Nonviolent sff: where is it?
June 17, 2014 12:22 PM   Subscribe

Please recommend to me any science fiction/fantasy novels (maybe TV shows as well) that are well written, interesting, and essentially nonviolent. "Completely violence-free" isn't necessary. I'm particularly looking for novels aimed at adults that don't rely on combat scenes to advance the narrative, generate/resolve tension, or provide Crowning Moments of Awesome.*

Rationale: I've been thinking about how my humanist values are and are not reflected in my writing. I'm writing sff, though, and it's almost reflexive to put in fight scenes and have heroes shoot/kick/slice their way out of problems. I've also been watching various Star Trek series and Doctor Who, and it's sort of fascinating how the shows are pseudo-pacifist: the characters espouse nonviolence, but the body count is high. In contemporary fantasy novels, there's gun/blade fetishization everywhere. (Just look at the covers! Or my junior high notebook margins!) For years, this didn't bother me, but now it does. It's still surprisingly difficult to think about how to do it differently and still have an exciting, compelling story.

*N.B.: I love YA. I like Star Trek. I love Doctor Who and I even loved most of Torchwood. I like action movies and dark'n'gritty cyberpunk novels. I'm not saying any of these works are bad or that people who like them are bad! I'm just looking for some inspiring alternatives.
posted by wintersweet to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Jairus at 12:25 PM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Jo Walton, if you like speculative fiction that is "real world with a twist". Among Others is one of my favorite novels ever, and I just finished My Real Children, which...I can't decide if it replaces Among Others or not.

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is in a similar vein. It is set against WWII and there is some war-related violence but not in the "epic battle scene" sort of way, more of a "I live here and bombs fall on it" kind of way.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:27 PM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Ursula Le Guin is a safe bet, I think, though I haven't read half her stuff.

I've read The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and Birthday of the World, and don't recall any significant or important violence in those stories.
posted by General Tonic at 12:27 PM on June 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin. It's not totally free of violence but an interesting dimension to the book is how people manage conflict when violence is explicitly discouraged on a societal level.
posted by freya_lamb at 12:28 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the Connie Willis time travel historian books - Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout, All Clear. Historical violence but not a lot of battling historians.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:29 PM on June 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

Oooh, I just read Doomsday Book and loved it. Good recommendation. I didn't know she did more time travelling historian stories. To the library!
posted by General Tonic at 12:34 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Definitely the movies of Shane Carruth, Primer and Upstream Color. Also, Another Earth, with/by the amazing Brit Marling.
posted by jbickers at 12:37 PM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Agent to the Stars, by (MeFi's own) John Scalzi, is pretty conflict-free. It's also free-free, as in he's put the whole book online.

Otherwise, nthing Willis and Le Guin. If you want old-school, there's a good amount of stuff by folks like Clarke and Bradbury that would fit the bill.
posted by zombieflanders at 12:44 PM on June 17, 2014

There is varying amount of combat-as-climax in one of my favorite long-running sci-fi series, the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. In particular the following are almost completely fight-scene free:

* Falling Free, where the hero is an engineer and instructor. This is a stand-alone book in the series.
* A Civil Campaign, which is an attempt at a romantic comedy novel in the style of Georgette Heyer, but in a sf setting. This book could stand on its own, but I think it's a bit more rewarding if the backstory on all the characters is known.

Even in other novels, violence is not taken lightly and the consequence of action is often dwelled on by the characters. One of the reasons I love it so much.
posted by muddgirl at 12:51 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delany.

It's been a little while since I've read it but I don't believe it has any combat scenes. There's even an extended dragon hunt which is notable for it's lack of violence.
posted by AtoBtoA at 12:52 PM on June 17, 2014

Best answer: If you can stretch a point and read some dysoptian near future semi-woo, The Fifth Sacred Thing, by Starhawk, is explicitly about nonviolence and its uses. There's violence in the plot, sure, but it's not a major theme.

The City, Not Long After by Pat Murphy, is also interesting on the use of violence.

Joanna Russ's short story collection (Extra)Ordinary People has a lot of stuff that is relevant, and almost all the stories are real classics. There's a horrible clanger in "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman" where she is clearly aiming for "textual indicator of anti-racism" but fails, OMG so much fail, so be warned.

Also, I absolutely adore much of Love's Body, Dancing In Time, although L Timmel Duchamp's more recent collection, Never At Home is more classically SFnal.

You might try Vandana Singh's novella Distances, which I have and which looks interesting but which I have not read.

Also, if you're interested in violent writing that is effectively critical of violence, it's worth tracking down a used copy of the exceedingly strange Moderan.

Honestly, I feel like I hardly ever read any SF that's about guns and killing and so on, maybe with the exception of Iain Banks, rest to his bones. I think the trick is to sort of get into the feminist/revisionist/anti-racist SF loop...try reading the reviews at Strange Horizons, and Tor actually seems to have some good columns.
posted by Frowner at 12:53 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Not to thread-sit, but a) Some old favorites here that I'd forgotten, yay! b) Can anyone come up with any (non-romance) urban/contemporary fantasy that fits the bill?

I have lots of nonviolent short stories on hand already (hurray!).
posted by wintersweet at 12:56 PM on June 17, 2014

I'm realizing that my usual recommended authors fit this bill: Catherynne M. Valente, Theodora Goss, Jeffrey Ford, Christopher Barzak, M. Rickert, and Ted Chiang.

I've only read one Patricia McKillip novel, but I get the impression her work isn't big on violence, either.

Nthing Le Guin and Bradbury.
posted by xenization at 12:59 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the Three Californias trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, I just love those.

You might also enjoy Delany's Babel-17, which is much more with the space and the interstellar excitement.

I have only the haziest notion of what is meant by "urban fantasy", but if you mean "regular people plus magic in a contemporary city setting", you must read The Folk of the Air, I mean you really must. It's funny and sad (there is some romantic plot, but it's not a romance) and has the only really good magical battle I have ever read, and it's set in fake-Berkeley. Given that it was written by a straight white dude in 1979, it has a really good array of female characters and characters of color (some of whom are female, appropriately enough). It's one of my very favorite, favorite fantasy novels ever.
posted by Frowner at 1:02 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Spin and its sequels by Robert Charles Wilson fit the bill -- really great, strongly developed characters in these books.

Maybe also The City and the City by China Mieville, which is not quite sci-fi but certainly "speculative fiction," it reads more like a crime drama with some very odd twists in it.
posted by cubby at 1:02 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm on Moon Over Soho, the second of Ben Aaronovitch 's Peter Grant series, and it's wonderfully light and funny and just fun to read. Basically, a copper who's a wizard in modern London and hijinks ensue. There's definitely murder (it is a mystery series, technically) and there's some spell battling and injuries and whatnot, but it's not the major way crimes or issues get solved.
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:10 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think almost all of Phillip K. Dick's novels and short stories are nonviolent or genuinely pacifist. A lot of his work doesn't involve violence, and the stories that do generally involve the protagonists being victims of violence and oppression rather than using it as a tool to reach their goals.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:13 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor should fit the bill. It's kind of a fantasy of manners, with political intrigue, and infrastructure building. It's lovely, and comforting. There is a criminal trial and an execution, but no battles.

Also Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics and its sequels.
posted by suelac at 1:18 PM on June 17, 2014

Seconding the suggestion above for Spin - in fact, almost anything by Robert Charles Wilson would fit the bill.

The Chronoliths was the first of his books I read, and so a sentimental favorite of mine. The Harvest, Darwinia, Blind Lake, and Julian Comstock were all good, but Spin is probably my favorite still. (I was not so keen on Axis myself - yet to read Vortex.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:48 PM on June 17, 2014

James Tiptree, Jr. and Stanislaw Lem come to mind.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:12 PM on June 17, 2014

Charles de Lint's Newford books may fit the bill. The Onion Girl, Someplace to be Flying, and Trader are three of my favorites.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:34 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Connie Willis's Passage is also excellent, and the only violence (that I recall) is ocean versus ship violence.
posted by colin_l at 2:56 PM on June 17, 2014

Oldish, but one of my favorite sci-fi books of all time: Hellspark, by Janet Kagan. It's kind of hard to get hold of now. Central plot revolves around determining whether a native species of a planet with useful-for-making-stuff resources is sentient or not. Lots of interesting culture clashes and cultures not-clashing in the primary cast of characters, all of whom are from different worlds with strong traditions. Really cool stuff, especially if you're at all into anthropology.

Alas, not available on Kindle.
posted by kythuen at 3:28 PM on June 17, 2014

'Little, Big' by John Crowley felt to me very much like an attempt to re-imagine the fantasy genre without violence, and lots of people think it wonderful.
posted by piato at 4:51 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I thought this would be trivial to answer until I went to my shelves and actually tried to find some good options….

It's been 15 years since I read it, but Katie Waitman's first novel The Merro Tree seems like it might be in line with what you're looking for … diverse aliens and cultures, anti-authoritarian themes, and plot elements involving freedom of speech/artistic expression … and no reliance on laser blasts (that I recall) to resolve matters.

Arthur C. Clarke is getting pretty dated, but Rendezvous with Rama and The Fountains of Paradise are novels more about exploration and creation than destruction and violence.

I haven't read Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias mentioned above, but his Mars trilogy was exceptional (or at least my younger self thought so) -- plenty of violence in them, but the tone is closer to Clarke's; violence is an impediment, not a means to an end or even a necessary evil.

All of this with a grain of salt: this question (a really interesting one!) makes me realize how accustomed I am to violence in the genre fiction I read and how normative it is.
posted by verschollen at 5:21 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Pig, the Prince, and the Unicorn by Karen A. Brush. The unwilling hero is a piglet who is VERY angry that he has to give up eating acorns to go on a quest to save the world. There is some romance, but barely, and only for secondary characters.

Unwillingly to Earth by Pauline Ashwell is one of my most beloved SF novels of all time. A huge part of the novel's conflict is based on reading speed, go figure, but it is still full of adventure and futuristic plots. It does have a romance plot, but it is far from the central driving force of the book-- and despite the main character being a gorgeous blonde waif in looks, everyone she meets (except for a groups of tough miners in an offplanet bar) think she's scary smart, intimidating, and a lot of fun to hang out with for non-romantic reasons. She makes cool friends wherever she goes, and no one ever ever hits on her.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 5:30 PM on June 17, 2014

I just finished The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It is absorbing, cliché-free fantasy fiction without battles, epic magic and the usual romantic crap that irritates me with so many other books in this genre.

Re action, there's a teeny bit of violence and exactly two instances of magic in the entire book - I would say no more than a couple of pages total. The rest is insanely-good world building and character development. I can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by ninazer0 at 5:36 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

You might want to look into Quaker sci fi. I've been meaning to read Pennterra by Judith Moffett for far too long, and there is a list of Quakers in Sci fi here.

I'll be watching this question with interest!
posted by bibliogrrl at 6:29 PM on June 17, 2014

I'd recommend Megatokyo by Fred Gallagher. It's a comic collected into, I think, six volumes so far. It's also all available online for free. There are occasional romantic plots, but also friendship, job, rent, and gaming plots.
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:46 PM on June 17, 2014

The Sector General series by James White, starting with Hospital Station, is really well-done sci-fi having next to nothing to do with war, but everything to do with cultural conflict.
posted by jet_silver at 8:06 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

And, duh, one of the most beautiful things I've ever read was called to mind by verschollen: Clarke's Against the Fall of Night.
posted by jet_silver at 8:12 PM on June 17, 2014

Response by poster: Novels (or, of secondary importance, TV shows) only, please! It's extremely easy to find comics that are nonviolent, oddly enough. (Megatokyo--now that's nostalgic!)

Also, to clarify: Elements of romance are 100% fine! I'm just not looking for urban fantasy of the "supernatural romance" variety. If you have one in mind and you think it's borderline, please recommend it anyway.
posted by wintersweet at 9:05 PM on June 17, 2014

CONNIE WILLIS FOR SURE. To Say Nothing of the Dog is time-travel sci-fi with a comedy-of-manners tone. Some of her later books (Blackout/All Clear) take place during WWII, but they're still not books I would classify as particularly violent, and they're SO humanist it's not even funny. If you want to get a quick feel for her whole style, the short story Fire Watch (available online here!) is a lovely introduction.
posted by you're a kitty! at 12:10 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Douglas Adams. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a great book and also a movie and much more.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 3:15 AM on June 18, 2014

I can't speak much to her fantasy work (mostly Avalon-related novels I haven't read), but Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels have little to no violence. If you want to give her a test-drive, check out "Exile's Song" or "Stormqueen."

Also, have you read "The Golden Compass"? Even if you've seen the movie, the book is definitely worth reading. There's some violence, but the main character's resourcefulness and ability to lie convincingly under extreme pressure are her weapons of choice. (If you've seen it or read it, I'm definitely telling you something you already know-- sorry.)

MZB and Pullman are not going for humor, though, so if you're looking for something light and funny, I agree with some other posts, you can't ever go wrong with Doug Addams. Read the books, though-- movies can't beat the imagination.

I hope this helps. Good luck!
posted by schooley at 4:39 AM on June 18, 2014

An obvious answer is Terry Pratchett. On the very slight chance that you're not already familiar with his stuff, a previous AskMe offers some helpful suggestions on how to get into it.

Just going off what's on the bookshelf currently in front of me: Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Christopher Priest's The Prestige and The Adjacent are three books that, while not free of violence, don't rely on it as a key means of resolving the plot.

I'll second cubby's recommendation above of The City and the City; well worth it. In the same 'speculative but maybe not quite sci-fi' vein I'd recommend Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union.
posted by Zeinab Badawi's Twenty Hotels at 5:55 AM on June 18, 2014

one of the most beautiful things I've ever read was called to mind by verschollen: Clarke's Against the Fall of Night.

Also coming here to recommend Sir Arthur, anything, really. Also, Larry Niven.
posted by Rash at 8:19 AM on June 18, 2014

I absolutely love Traders Tales in the Age of the Solar Clipper by Nathan Lowell (otherwise known as the Share novels.) There are a few bar brawls and muggings and such, but it's a very character driven series, and one I frequently recommend to people who think that science fiction is for geeks. It crystallizes a genre I didn't know existed: Competence porn.
posted by krieghund at 8:26 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding The City and The City, which is fantastic. Also, When You Reach Me and First Light by Rebecca Stead are both gentle, lyrical examples of magical realism, and Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is a cheerful delight. I don't think there was much violence in The Owl Service, though it was more tense than most of these others.

Also try Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino and Way Station by Clifford Simak.
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:54 AM on June 26, 2014

Yeah, Simak's just the ticket -- also his Time Is The Simplest Thing as well as City (where the future goes to the dogs).
posted by Rash at 11:21 AM on June 26, 2014

Response by poster: Man, these are all thoughtful answers--but it's hard to mark "best" when I haven't had time to read them yet (the ones that I haven't already read, anyway). I marked one that I thought was extra on-point and was very good at mind-reading me in terms of stuff I've never read, but I want to thank everyone who contributed! If you think of something later, after this is closed, feel free to memail me.
posted by wintersweet at 6:48 PM on June 26, 2014

Response by poster: updating my own post because of this "new urban fantasy novel, a standalone called A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark. It’s a pacifist urban fantasy; in a genre where violent asskickers act as though modern cities are lawless hellholes, the protagonist in this book has dedicated herself to stopping supernatural evil without violence. She’s also a sixty-five year old cross between Auntie Mame and Gandalf." Haven't read it yet, but will.
posted by wintersweet at 10:37 AM on March 4, 2015

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