Modern Life is Magic
April 10, 2014 3:18 PM   Subscribe

Help me find books that convey a jolly feeling of appreciation for the wonders of modern life. Ideally these would be books that have a sci-fi or fantasy feel, but in which nothing overtly magical or fantastic happens. The best recent examples I can think of are Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, which has all the elements of a fantasy novel but is set squarely in our world, and William Gibson's most recent novels, all of which feel fantastic to me but are grounded in real life.

I feel like we live in an age of marvels, and I really enjoy stories that explore the marvelous aspects of everyday life. I want to feel like a slack-jawed yokel, exclaiming over every LED billboard and can of soda that I see. (One of my favorite bits in the His Dark Materials trilogy is where they briefly cross into our world and Lyra gets to taste soda from a can, exclaiming, "it's good!"). I'd also enjoy looking at this from the opposite perspective, where the characters are yanked from comfortable 21st-century lives due to time travel or some kind of apocalyptic disaster; I'm specifically interested in the fantastic material abundance of modern industrialized life, and how characters would deal with losing that. The more specifically they lament the loss of those things, the better. (What would they miss most? Ketchup packets? Washing machines)?

Alternately, it could be a story in which a time traveler (from the future or the past) or a visitor from an alternate dimension comes to our era and is just astonished by things we take for granted.
posted by spacewaitress to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Paul Auster's City of Glass trilogy is rooted in the tropes of detective novels, with broad themes of language, chance and identity. They're very much city stories, and mundane in a way, but still full of mystery and brain-bending wonder.
posted by klangklangston at 3:31 PM on April 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I suppose it would depend on how much tolerance you have for re-imaginings of Jane Austen novels, but you might enjoy Laurie Viera's Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, in which a modern day Californian suddenly wakes up in the body of a Regency-era gentleman's daughter, and its follow-up, Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict, in which we discover how the gentleman's daughter feels when she wakes up to find she has become a modern-day Californian woman.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:46 PM on April 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Douglas Coupland? I find his Microserfs makes me look at the future differently (although it was written fifteen years ago, I personally think it holds up). Girlfriend in a Coma has the post-apocalyptic take.

You might also like Kage Baker's The Company series, which plays around with this contrast between our present and the past.
posted by pie ninja at 4:13 PM on April 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh man, I loved The Company so, so much. Any recommendations similar to that would be spot-on.
posted by spacewaitress at 4:18 PM on April 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ooh ooh ooh: Connie Willis's Doomsday Book. Time travel from the near-future to a 14th century English village in the grip of the plague. I've never felt so grateful for all of my beautiful wonderful comfy amenities (and all of modern medicine) as I did on the day I snuggled up under the covers with some tea and a little bit of a cold and tore through that book.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 4:23 PM on April 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh and also, this is silly, but - Game of Thrones. It never used to have that effect on me before, but then on Tumblr one day I saw a link to this article about how the actress who plays Sansa adopted the dog that played her direwolf on the show. Underneath it, someone had written, "Reality is the heaven Game of Thrones characters go to when they die." And now whenever I see photos of GoT actors playing around in their contemporary clothes, I feel this weird shiver of gratitude that I don't live in a horrifically murderous and brutally misogynistic medieval-style dystopia. Look at them! The world is good! They're all so happy!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 4:29 PM on April 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

Seconding Connie Willis! All of her time-travel books are fantastic. The order is roughly: Fire Watch, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday Book, and Blackout/All Clear, but all four stand alone. They made me feel more connected to history in a way I can't even fully explain, but also made me think of the modern day in the context of how it would look to someone from the future. Fire Watch is available online here, and I highly recommend it.

To some extent (in a fantasy context, but with a modern-nonmagical-world-meets-old-times, folks-being-amazed-by-technology kind of way), the Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix fits. And it's good.
posted by you're a kitty! at 5:00 PM on April 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

It's not the only focus of the show, but this is one of the running gags of Life on Mars (the BBC one; I can't speak to the American remake), a show about a contemporary cop thrust back into the early '70s after a car accident (or, possibly, just having a long hallucination based on cop shows of the era).

You might also like Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan, which is perhaps a bit like Pattern Recognition and so forth in the real-world-as-alien, except a) comic and b) about a rich, enormous Russian kid deported from Brooklyn back to the former Soviet Union.
posted by snarkout at 6:05 PM on April 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Game of Thrones does that for me, too! I was just telling my officemate that earlier this week—watching that show makes me so happy to just be alive in a world where I don't have to pledge fealty to a lord.

And ditto Paul Auster; all his books feel magical (to the extent that my old boss at a bookstore told me she'd had to keep his books tucked away behind the counter, 'cause people particularly liked to steal them).
posted by limeonaire at 7:06 PM on April 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

For the opposite / dystopian perspective, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake series definitely appreciates modern conveniences and advances (and even fetishizes some of them) both in the last days of civilization and after it's gone. It is set in the future, though, so that includes innovations that we don't yet have.
posted by Mchelly at 9:06 PM on April 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is filled with wonder.
posted by jbickers at 6:03 AM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's a classic of the magic of modern civilisation from right here on Mefi - "Modern civilization is the shit"
posted by Happy Dave at 7:10 AM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your answers! I'll definitely check out City of Glass and Absurdistan. I've already read Doomsday Book and thought it was wonderful.

If I may recommend a book for others in this thread, Down the Common by Ann Baer has made me appreciate modern life more than any other book. It's a beautiful book told from the perspective of a woman in a small medieval English village. It focuses on her daily activities of getting and preparing food, tending to family, and just surviving the seasons, along with the rest of the village.

I'll also look at the Jane Austen stories and the Abhorsen trilogy, and Hugo Cabret has been on my to-read list for a while.

Thank you Happy Dave for linking the post in the Suelo thread. It's a classic, but I hadn't re-read it in a while.

I do need to finish the Margaret Atwood trilogy. I read Oryx and Crake a while back; need to get the others from the library.

I've been avoiding GoT due to the length, the bleakness, and the possible sexism, but if they really are that good, I'm willing to give them a chance.

I'd never heard of Life on Mars (I literally don't get out much), but I will give that a shot, too!
posted by spacewaitress at 11:00 AM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

What about Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash? Definitely some commonalities with Gibson. Also there's another one which is on the tip of my brain, if it comes good I'll come back and post it. I hope I search it out, it was fantastic and I'd like to read it again too.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:00 PM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the classic is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court. It's been years since I read it, but I can still remember the scenes about the telephone and the gun.
posted by CathyG at 8:57 PM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh gosh, also this Mitchell and Webb sketch.
posted by you're a kitty! at 10:06 PM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, Home-Made: Russian Folk Artifacts (preview here; it's very difficult to find, but available as a digital edition here). It's an art book, a collection of photos of home-built household items from soviet and post-soviet Russia. I found it incredibly touching in terms of what the modern first world takes for granted, human innovation, and the lengths people will go to to improve the day-to-day lives of their loved ones even a tiny, tiny bit.
posted by you're a kitty! at 10:13 PM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Got it! Gaudeamus by John Barnes. It was hilarious and great fun. You might also like his book Orbital Resonance.

And if you like Gibson's later ones, try Cory Doctorow's Little Brother which somehow reminds me of Gibson.

As for me, I am off to see if I can purchase Gaudeamus on my ereader...
posted by Athanassiel at 10:23 PM on April 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

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