Adventure/speculative fiction writers who have Lived.
February 25, 2011 6:02 AM   Subscribe

I would like to read speculative and adventure fiction by authors with lots of life experience related to the stories they tell. Oh, they also have to write well. For bonus points: the experience shouldn't be in technology or military.

As I get old and crotchety, it bothers me more and more to read books where the author lacks life experience pertinent to the story. For instance, I've travelled a bit, and when I can tell from the description the writer has never visited the place in question, it kills my enjoyment. Likewise verisimilitude in professions, economics and business, human relationships...

Obviously this is extra problematic for a fan of fantasy, science fiction, and adventure stories. I am not necessarily looking for writers who have become royalty in alternate universes, disabled doomsday devices, or escaped from Turkish prisons... but it would certainly help if they are older, with some experience of what they write.

For example, I enjoyed John Burdett's mysteries set in Thailand, the author is familiar with Thailand and Asia expat life, but adds fantastic elements to make it extra cool. William Gibson's writing shines when he clearly understands subcultures, poverty, and fashion, but not when he just as clearly doesn't understand technology.

So please recommend some writers who have led interesting lives and become wise and can write well. I may be old and jaded, but still want the same thrills and awe I got from immersing myself in fiction as a teenager!

(For an extra challenge, military doesn't count, because while lots of writers have experienced it, I'm just not that into those kinds of stories.)
posted by jetsetlag to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Lots (and I mean lots) of experienced lawyers write legal fiction. The same goes for FBI agents and the like. Beyond that, though, Earl Emerson is a Seattle firefighter whose books all revolve around firefighters.

I share your preference for authors who have direct experience with the settings of their books, so I'll be watching this thread for other suggestions.
posted by DrGail at 6:29 AM on February 25, 2011

Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond books, worked in British naval intelligence. This is not quite military, but I don't know where you draw the line.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 6:32 AM on February 25, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut's an obvious choice.
posted by Ted Maul at 6:34 AM on February 25, 2011

Graham Greene was a seasoned world traveller. He wrote travel stories (e.g., Travels With my Aunt), spy/adventure stories (e.g., Our Man in Havana, The Quiet American), and literary fiction such as The Power and the Glory. Greene was also apparently a British spy for a time, because he had experience travelling.

James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) wrote science fiction. Her short stories are generally regarded as better than her novels (I agree). She was well-travelled since childhood, as her parents were very wealthy. As an adult, she was an academic in the field of psychology, an artist, and socialite. Okay, she was in the military for a time too, but she was much more than that. Most famously, she was a high-ranking intelligence expert in the CIA. By all accounts, a fascinating life, especially for a woman at the time. The less conventional of her stories are known for themes of space travel, psychology, and gender roles.
posted by methroach at 6:39 AM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Jack London (especially The Sea-Wolf). B. Traven too.
posted by hydatius at 6:45 AM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you read Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents? She didn't, as far as I know, have the life experience of living in a dystopian future, but her books (not just those two, though they are my favorites of hers) are deeply informed by her experiences as a black woman living in the US during some difficult years. More so than most other writers, she captures the violence and threats of her dystopian future with a realistic feel.
posted by Forktine at 6:55 AM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Blaise Cendrars.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:36 AM on February 25, 2011

Zenna Henderson was a schoolteacher who wrote warm, wise SF stories often from a teacher's POV.

Tom Holt uses his classics education from Oxford (if that counts) to write warm, wise, hilarious, slightly fantastic novels about ancient Greece.

Sean Stewart usually sets his wise/beautiful fantasy novels in cities he has lived in.

Clifford Simak wrote wise, often tranquil SF, frequently set in his home state of Wisconsin. That includes his Hugo-winning novel, Way Station.

Terrence Holt is a doctor who writes poignantly enough to get shelved in mainstream lit, even though his stories are generally SF laced with medical experience.

I can think of a lot more who're well-informed on their topics, e.g. academics writing SF inspired by their own not exactly technological fields, but that's all I'm getting for wise + experienced + non-tech/military.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:48 AM on February 25, 2011

I'm not sure I want to describe being a computer science professor as "life experience," but Vernor Vinge is a computer science professor and is pretty much the only SF writer I know who writes engagingly and knowledgeably about computation / computability. This stuff in his books tends to be really smart.

I don't know that he has any life experience when it comes to the "adventure" parts of his books. His Rainbows End incorporates some other material that he might have a personal connection to, like California universities, getting old, etc.
posted by grobstein at 7:51 AM on February 25, 2011

Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow is a novel about a Jesuit mission to meet an alien species. From the writing, it's fairly clear the author is quite experienced in the world of Jesuit philosophy. There is also a healthy dose of linguistics and cultural anthropology.
posted by rabbitsnake at 8:06 AM on February 25, 2011

- I believe that much of Lucius Shepard's fiction is informed by his experiences living in Latin America.
posted by aught at 8:55 AM on February 25, 2011

Suzette Haden Elgin is a linguist who has written some great speculative fiction centering around the challenges of communication between planets.

Alastair Reynolds is an astronomer who writes novels about spacefaring.

Jonathan Kellerman is a psychologist who writes mysteries featuring a psychologist/sleuth; there are several mystery writers who are former private investigators; and I love retired physics professor Camille Minichino's mysteries featuring a retired physics professor as sleuth.

William Gibson's writing shines when he clearly understands subcultures, poverty, and fashion, but not when he just as clearly doesn't understand technology.

See, to me, the biggest flaw with Gibson is his poor understanding of how marketing and advertising work. (Because I have done those things!) It's like that running sketch David Letterman used to do, where people reviewed movies that depicted their professions--the best was the welder critiquing the welding scenes in Flashdance.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:55 AM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dick Francis sure knew his horse racing.
posted by maurice at 9:20 AM on February 25, 2011

For spy stories, John le Carré is an excellent example of what you're looking for.
posted by tdismukes at 9:26 AM on February 25, 2011

John D. MacDonald writes his works as if he lived them. As an old crotchety guy myself, I think you'll find what you're looking for in his books too
posted by Redhush at 10:36 AM on February 25, 2011

Shantaram is a wonderful novel based on the real life of its author, who escaped from a prison in Australia to rebuild his life in the slums of Bombay.

It's fashinating. From the Amazon description:

He arrives in Bombay with little money, an assumed name, false papers, an untellable past, and no plans for the future. Fortunately, he meets Prabaker right away, a sweet, smiling man who is a street guide. He takes to Lin immediately, eventually introducing him to his home village, where they end up living for six months. When they return to Bombay, they take up residence in a sprawling illegal slum of 25,000 people and Linbaba becomes the resident "doctor." With a prison knowledge of first aid and whatever medicines he can cadge from doing trades with the local Mafia, he sets up a practice and is regarded as heaven-sent by these poor people who have nothing but illness, rat bites, dysentery, and anemia.
posted by madeinitaly at 5:30 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

You may like Frederick Forsyth. For some reason his Wikipedia page is full of spoilers, so don't read it :)
posted by galadriel at 6:14 PM on February 25, 2011

Mary Gentle's _Book Of Ash_ draws on her experience as a medieval re-enactor and historian. Her description of the weight of chain mail is dead on (you can try it out next time you visit!).

K J Parker's descriptions of (or perhaps more accurately obsession with) ancient manufacturing technology may or may not be based on real experience, but they're certainly intensely detailed.

Seconding Vinge: only a computer scientist could have written _The Cookie Monster_. But don't bother with _Rainbows End_.

Michael Swanwick claims that a couple of the events in _The Edge Of The World_ are based on things that really happened to him.

Raphael Carter's writings on non-binary gender are based on eir life.
posted by novalis_dt at 6:56 PM on February 25, 2011

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