Tell me of the tales of kicking ass from your homeworld, Usul.
November 8, 2012 11:35 AM   Subscribe

I just reread Dune, and the parts I liked were as good as always. I don't have much patience for the parts other than that. Help me find more books that feature the "navigating a new culture but doing it really well and then kicking ass in some sort of fight" narrative. I like it when the new culture is special/insular/devalued but is really the bestest all along. (Special sandgrains inside.)

Not really about the sand grains, I just wanted to write that.

One of my favorite books from childhood is The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, which it only just occurred to me has this same narrative arc. I think it's a pretty common arc for fantasy and some sci/fi, but I don't like books that are too heavily about the "chosen one," which is one of the things that bums me out about parts of Dune. The other parts I like less in Dune are those that concern the byzantine politics. I like the world building behind the politics, but find the political maneuvering boring.

Sci/fi recommendations preferred, but not required.
posted by OmieWise to Media & Arts (38 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere might be right up your alley. The book is better than the series, if you did not enjoy the series for some reason.
posted by griphus at 11:53 AM on November 8, 2012

Rereading Dune at the moment and enjoying it.
Have just ordered Neuromancer - William Gibson for my kindle.
Not sure if that was wise or not ! Thinking about taking on Gravity´s Rainbow again.
posted by adamvasco at 11:54 AM on November 8, 2012

Doris Egan's Ivory books might work for you quite nicely. There's an omnibus edition around that has all three, I believe, or you can start with The Gate of Ivory. Technically science fiction, reads more like fantasy, has an absolute lovely heroine in Theodora.
posted by PussKillian at 11:57 AM on November 8, 2012

Do you mean like Dances with Wolves or A Man Called Horse? I believe that's referred to as "out-Indianing the Indian." Does it have to be fantasy or sci fi?
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:59 AM on November 8, 2012

That seems to describe the plot of Embassytown pretty well.
posted by deathpanels at 12:00 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

There's Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure. A major page-turner.

Adam Reith is sent with another scout in a small ship to investigate a distress signal sent centuries before from the previously unknown planet. The mother ship is destroyed and the rest of the crew killed in a surprise missile attack. The two survivors are forced to set down on Tschai and soon enough, Reith is alone. The four books describe the attempts of a man of singularly strong will and resource to return to Earth. He overcomes the obstacles of dealing with four different alien races and various human groups in his efforts. In the process, he profoundly disrupts several of the societies, human and alien, with which he is forced to deal.
posted by vacapinta at 12:05 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do you mean like Dances with Wolves or A Man Called Horse? I believe that's referred to as "out-Indianing the Indian." Does it have to be fantasy or sci fi?

Ah, that's a good name for it. It doesn't have to be scifi, but I'll admit to liking my orientalism a bit more coded. (Not to say Dune is very coded, but...)
posted by OmieWise at 12:08 PM on November 8, 2012

John Carter of Mars is pretty much like this, all the time. Non-stop.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:10 PM on November 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

You might also enjoy The Baroque Cycle, which follows three fish-out-of-water making the best of themselves.
posted by griphus at 12:12 PM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Kate Elliott's Jaran series (starting with the book of the same name) is really very good: the series takes place almost entirely on Jaran, a pre-space faring planet but where the local humans, Terrans and aliens all collide.
posted by jb at 12:14 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just to expand: Jaran is like Dune, only with feminist Mongols/Steppe people conquering the settled lands around them.
posted by jb at 12:15 PM on November 8, 2012

Jaran is like Dune, only with feminist Mongols/Steppe people conquering the settled lands around them.

Really? Jesus, that sounds awesome. I've never once heard of it.
posted by OmieWise at 12:17 PM on November 8, 2012

The City and The City by China Mieville, which might be a far-fetched recommendation but it's a cool depiction of a fucking weird place. GOOD BOOK YES
posted by ahtlast93 at 12:19 PM on November 8, 2012

Harry Harrison's West of Eden trilogy.
posted by plokent at 12:38 PM on November 8, 2012

Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle and the others set on that world might interest you. The culture has humans as well as several sorts of aliens coexisting or fighting as the case may be.
posted by dragonplayer at 12:42 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anathem. Math nerds explore the strange new world they came from.

On the other hand, I know own two copies of this book - one to lend out to people, and one to keep. I would also second Mieville, but not just The City and the City, perhaps Perdito Street Station and The Scar (but not Iron Council).

Classic SF-wise, I've recently been enjoying a big collected edition of the Conan stories. I thought they'd be really hard to read, like the Lovecraft stuff I waded through a while ago, but they are actually quite well done.
posted by The River Ivel at 12:55 PM on November 8, 2012

Neil Gaiman's American Gods - recently released ex con discovers and is pressured to navigate a different ("supernatural/divine") aspect of the world he was released into.

Richard Kadry's Sandman Slim series - a young man is sent to Hell by his 'friends,' learns to fight and to suffer, escapes from Hell, and has to try to learn how to live in this world (but with a twist) again.
posted by porpoise at 1:32 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wizard's Bane by Rick Cook: computer programmer winds up in a fantasy world, gradually learns the rules of magic, sees ways to exploit those rules that no one else has picked up on, and in the end takes on the resident Dark Lord. This is the first novel in a series, but the rest of the series doesn't really fit your requirements.
posted by baf at 1:44 PM on November 8, 2012

Seconding Lord Valentine's Castle. Also, I think, Alan Dean Foster's Spellsinger books, but I haven't read any of them for years and can't really be sure if they fit your criteria.

My main recommendation is Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels. I'd say that the primary books for this are Star of Danger and The Bloody Sun, both currently found in the omnibus A World Divided), and Exile's Song. There are numerous other person-dropped-into-alien-culture characters throughout the series, though.
posted by worldswalker at 2:46 PM on November 8, 2012

Seconding vacapinta's recommendation for Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure. Another Vance cycle of books that fit your description and are good quick adventure reads is the Demon Princes novels. These two sets of books are some of his more adventure-oriented and accessible novels. They are good places to start, and if you enjoy the baroque dialog and characterizations (I love it) then you can try other stuff by him. I love me some Jack Vance...
posted by seasparrow at 2:55 PM on November 8, 2012

Try Eleanor Arnason's "Ring of Swords."
posted by driley at 3:13 PM on November 8, 2012

Iain M. Banks's The Algebraist.

Or really almost any of Banks's sci-fi books. But I think The Algebraist especially emphasizes the themes you're interested in. Maybe also The Player of Games?
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:27 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

NK Jemisin has some great fights and some well thought-out cultures. One of the best out there doing non-Western fantasy with male and female protagonists in a non-creepy way (as opposed to, say Jay Lake). Check out The Killing Moon and (especially for the "exploring new culture" thing) The Shadowed Sun.
posted by col_pogo at 3:50 PM on November 8, 2012

I second the recommendation for Kate Elliott's Jaran books, which are pretty much exactly this. If you aren't totally turned off by a more medieval fantasy setting (and a cast of characters which eventually sprawls into the hundreds) her Crown of Stars series also deals with the clash between (well-drawn, fascinating) cultures and how people from various cultures learn to navigate their way amidst various other cultures, all against the backdrop of war (so there is some pretty formidable ass-kicking at various points). However, this one can get kind of overwhelming because there are just so many characters to keep track of. But Jaran is definitely what you want.

In the non-science-fiction realm, you might also want to take a look at the first half of M.M. Kaye's sprawling epic The Far Pavilions, which is set in nineteenth-century India and deals with a young British boy who, after his parents die, is raised by an Indian servant as her son and navigates first the complicated culture of the Indian kingdom where he grows up (with lots of poisonings and drama and fleeing to various other cities), then his own situation as an officer of the British Raj (who views India as his homeland and has difficulty fitting in with most Europeans) during turbulent times. The second half, which is set in Afghanistan, is also fascinating but seems to be kind of a different book since it focuses extensively on the heroic behavior of British officers in Afghanistan (so there is much less diversity of perspective than in the first half). In between all of this, there is quite a lot of swashbuckling. The characters and situations are well-drawn and I feel like the author treated her characters of diverse ethnicities and religions with respect and consideration, but obviously the mileage of different readers will vary. Also, this book may very well be shelved in the romance category.
posted by posadnitsa at 4:04 PM on November 8, 2012

Seconding Lord Valentine's Castle, the Iain Banks suggestions, Mieville, and Anathem by Stephenson.

I'll add "Ventus," by Karl Schroeder. In one respect it's like Lord Valentine's Castle, in that it appears to be medieval fantasy, something I generally have little patience for. Both books are SF, though, and Ventus is ultimately very hard, post-singularity SF, but it's set on a world that won't advance in technology for a very good, but at first hidden, reason. These books aren't too alike, but the fact that I got through them though I detest medieval nonsense should be a reasonable testimony as to their ultimate payoff. (LVC remained a swords-and-castles book to the end, while the final battle in Ventus spans from the very highest tech level to the lowest force of nature.)
posted by Sunburnt at 4:33 PM on November 8, 2012

How about a story of a primitive refugee culture in deadly conflict with other groups of its own species while also struggling to survive against hostile species hunting them to extinction? Meanwhile, a super-advanced alien race with inexplicable motives and seemingly limitless power wreaks havoc on the entire landscape. You learn about the protagonists' language, customs, history and even mythology, weaved into a story of an exceptional leader reinventing society.

It's about rabbits, man. Watership Down.
posted by skewed at 5:36 PM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Watership Down is an interesting suggestion, but it doesn't really have the outsider introduced into it element.

I would never think of Iain Banks in this context, although I like the Culture books. How do you see them fitting into this paradigm?

Thanks for the suggestions everyone. I'm a bit surprised there aren't more of them. I thought this was a pretty common trope.
posted by OmieWise at 6:02 PM on November 8, 2012

For sci-fi, I think you might possibly like the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds. It reminds me of Dune in some respects with the sheer amount of weird and wonderful world-building. The variety of human societies means that there always seems to be a certain amount of culture-shock attached to every interaction. I liked Absolution Gap best, but I suggest you start at the beginning - there are several connected story arcs, although Reynolds plays fairly fast and loose with his timeline.
posted by ninazer0 at 7:55 PM on November 8, 2012

C.J. Cherryh has a lot of books like this, at least about learning to become part of an alien culture - though as I recall while the integrating characters are able to perform crucial roles, usually mediating between their adopted and original cultures, they don't necessarily become the savior/hero like in Dune. Specifically: The Faded Sun Trilogy and the Foreigner series (at least the first three, the ones I read). Her Chanur series give an interesting version of this, written from the perspective of the aliens and not the human interloper.

Also Carol Severance's Reefsong.

Are you interested in books featuring people from our world and culture transported to a fantasy world that they must adapt to, or is that too far outside what you're looking for?
posted by sumiami at 8:12 PM on November 8, 2012

It's always good to find another fan of The Blue Sword, I wish McKinley was more prolific.

Nthing Vance's Planet of Adventure, it is everything you describe.

C.J. Cherryh deals with the problems of integration into alien cultures as an outsider in about half of her books - the Foreigner series, the Faded Sun trilogy, the Chanur books. You may find the 'kicking ass' bit missing, she tends to focus on plain survival.

If you can tolerate ridiculous levels of cheese then Piers Anthony's Blue Adept books fit the description. YMMV, etc.

How close is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court to your target?

David Drake had a mil-SF-ish go at this with the Northworld trilogy (with many echoes from Norse mythology).

Dave Duncan does a fantasy take on this in the Seventh Sword books and The Great Game series.

Eric Nylund is an author for whom I have a soft spot and has hit on these themes. Pawn's Dream has had a few rereads.
posted by N-stoff at 8:18 PM on November 8, 2012

Consider Phlebas was the first Culture book that I read, and coming from a blank slate, I think it fits your requirement. The protagonist was quite anti-culture, and from the narrative I picked up that they were a weak, milquetoast lot. The epilogue describes the conclusion of the war that was the backdrop to the novel, and it was unsettling to me (at the time!), as the outcome of the war was never in doubt, as they were a far superior civilisation.
posted by doozer_ex_machina at 2:34 AM on November 9, 2012

What about the Miles Vorkosigan books? You could get them for free from the Baen Books web site at one point, though they may now be gone. Worth searching for, though, I think, as they show a human (Miles) interacting both with aliens and with very different humans.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:28 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'll admit to liking my orientalism a bit more coded

Then I'm not sure, but my first instinct upon reading your query was to suggest Shogun by James Clavell.
posted by Rash at 8:40 AM on November 9, 2012

What about the Miles Vorkosigan books? You could get them for free from the Baen Books web site at one point, though they may now be gone. Worth searching for, though, I think, as they show a human (Miles) interacting both with aliens and with very different humans.

I adore the Vorkosigan books (Bujold is my favorite author, I'm rereading the Vorkosigan books for the third or fourth time in as many years) - but they really "fish-out-of-water" like, except for Cordelia in Barrayar (and that's only a small part of the story - Bujold doesn't spend as much time on Barrayaran culture as I would like). Most of the stories take place either on Barrayar, where Miles is a total insider, or on his missions with the Dendarii, which are a mercenary group, not a culture (and again, it's very much home for Miles). Also, there are no aliens in that universe, only different types of humans.

I would heartily recommend Bujold, but not someone looking for a Dune-like story.
posted by jb at 9:17 AM on November 9, 2012

The TVTropes name is Mighty Whitey, with lots of examples. (Alternatively, "What These People Need Is A Honky".)
posted by anaelith at 11:03 AM on November 9, 2012

I recently picked up 2 books at a used book store that have some very similar elements:

Robert Buettner - Orphanage - (book 1 of 5 book series) I enjoyed them all.
David Gunn - Death's Head - I think this is very close to what you are looking for (3 books in the series).

These are both science fiction. The Orphanage series is about an attack on Earth, and the story of a soldier/unlikely commander, through the 'war(s)' and exploration for the source of the attack.

Death's Head - an outsider that gets results, used as the muscle of the command for one side of a conflict. Is it the right side? (I have only read the first book in this series, but looking forward to the rest).

One more that you might like - Orson Scott Card - Treason - I am not sure how to describe this, but the story was not what I was expecting - The story of an exile from one region of a planet traveling to other regions, and interacting with the inhabitants of these regions.
posted by bonofasitch at 12:23 PM on November 9, 2012

David Durham's series that starts with Acacia:

Fantasy story of four royal siblings, three of them secreted off into hiding in different cultures, where they grow, become powerful adults in very different ways, and attempt to fight back.
posted by purenitrous at 8:30 AM on November 10, 2012

Maybe some of Martha Wells' books, specifically The Books of the Raksura and The Fall of Ile-Rien Trilogy.
posted by emmling at 9:45 PM on November 10, 2012

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