Help! I'm almost done with Cryptonomicon and I'm not ready to read the whole Baroque Cycle!
September 9, 2011 9:04 AM   Subscribe

Hello, I'm looking for longish, fun books that are packed with interesting ideas. The two books that I've read recently that I've enjoyed the most have been Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World and Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. I'm looking for suggestions for more books like that - things that will take me a while to read, have a lively momentum throughout, and are stuffed with a lot of cool concepts. If I read someone else asking this question, I'd probably suggest Infinite Jest, so I'll say upfront that I've already read it. Thanks!
posted by Ragged Richard to Writing & Language (41 answers total) 108 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm, it's probably slower than the novels you name here but how about The Savage Detectives? It took me a whole summer but it was so worth it.
posted by serazin at 9:12 AM on September 9, 2011

If you're up for more Stephenson, I loved Anathem. China Miéville's New Crobuzon books are also fairly long and full of many different races/species; I liked The Scar the best, but I think Perdido Street Station is longest.
posted by neushoorn at 9:12 AM on September 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Stephenson's Anathem has what you seek, if you don't mind speculative fiction. It takes a couple hundred pages to get rolling, but once it does it's a juggernaut.
posted by neckro23 at 9:14 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Kim Stanley Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt - it's an alternate history.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:16 AM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Vernor Vinge's _A Fire Upon The Deep_ and _A Deepness In The Sky_.
posted by novalis_dt at 9:21 AM on September 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Everyone is taking my ideas, so I will just second China Mieville and Vernor Vinge. You might also like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Or, if you're into sci fi, I love Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space novels.
posted by something something at 9:23 AM on September 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Have you read Stephenson's Baroque Cycle? It's connected directly to Cryptonomicon and definitely fits the bill for "takes a while to read" and "stuffed with cool concepts." Opinion is more divided on it than Cryptonomicon, but I really enjoyed it once I got into it. My only caveat is that the first book is a bit of a crawl--I would say that the second and the third fit the "lively momentum" requirement a lot better (especially the second).

Otherwise, thirding Anathem. Lots of neat ideas, an interesting world, and a good pace throughout most of it. There are a few sections that drag a little, but I finished it pretty quickly.
posted by Kosh at 9:34 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun. Thousands of pages with a lot of momentum. Gene Wolfe does not put his ideas forward the way Stephenson does, or the way Vinge does (Vinge I think is often writing in the sci-fi tradition of experimentation: what would happen if we had xyz technology). But that makes it all the more rewarding to discover them, in the structure of the story, or in some haunting unexplained background detail. The book is unusual in that it evokes a very deep strangeness, but still resolutely makes sense. So while it is full of magic, and religious mysteries, and synchronies, everything holds together in a way it never does. Possibly the book makes too much sense. But it's amazing and it might be what you're looking for.
posted by grobstein at 9:36 AM on September 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

i really enjoyed house of leaves. you have to go into with an open mind and enjoy copious footnotes and unreliable narrators.

as for the baroque cycle - i loved quicksilver. i know it gets a bad wrap around here, but i really, really enjoyed it.
posted by nadawi at 9:38 AM on September 9, 2011

Anathem definitely fits the bill and if you liked Cryptonomicon you'll know what you're getting into, even if the subject matter is very different. Lots of ideas, lots of digressions, lectures on the philosophy of math -- a really cool subject. A whole new world to decode and in which to play Spot The Concept / Thinker. It may be less than the sum of its parts, but the parts are excellent.
posted by grobstein at 9:40 AM on September 9, 2011

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, and the newly translated Panorama by H.G. Adler. Or, in a more sci-fi/magical realist vein, Illywhacker by Peter Carey, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.
posted by Perodicticus potto at 9:42 AM on September 9, 2011

Seconding Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Also, though ostensibly a young adult series, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy has neat ideas and are beautifully written.
posted by rouftop at 9:43 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Believe it or not, "Moby Dick" is filled to the brim with esoteric information about whaling, whales, ships and life aboard a 19th-century whaling ship. Like "Anathem," it takes a while to get going, but it is a terrific and absorbing read.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:47 AM on September 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm going to go for a couple of Stephenson's earlier books too, just for the 'uh, what did I just read' - Snow Crash will 'teach' you more about Sumerian mythology and neurolinguistics than you might want to know, and The Big U, while stephenson doesn't even like admitting he wrote it at times is a crazy mind-freak into the human brain. Kinda. It's weird, but I like it.
posted by pupdog at 9:47 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

If by interesting ideas, you just mean new ways of looking at the world we already live in, try "A Winter's Tale" by Mark Helprin - a beautiful new way to love New York, past and present.

If you mean new ways the world could turn out, then "The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi isn't all that long, but it's densely packed with a very cool (if depressing) future that goes hand in hand with Stephenson's work
posted by Mchelly at 9:48 AM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

How about Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. It's a fun adventure, but it's also an extended exploration of a world that's been taken over by nanotechnology. It seems like every page has 2 or 3 cool new little things (or big things) that you could do with nano tech.
posted by alms at 9:55 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

How about The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling?
posted by Kreiger at 10:05 AM on September 9, 2011

There is also Tim power's Fault Lines trilogy: Last Call, Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather. They are more fantasy-based (Fisher King/Thomas Edison's ghost fantasy; not elf fantasy) than Stephenson's work, but they have a very similar feel. (I haven't read The Gone-Away World, but its now on my list)
posted by rtimmel at 10:08 AM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Beat the Reaper (2009) by Josh Bazell
Backbite (2011) by Adrienne Jones
Quarantine (1992) by Greg Egan
To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971) by Philip Jose Farmer
A Matter For Men (1984) by David Gerrold
Signal to Noise (1998) by Eric Nylund
Gateway (1977) by Frederik Pohl
Revelation Space (2000) by Alastair Reynolds
Master of Space and Time (1984) by Rudy Rucker
Sewer, Gas, and Electric (1993) by Matt Ruff
Hyperion (1989) by Dan Simmons
Anathem (2008) by Neal Stephenson
Titan (1979) by John Varley

In prepping this list I realized how little "fun" books I read. Anyway most of these books are lighthearted and full of ideas. Some of them are the start of a series so you can satisfy the longish part of your equation with those.
posted by dgeiser13 at 10:15 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Caleb Carr's The Alienist and its sequel, The Angel of Darkness is a lot of fun and stuffed full of gritty details about late Victorian-era New York City. Imagine a detailed historical version of stuff like The Silence of the Lambs.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:24 AM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

These are all great. Looks like Anathem is next, and I'll have a pretty deep bench for once I finish that. Monkeytoes gets a best answer because I teach American Lit and it warms my heart to see someone suggest Moby Dick. And for anyone else who's using this question for recommendations, I'll second dgeiser13's suggestion of Sewer, Gas, & Electric, which is one of my all-time favorite books.

That's so much everyone (and by all means, keep them coming) - you guys were enormously helpful.
posted by Ragged Richard at 10:30 AM on September 9, 2011

oh man, i love moby dick. i had a teacher that was all like "just skip these chapters, they don't add anything" and i was like "you totally fucking missed the point."
posted by nadawi at 10:33 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco. It is sort of an intellectual conspiracy thriller with lots of esoteric stuff about Kaballah and the Knights Templar.
posted by Kafkaesque at 10:37 AM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

What, 22 answers already in this thread and nobody's suggested David Mitchell yet? Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are the ones I like best, but number9dream and Ghostwritten would also fit the bill, I think.

Mary Gentle's Ash (published in one volume in the UK, four volumes in the US) is also long, involving, fun and densely-packed.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 10:54 AM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (and its sequel) has a very detailed and very thoroughly explained system of magic (actually, multiple systems really). The second book The Wise Man's Fear could even be accused of spending too much time with some of those interesting ideas (in this case a complex language) in lieu of plot advancement which strikes me as very Stephenson-like. They're definitely fun and great stories as well, highly recommended.

Anathem is packed with interesting ideas, but is a lot less entertaining in my estimation than Cryptonomicon (the fun/ideas ratio goes the opposite way in that regard I think). Snow Crash is a lot more similar to Cryptonomicon in the vein of entertainment vs. esoterica. Not to say I don't recommend Anathem, but fun wouldn't be one of my go to words to describe it, with Snow Crash it definitely would.
posted by haveanicesummer at 10:54 AM on September 9, 2011

Ian McDonald's work, particularly the more recent stuff (The Dervish House, Brasyl, River of Gods etc.) should be on your list.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 11:22 AM on September 9, 2011

I'd also recommend Stephenson's Anathem, which I enjoyed a lot more than Cryptonomicon. Have you encountered Guy Gavriel Kay yet? He has written several books but the most recent one of his I've read, Under Heaven, was thoroughly absorbing and I'd recommend it, as well.
posted by Lynsey at 11:39 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Or River of Gods by Ian McDonald. The Wikipedia summary of the plot barely begins to describe everything in this book. Loved it, and I am working on his next book, Dervish House, now.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:01 PM on September 9, 2011

Seconding Anathem, Quarantine, and Hyperion. Accelerando and Glasshouse by Charles Stross have a lot of good ideas relating to transhumanism. Axiomatic is a wonderful collection of short stories by Greg Egan that's full of neat ideas.

Generally speaking, anything by Neal Stephenson, Greg Egan, or Karl Schroeder will be an idea book.
posted by shponglespore at 1:22 PM on September 9, 2011

I'll put in my two cents with one that no one has mentioned yet: Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter.
posted by Daddio at 1:30 PM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

> *I'll put in my two cents with one that no one has mentioned yet: Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter.*

Oh, wow! Completely different from everything else mentioned, but as I re-read the question, "Things that will take me a while to read, have a lively momentum throughout, and are stuffed with a lot of cool concepts." then, yes. Absolutely, seconded.

Recursive genies, sentient ant colonies, dialogues that can be read forward or backwards... this thing is just jam packed with interesting ideas executed really well.
posted by losvedir at 2:23 PM on September 9, 2011

in addition to the great suggestions so far:

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy.
Jorge Luis Borges. Not long, but very dense.
Salman Rushdie. Either The Satanic Verses or Midnight's Children.
Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson - the Illuminatus Trilogy.
posted by chbrooks at 2:41 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I jumped into this thread to recommend Moby Dick, but I see several people have also recommended it.

Here's some advice on reading Moby Dick: get a really good copy. I had a copy with copious footnotes (a penguin edition from the mid-80s), and that really helped. But, even more than that, was reading Philip Hoare's "Leviathan" beforehand (link to Guardian newspaper review, but there is also Hoare's website).

Hoare's Leviathan helped me understand how important and dangerous whaling was at the time of Moby Dick. It also helped me conceptualise what a whale was, which was truly fascinating; before reading it, whales had just been "big sea things", but I'm actually interested in them now.

I'd also vote for Vernor Vinge's books, but you probably won't need to read up on the internet to understand them. However, if you like the universe that "Fire Upon the Deep" and "Deepness in the Sky" are written in, it's worth noting that his then-wife wrote two novellas in the same fictional world - "The Outcasts of Heaven Belt", and "Legacy". They aren't as galaxy-spanning, but they cover a lot of the same ground.
posted by The River Ivel at 3:20 PM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I wholeheartedly third Godel Escher Bach, as that's what I immediately thought of when I read your question. I read it in high school because I had to do a report on Kurt Godel, and it was like falling down some sort of crazy brilliant rabbithole.
posted by ella wren at 4:06 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you're not limiting yourself to novels, you may also want to check out these two questions:

What's the best non-fiction I haven't found yet?

Recommend me books about ants, termites, Quakerism and black cowboys

Also, I liked Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything," which I listened to with my kids. I don't have much love for the periodic table, but enjoyed Sam Kean's "The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements."
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:30 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can't believe nobody's mentioned Snow Crash. I guess they're just assuming you've read it. It's one of Stephenson's shorter novels, which is a bonus in my book. Especially if you're feeling burned out by the guy.

If you're looking for long, interesting, non-fiction with lots of neat ideas, anything by Martin Gardiner will certainly keep you busy for quite a while. Of course, it'll be mathier than even Cryptonomicon.
posted by pwnguin at 8:51 AM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Feersum Endjinn had one hell of a payoff, but because one of the narrators is barely literate, it can be a challenging read, in the same way that Trainspotting or A Clockwork Orange can be.

I'll recommend the non-fiction semi-auto-bio by Dr. Oliver Sacks, "Uncle Tungsten," which taught me more about mineral geology and the elements than nearly anything I've read.

I'll also recommend the "The Fall Revolution" series by Ken MacLeod, which will challenge and re-challenge your understanding of major political/economic systems and movements, all while in an facinating world-spanning SF plot that begins just a few years down the road.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:03 AM on September 11, 2011

Jeff Noon's Vurt.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 11:40 AM on September 11, 2011

The thing about the Tim Powers novels suggested above is that they are fantasy, but they're gritty, urban fantasy awash in carefully researched historical detail that will freak you out once you realize that Powers isn't making all of this up. So yeah, the Fault Line trilogy and Declare are just wonderful.
posted by mecran01 at 1:39 PM on September 12, 2011

Just popping back in to thank everybody who suggested Anathem. It was great. Now time to work my way through the rest of these.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:45 AM on September 30, 2011

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