Like Cory Doctorow But Not Quite
December 30, 2009 3:26 PM   Subscribe

Very soft science fiction/speculative fiction recommendations (with a few restrictions)

Some of my favorite books are ones I picked up in the general fiction section that had an underlying science-fiction component. Basically, I'm looking for recommendations similar to Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let me Go or Jose Saramago's Blindness. I've scanned the other speculative fiction threads, and many of those books focus too much on the technology or are fantasy-based. I'm looking for near-future scenarios in which normal people are put in extraordinary but plausible circumstances, and any science is just the framework for a character-driven story.

Also, I'm not really interested in historical what-if novels like The Years of Rice and Salt, or overt cautionary tales (no Margaret Atwood).
posted by lunalaguna to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
The Time Traveler's Wife.
posted by Nattie at 3:48 PM on December 30, 2009

Have you read The Road?
posted by dchrssyr at 3:48 PM on December 30, 2009

Here's the inevitable Cloud Atlas recommendation.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:51 PM on December 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

I just read The City and the City by China Mieville and really enjoyed it.
posted by Knicke at 3:53 PM on December 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

The Speed of Dark.
Time's Arrow (sort of).
His Master's Voice.
Doomsday Book/To Say Nothing of the Dog.
posted by No-sword at 3:57 PM on December 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding The Road.

also, you may want to try Kurt Vonnegut. Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse 5 are both character/narration driven stories with sci-fi components.
posted by chicago2penn at 4:01 PM on December 30, 2009

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist. It shares some surface similarities with Never Let Me Go (although I haven't read it) and it seems like it would be a nice companion. It's a really beautiful book.

I will second The Doomsday Book. I really need to reread that.
posted by darksong at 4:02 PM on December 30, 2009

Infinite Jest (1996) definitely qualifies. Calling it science fiction would be going much too far, but it posits a very weird early-2000s U.S.
posted by FrauMaschine at 4:03 PM on December 30, 2009

What everyone else said about The Doomsday book, and for that matter, just about everything else by Connie Willis (I liked Passages a lot, too).
posted by infinitywaltz at 4:07 PM on December 30, 2009

The last two books from William Gibson fit into your criteria -- Pattern Recognition and Spook Country.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:20 PM on December 30, 2009

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. I'm not a sci-fi person at all, but I really enjoyed this book. It was thoughtful and had well-developed characters, and it's set in the near future, so there's not much of a historical disconnect.
posted by Madamina at 4:23 PM on December 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

How about The Handmaid's Tale?
posted by olinerd at 4:29 PM on December 30, 2009

Robert J. Sawyer's Flashforward is good. It is nothing like the TV show (which I also enjoy, but the two vary substantially). I do not usually like, or even seek out, science fiction, but I recommend this book.
posted by Houstonian at 4:31 PM on December 30, 2009

The New Yorker has been running a lot of this genre lately, I feel -- 3 stories in the last year?
posted by grobstein at 4:44 PM on December 30, 2009

You and I have similar tastes.

My favorite author along these lines is Robert Charles Wilson. Start with "The Divide," which is like "Flowers for Algernon," Daniel Keyes short story about a man who takes a drug that makes him gradually get more intelligent. ("Flowers" is a great. Soft sci-fi mixed with a love story.) Wilson spins the tale into a more complex novel.

Another great book by him is "The Harvest," which is about an alien craft that visits earth and offers everyone a chance to become a being a pure energy and to merge with a sort of cosmic Internet. The book is about the humans who refuse and stay behind. All of Wilson's books are character books. His interest is in how humans behave in extraordinary circumstances.

I tend to like distopia books, which are almost always sci-fi-lite. Certainly read "1984" if you never have. It's 90% character. I prefer it to "Brave New World." My favorite distopia is "This Perfect Day," by Ira Levin. It's less political than the more famous ones. It's more about character.

(NOTE: if anyone can recommend some books for a guy who loves the above, plus "We," "Logan's Run," the tripods books and the "Uglies/Pretties" books, PLEASE do. I can't get enough of that genre!)

Try "Replay," by Ken Grimwood, which is a more complex, serious take on the same idea as that Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day."

Though some people don't think she's much of a sci-fi writer, I'm pretty fond of Margaret Atwood's three attempts, "Handmaid's Tale," "Oryx and Crake" and its sequel, "After the Flood."

Finally (for now -- I'll add more as I can think of them), I love EVERYTHING by Walter Tevis. Tevis seemed to be on a mission to write a book in every genre. Alas, he died too young, but his few books are terrific. He is best known for his pool-hall novels, "The Hustler" and its sequel, "The Color of Money." He also has a novel -- my favorite of his -- about a chess prodigy, called "The Queen's Gambit." His two sci-fi novels are "The Man Who Fell To Earth" and "Mockingbird."
posted by grumblebee at 4:52 PM on December 30, 2009

The Three Californias--Kim Stanley Robinson (The Gold Coast, The Wild Shore and Pacific Edge). He's written some very science-y science fiction (the Mars Trilogy), but the Three Californias is very like Never Let Me Go in setting.
posted by crush-onastick at 4:58 PM on December 30, 2009

Jonathan Lethem may be your guy here. His new book, Chronic City, is getting lots of love right now, and his debut, Gun, with Occasional Music, is great as well. Richard Powers' Galatea 2.2 is also very much in this genre.

Yes on Cat's Cradle, Infinite Jest, The Road (unless you think this last is too "overt cautionary." No on Robert Charles Wilson, who I think is much more traditional SF than you're looking for.
posted by escabeche at 5:32 PM on December 30, 2009

Doris Lessing's The Memoirs of a Survivor.
posted by DarkForest at 5:57 PM on December 30, 2009

Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy that begins with Forty Signs of Rain is something that might suit.
posted by rtha at 6:00 PM on December 30, 2009

Any of Tim Powers "Fisher King" books, all of which are intricately plotted and peopled with intriguing characters:
*Last Call (1993) A professional poker player finds out that he lost far more than he won in a poker game played with Tarot cards two decades ago.
*Expiration Date (1996 ) A boy possessed by the spirit of Thomas Edison is hunted through Los Angeles by people wanting to consume the ghost he carries.
*Earthquake Weather (1997) Sequel to both Last Call and Expiration Date, involving the characters of both: two fugitives from a psychiatric hospital, the magical nature of multiple personality disorder, and the secret history of wine production in California.
posted by minimii at 6:08 PM on December 30, 2009

Best answer: You've got lots of good recommendations here. The Kim Stanley Robinson "California" stuff is particularly nifty, as is the recent Gibson stuff (Pattern Recognition especially.) To these, I'll add:

Geoff Ryman's Air.

Maureen McHugh's short story collection Mothers and Other Monsters.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 6:15 PM on December 30, 2009

P.D. James' The Children of Men fits your requirements and is good reading. If you don't mind challenging yourself, you might then look at Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. Heck, let me throw Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, too.
posted by jhiggy at 6:28 PM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy The Stand if you haven't already read it. Seconding Replag, although it's a bit cheesy at points.
posted by lunasol at 7:48 PM on December 30, 2009

There's a ton of great literary writers who write science fiction - Pynchon, Vonnegut, Fitzgerald, Orwell. I think it's more interesting to suggest accessible sf.

Rudy rucker's book are all packed with hundreds of cool ideas based on real maths and science (rucker's a maths prof) and they're well written and hillarious to boot.
posted by Andy Harwood at 8:13 PM on December 30, 2009

I haven't read it, but maybe Haruki Murakami's After Dark (I have yet to get through a Murakami book, but not for the lack of trying. I think I'll eventually connect with one of them and I'll get it). Not quite sci-fi, but seems to share some of the same thematic qualities as the other books you've mentioned.

You may also like some of Sheri S. Tepper's books, but for me, they've been kind of hit or miss (usually intense reads, but not completely satisfying). They're usually more fantasy than straight sci-fi, but interesting ideas.

Someone above mention Scott Westerfeld's Uglies -- I think his books are great and worthy reads, but I think they may be a little too "hard" in terms of the sci-fi concepts for you. Still, they are fun, if you like dystopian fiction. (They are young adult books and very easy to read, but still worthy.)

Also some of Gene Wolfe's short stories may have the right mood and feel you're looking for.
posted by darksong at 8:19 PM on December 30, 2009

I've read after dark . It's great but it's definitely not sf. I think murakami has written sf before though.
posted by Andy Harwood at 8:43 PM on December 30, 2009

His Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is pretty clearly sci-fi.
posted by grobstein at 8:46 PM on December 30, 2009

. . . and I rather liked it. But it is not, I think, about "normal people put in extraordinary circumstances." Or is it? I'm not really sure. It has a split narrative, with one thread telling IIRC a kind of detective adventure story (Hard-Boiled Wonderland) and the other telling a kind of elegiac fantasy fairy tale (The End of the World). They come together in a way that is both sad and hopeful.

I hated Blindness though. Guh.
posted by grobstein at 8:51 PM on December 30, 2009

Try George Saunders too. New Yorker writer, short stories, about a media- and marketing-saturated world very like our own.
posted by matildaben at 8:53 PM on December 30, 2009

I came in to recommend Walter Tevis' Mockingbird, my favorite book, but grumblebee got it. So I'll recommend to both of you M. T. Anderson's Feed.
posted by nicwolff at 9:04 PM on December 30, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so much, guys. Lots of good suggestions here. Just to clarify, I grew up reading a lot of sci-fi and fantasy. I still like the darkness and creativity of it, but now find the harder stuff either distracting or cliche or allegorical. The Road is definitely in the right direction, and I loved The Sparrow and the Time Traveler's Wife, which someone mentioned.

Air has piqued my interest the most. I still hate Margaret Atwood, and like darksong, I've yet to finish a Murakami book. Keep 'em coming!
posted by lunalaguna at 9:43 PM on December 30, 2009

Response by poster: Oh, and if someone can find me the literary equivalent of the Todd Hayne's movie, Safe, that's exactly what I'm looking for (woman struggling to cope in a post-modern and vaguely pre-apocalyptic world; tone is dark and resigned, but also a bit funny).
posted by lunalaguna at 9:56 PM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

This would be post rather than pre-apocalyptic, but have you read Parable of the Sower?
posted by willnot at 11:17 PM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Vonnegut-- Cat's Cradle is a good one to start out with. I also adore Player Piano, but I'm very much in the minority on that-- it's a dystopian novel in the same vein as 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, but I think it was much more prescient than either of those.

You mentioned Doctorow in the title-- if you want to branch out from him as a starting point, you might go on his website and find the stories of his that are collaborations with other authors.

If you want to go into short stories, you may find Ben Rosenbaum, Mur Lafferty and Jeremiah Tolbert up your alley-- I believe they all have stories on Escape Artists podcasts if you want to check them out through there.
posted by NoraReed at 11:31 PM on December 30, 2009

Best answer: McSweeney's 32
posted by Locobot at 11:50 PM on December 30, 2009

You might be looking for Love In The Ruins. (Walker Percy)
posted by coffeefilter at 12:07 AM on December 31, 2009

I'm going to second my own suggestion of rudy rucker. Start with something from the 80s. I prefer his newer books but they're so densely packed with ideas that it can be hard to keep up. Software and master of space and time are both classics (and they both take about 27 minutes to read)
posted by Andy Harwood at 9:40 AM on December 31, 2009

Ursula K. LeGuin has a short story collection Changing Planes that you might enjoy.
posted by irisclara at 11:50 AM on December 31, 2009

As you grew up reading a lot of sci-fi and fantasy I guess you're already familiar with Ray Bradbury but how about Clifford Simak?
posted by Rash at 2:29 PM on December 31, 2009

I'm reading Under The Dome right now. New from Stephen King. I think its fits what you are looking for.
posted by rglasmann at 5:41 PM on January 1, 2010

I agree that "Under The Dome" fits the criteria, but it's a crappy novel. (And I say that as someone who usually finds King's books entertaining.)

King makes a weird choice of spending page after page taking you inside the head of a two-dimensional, melodramatic villain. It's fine to craft a cartoon villain, but if you're going to do this, don't bore us with his "psychology."

The book is overly long. (And I say that as someone who thinks "War and Peace" is too short.) King needs an editor who refuses to indulge him.
posted by grumblebee at 2:25 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Borges. Most people wouldn't call him an SF author. But he is.
posted by [@I][:+:][@I] at 10:55 AM on January 4, 2010

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