I got closer to the end of the book.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:26 AM on December 23, 2009

Can't believe I forgot to recommend Sean McMullen! He's wonderful and I particularly recommend the Moonworlds books.
posted by mygothlaundry at 6:49 AM on December 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks again, everyone -- I am looking forward to discovering some new authors. I would mark all your comments as best if that wouldn't make me look like a weirdo. I knew you all would have some great suggestions!
posted by Janta at 6:04 PM on December 23, 2009

How about...Frank Herbert's Dune? It's a sci-fi classic that is relatively unconventional compared to most sci-fi classics. There's also a Dune Book Club going on right now (which I started, actually).

Also, in terms of more classic but still unconventional sci-fi, have you read much from Asimov's Foundation or Robots series? They're pulpy, quick reads with lots of action, economics, politics, and world-building
posted by sleeping bear at 1:09 AM on December 24, 2009

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