A Canticle for Leibowitz halfway done--what's my next read?
February 6, 2013 8:02 PM   Subscribe

I'm halfway through A Canticle for Leibowitz and am enjoying it so much that I'm doling it out slowly. It reminds me in a lot of ways of another favorite book The Name of the Rose. I'd love recommendations for books that have that combination of erudition and imagination/fantasy.

Classical allusions and language not a must-have but certainly welcome. I've seen AskMeFi questions that deal more with Leibowitz's post-apocalyptic side, so the recommendations I'm seeking wouldn't have to have that component (although Riddley Walker, cited in a few of these, is an all-time fave). Thanks for your suggestions.
posted by the sobsister to Writing & Language (46 answers total) 85 users marked this as a favorite
If you are enjoying the SF monasticism, you might like Neal Stephenson's Anathem. It's a sort of secular monasticism though, so if the Christian background of the other two works were a big part of the appeal maybe not.
posted by pseudonick at 8:06 PM on February 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

The Book of The New Sun.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 8:12 PM on February 6, 2013 [9 favorites]

Yes, thanks for reminding me of Anathem. I loved Snow Crash, but lost interest in Quicksilver about a quarter of the way in. Is Anathem more, for lack of a better word, "readable"?
posted by the sobsister at 8:13 PM on February 6, 2013

I loved Anathem, but I'm a mathematician. The first 150 pages or so are very slow, though. You just sort of have to let it flow over you. It's my favorite, after Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. (Which if you haven't read it, Cryptonomicon should totally be on your list.)

The Baroque Cycle...were not my favorites. (The fact that I only liked one protagonist didn't help. )
posted by leahwrenn at 8:18 PM on February 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

I found Anathem to be an unreadable drudge and I loved both Name of the Rose and Snow Crash (hell, I even enjoyed Quicksilver).

My recommendations (based on the request for erudition and fantasy):

Jorge Louis Borges's short stories
Foucault's Pendulum
Book of the New Sun
Illuminatus! (silly, but still full of fantasy and erudition)
Perdido Street Station
Sandman (the comic book).
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
Phillip K Dick's novels
posted by empath at 8:21 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's Never Lurgi is absolutely correct; your next read is Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.
posted by infinitywaltz at 8:22 PM on February 6, 2013

I thought the beginning of Anathem was extremely tedious and gave up rather quickly on my first attempt. I then read someone whose opinion on these matters I greatly respect claim it was a brilliant work but it really dragged for at least a hundred pages. So I tried again and, yeah, it was very, very tedious at the beginning. For more than one hundred pages. In fact I almost gave up a second (or third?) time but gradually enough that I can't pinpoint exactly where it happened the book did go from unbearable to excellent. A hundred pages in? Two hundred? I can't say and, yeah, it's terribly problematic to have to slog through that many pages to get sucked in but YMMV.

Gene Wolfe has also been mentioned twice and the New Sun/Long Sun/Short Sun cycle is perhaps the greatest literary SF ever written.
posted by Justinian at 8:31 PM on February 6, 2013

I've read Borges, Foucault, all of Sandman (currently reading the Lucifer TPBs) and PKD. I have Illuminatus!, but have never gotten past the first 10 pages for some reason. Will try again. Started Perdido but took too long and had to return it to the library.

I might add Avram Davidson's The Phoenix and the Mirror as another book in this general area that I enjoyed.

These are great. Wolfe now on my list.
posted by the sobsister at 8:32 PM on February 6, 2013

Would alternate histories in general perhaps fit the bill? My favorites are Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt and Eric Flint's 1632 and sequels.

(And oddly enough near-future science fiction written in the 1970s or 1980s where the author couldn't imagine a Post-Cold-War scenario, and hence the Soviet Union still exists in 2013, give me a similar vibe.)
posted by XMLicious at 8:32 PM on February 6, 2013

Ted Chiang.
posted by deathpanels at 8:41 PM on February 6, 2013 [11 favorites]

Walter Tevis's Mockingbird is the story of the first man to teach himself to read, centuries after we let robots take over all intellectual labor, and of the last of the fully sentient robots, immortal and friendless. Written after The Hustler and The Man Who Fell To Earth, and before The Queen's Gambit and The Color of Money, by a great but often overlooked American writer.
posted by nicwolff at 8:44 PM on February 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

Chaing and Wolfe are excellent suggestions. Here are a couple more, in line with some of the themes of loss and isolation in Canticle:

Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang. A macroscopic novel after a fall, but told on a very personal level.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Wu. A very subjective perspective, dealing with isolation and grief.
posted by bonehead at 8:57 PM on February 6, 2013

Anything by M John Harrison. The Centurai Device is space opera, the Virconium books are 'dying Earth' fantasy (like the Book of the New Sun), and The Course of The Heart is super-depressing urban fantasy.

John Crowley is erudite, fantastic, and melancholy.

Lord Dunsany wrote fantasy that is actually fantastic before 'fantasy' as a genre existed. Read Time and the Gods.

Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! is a fun book with Joyce pastiches.

Micheal Moorcock pastiches Joyce in some of his books too. I can't even begin to tell you where to start with him - he's most famous for the Elric sword and sorcery books, but he's written sci-fi and modern fantasy and political short stories and everything in between. The Jerry Cornelius books are sorta Austin Powers done a bit seriously, and 'Mother London' is pretty series.

Seconding Samuel R Daleny's Dhalgreen. No love for Jeff Van Der Meer? And I'm nthing the Book of the New Sun.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:21 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure An Instance of the Fingerpost is like this. The setting is at the brink of the modern age, nothing is fixed, different sorts of knowledge are being born, and nobody can be trusted. It's sort of nightmarish. The link goes to the first chapter.
posted by Francolin at 9:57 PM on February 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

John Crowley! Yes. Start with Little, Big and then read everything else. Also, I'm going to nth Delaney's Dhalgren with the caveat that it really is kind of dated. Still wonderful, but I actually think the Neveryona books have held up better. I can't stand Gene Wolfe but I realize I am alone in that. You might try (metafilters most often recommended) Iain M. Banks, who I adore - any of the Culture novels would fit your bill. Also, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood and Doris Lessing - Canopus in Argos: Archives which is actually a compendium of her five science fiction novels. For a somewhat lesser known author, I also recently read The End of Mr. Y. by Scarlett Banks and I recommend it highly.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:26 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes, thanks for reminding me of Anathem. I loved Snow Crash, but lost interest in Quicksilver about a quarter of the way in. Is Anathem more, for lack of a better word, "readable"?

Meh. Stevenson's books tend to die in committee when everyone starts acting sensibly, when my monkey brain wants the black hat to get what's coming to him.

You might try (metafilters most often recommended) Iain M. Banks, who I adore - any of the Culture novels would fit your bill.

Yup. And add Charlie Stross and Ken Macleod to the pile. They're competent, good writers - not that they write in a high erudite mode, but they do an extraordinary job of conjuring up other ways of living, while still writing believable characters, good dialogue, etc.

I would also drag up Brian Daley's unregarded Jinx on a Terran Inheritance, which has drama, worldbuilding, dialog, characterization, etc. etc. but stands out to me for just being extraordinarily fun.

You may consider Schuiten's bandes desinees, which might be the comic book equivalent of erudite speculative fiction.

And then finish that off with a nice brick of Steven Erikson.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:21 AM on February 7, 2013

I have the opposite reaction to a lot of people to Anathem - I really like the first few hundred pages, which most people consider to be dragging, but after that it goes downhill.
posted by curious_yellow at 3:29 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anything by Tim Powers. My favorites are Last Call (heavy tarot symbolism), Drawing of the Dark (Beer and the struggles of the East and West, Arthurian myth), Anubis Gates (Time Travel), and Declare (Cold War spies).
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:22 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another vote here for Ted Chiang and Gene Wolfe. (I found Dhalgren to be unbelievably boring.)

I also just read Peter Watts's Blindsight on the recommendation of various mefi folks, and LOVED it; it's nominally a sci-fi first-contact story, and structured like a Lovecraftian encounter with Madness From Beyond, but its main theme is alternative modes of human consciousness besides the way of thinking we consider "normal". Also it has space vampires. YES.
posted by Greg Nog at 5:12 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I associate Desolation Road by Ian McDonald as being similar to A Canticle for Leibowitz. The tone feels similar to me. I'm not sure if it would fit the same definition of erudition, but certainly requires felt thought-provoking to me while reading it, and it has the imagination/fantasy elements (the wikipedia article linked to compares it with Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, mainly in terms of some of the story elements, but the comparison to magical realism is not far fetched).
posted by eviemath at 5:21 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you might love Guy Gavriel Kay, especially "A Song for Arbonne."
posted by jbickers at 5:42 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I read Towing Jehovah by James Morrow immediately after Canticle and they complemented each other in unexpected ways.
posted by workerant at 6:57 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

George RR Martin's The Armageddon Rag.
posted by BeeDo at 7:02 AM on February 7, 2013

As someone who really liked Snow Crash, Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon, but who isn't sure he'll re-read the Baroque Cycle:

I loved Anathem from page one and want to cuddle it and would have its babies. It is like injecting pure nerd joy.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:10 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

You might enjoy John Fowles' The Magus.
posted by carmicha at 8:20 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was surprised and pleased to see Dhalgren listed.

LeGuinn's Left Hand of Darkness (and others of her books) are heavy with her anthropology, and make good reads.

I liked several of Clavell's books, especially Shogun. Here he twists history just enough to make a good plot.

Gary Jennings' Aztec is another rousing psuedo history.

Mailer's Ancient Evenings kept my interest all the way through.
posted by mule98J at 8:55 AM on February 7, 2013

Interesting that you describe Canticle as a combination of erudition and fantasy -- I loved it when I read it, but I was 12 or 13 at the time, so I was far too young to even understand that there were any sophisticated references, let alone not understand them; I should look at it again and see what I missed.

For my part, I would suggest Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians for something imaginative, fantastic, and deeply intelligent. A tale of a dying empire as told by Borges and filtered through Kafka. Kind of. The title is based on Cafavy's poem.
posted by ariel_caliban at 9:18 AM on February 7, 2013

If you want more time travel stuff, Connie Willis has The Domesday Book/To Say Nothing Of The Dog, both are stories about Future Graduate Students with access to time machines. Domesday is the serious, grime and plague boils one (the main characters travels to the 13th century) and To Say Nothing Of The Dog is the light, witty one (the students end up trying to entangle a farce in Edwardian England.) Considering most of the main characters are widely over-educated academics and their goals pretty down to Earth (what the HELL DID this cathedral look?) it slips in a lot of erudite speech-a-fy-in'. Plus, To Say Nothing Of The Dog is hilarious.
posted by The Whelk at 9:26 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Little, Big by John Crowley. Almost anything by him, actually, but that is my favourite. Crowley's stuff is definitely erudite, beautifully written, and full of interesting allusions. He is particularly into Hermeticism.
posted by fimbulvetr at 9:43 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Jonathan Stange and Mr. Norrell reads like what Charles Dickens would have written had be been a fantasy novelist.

I often find that literary historical novels fit the bill (and you mentioned "Name of the Rose"). Have you read Patrick O'Brian's "Aubrey/Maturln" series? What about Hilary Mantel's novels -- her most famous being Wolf Hall?
posted by grumblebee at 9:44 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Actually, yeah, Wolf Hall isn't sci-fi/fantasy, but it feels almost like alternate history considering how sympathetic it is to Cromwell, compared to the shabby treatment he usually gets. That's a great suggestion.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:50 AM on February 7, 2013

For me, detailed historical fiction -- with great world building -- tickles the same parts of me that good sci-fi/fantasy do. I don't make a big distinction between "Lonesome Dove" or "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Game of Thrones," but I know some people do.
posted by grumblebee at 9:54 AM on February 7, 2013

It is not as highly regarded, but Walter Miller revisited the Leibowitzan Abbey with a novel titled "Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman". Here are the relevant paragraphs from the Wikipedia entry for Canticle For Leibowitz (references removed):
Toward the end of his life, Miller wrote another installment of the Abbey of Saint Leibowitz saga, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. A full-length novel (455 pages) significantly longer than its predecessor, it is set in AD 3254, seventy years after the events of "Fiat Lux" but several centuries before "Fiat Voluntas Tua"; it is a midquel to A Canticle for Leibowitz. Suffering from writer's block and fearful the new work would go unfinished, Miller arranged with author Terry Bisson to complete it. According to Bisson, all he did was go in and tie up the loose ends Miller had left. The novel tells the story of Brother Blacktooth St. George of the Leibowitzan abbey who, unlike Brother Francis, wants to be released from his holy vows and leave the abbey. In addition to recounting his travels as Cardinal Brownpony's personal secretary, the book describes the political situation in the 33rd century as Church and empire (Texark) vie for power. Miller died before the novel's publication.

Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman has been called "Walter Miller's other novel." Reviewer Steven H. Silver points out that this "... is not to say that Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman does not deserve to be read. It is a fantastic novel, only suffering in comparison to Miller's earlier work."
posted by 1367 at 10:27 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I use GoodReads and Bookish



GoodReads requires a bit more community participation, but both of them have good algorithms for matching books to your tastes.
posted by bobdow at 12:21 PM on February 7, 2013

Wolf Hall as a suggestion is actually really smart, even though on the surface is does not fit your criteria. I generally do not like historical novels, but this reimagining of Cromwell's life was riveting and modern.

I second Chiang. I thought How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe was terribly glib . A lot of talk about isolation and loneliness, but very little literary exploration of those emotional states.

If you like Borges and Eco, you may want to check out Italo Calvino, the other most well known modern literary fabulist.

Instead of Perdido Street Station, maybe read The City and the City by China Mielville instead, although it leans towards noir much more than fantasy, although retains elements of both.
posted by Falconetti at 12:27 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding "The City and the City." It's unlike anything else I've ever read. It's sort of a philosophical-fantasy-noir mystery. And all those elements are fused together.

I generally find Mielville's work enjoyable, but that particular book seems much more apropos to this thread than his others.
posted by grumblebee at 12:53 PM on February 7, 2013

I enjoyed Baudolino, which is also by Umberto Eco.

Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was a disappointment to me. It has a much smaller scope and while Canticle is an allegory for the good the church did during the middle ages, this was an allegory for the bad the church did, so it's something of a downer.
posted by ckape at 1:03 PM on February 7, 2013

Nth-ing basically everyone suggested in this thread
The most appropriate Mieville to your specs is probably 'City and the City'
Watt's 'Blindsight' is terrifying AND it has space vampires
'Book of the New Sun' and 'Little, Big' FOR SURE FOR SURE
But, anyway, good question, and great answers
posted by J0 at 1:30 PM on February 7, 2013

The Athenian Murders
Ash: A Secret History
The Shadow of The Wind

I think all of these clear the erudition and imagination bars, with the added bonus that they are eminently readable.

Robert Graves' Claudius
novels are also excellent, if your criteria permit imagined history as opposed to alternate history
posted by Jakey at 2:30 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Terrific suggestions from all. Some I've read, many many more I haven't. Thank you very much. I have a reading list for years.
posted by the sobsister at 3:56 PM on February 7, 2013

Wool by Hugh Howey.
posted by JoannaC at 4:51 PM on February 7, 2013

Wool by Hugh Howey.

I loved that book, and I'd recommend it as good sci-fi, but I don't see it as what the O.P. is looking for. It's pretty simple and plot-based. It has well-drawn characters and some good world building.

But it's nothing like "Canticle for Leibowitz" or "Name of the Rose." It's not particularly philosophical or erudite.

It's a bit more literary than pure "escapist literature," but I don't think it's what the O.P. is looking for. Maybe others will disagree with me.
posted by grumblebee at 7:10 PM on February 7, 2013

Lots of good suggestions above! I'll second a few of them.

* 'Anathem'. I loved 'The Diamond Age' and 'SnowCrash', really liked 'Cryptonomicon', barely made it through the Baroque Cycle. 'Anathem' comes in at "really liked" - it was good, if a little glib at times, and I really enjoyed the slow build up. The "Boys' Excellent Adventure" bits annoyed me.

* 'An Instance of the Fingerpost' - not SF, but it was quite fun.

* 'Perdido Street Station' - the first thing by China Mieville that I read, and my favorite. I also loved the follow-on (not quite a sequel) 'Scar', but haven't read 'Iron Council' or 'The City and the City' or the rest of them yet.

* 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel' was a lovely read. I felt let down at the end but it was fun while it lasted.

* It's been too long since I read Ursula LeGuin but 'The Left Hand of Darkness' is a classic.

* How about Connie Willis? Might 'The Doomsday Book' be your speed? ('To say nothing of the dog' is supposedly a light confection but I haven't read that yet - too depressed after the Doomsday Book.)

* Ted Chiang is fantastic.

* 'Wolf Hall' is a very interesting suggestion. Not one I would have thought of...
posted by RedOrGreen at 8:59 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

You will love Robertson Davies. His books have an amazing sweep and are wonderfully erudite and clever, but also warm, witty and readable. I love The Deptford Trilogy the best, but really all of them are great. Also, they are massive, so you won't have to worry about ekeing them out too much.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 12:36 PM on February 8, 2013

Yes to Robertson Davies. That's a great suggestion. I started with Deptford and immediately sought out Cornish and Salterton.

My public library has a few of these, so I'm looking forward to trying some of the suggestions. Mieville (City) and Stephenson on hold.
posted by the sobsister at 4:21 PM on February 8, 2013

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