Bookfilter: Cloud Atlas Edition
July 12, 2017 7:05 AM   Subscribe

I have a lot of trouble with reading for necessity as opposed to reading for pleasure, and I need some suggestions similar to my favorite book of all time. Snowflakes inside.

Here are the things that I like about Cloud Atlas in order of most important to least important:

1. Literary fiction - Whatever hucksterism that the publishing industry has done to appeal to the pedantic among us that seek "elevated" fiction has worked on me. I'm not sure why but plain genre novels don't seem to light my fire (unless I'm reading the wrong ones). My point is that I'm looking for whatever tangible (prose, characterization, theme) or intangible thing that is illustrative of "literary" fiction.

2. The future sections of Cloud Atlas (Sonmi and Sloosha) appeal to me more than other aspects of the book. I can take or leave the puzzle-narrative and the other sections of the book. Specifically, I'm interested in far future scenarios (the end of Steven Spielberg's A.I. and Blade Runner are two of my favorite movie-worlds) in which elements of the present have been followed out to their logical endpoint (as opposed to far-flung planetary exploration and fantasy stuff that happens to exist in a version of the future).

3. I'm interested in a novel that focuses on philosophy/politics that centers on a sort of faith or hope in humanity in the face of utter nihilism. Quick aside: Sonmi rebelling against the totalitarian regime literally inspired actual change in my life. The world has always been a difficult, punishing place for me due to mental illness and a rough upbringing. Once I became politically involved, this nihilism deepened in the face of global capitalism. Then, the fascism of 2016. Thus, I'm interested in a narrative that paints a type of well-thought out totalitarian regime (like 1984) but then reinforces the value of humanity without being schmaltzy and simplistic.

I know that's a lot, but I have major depression issues and need to kill about a month of time with something other than twitter and netflix. I would like to get lost in something that I can fall in love with instead of stressing out about a major upcoming life change.

Another one of my favorite books is Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (I know, I know), and I'm always on the lookout for something that's very "way-we-live-now" but with tongue slightly in cheek. You know the kind, rich or upper middle class people in nyc who are very cultured and urbane and silly (think Woody Allen movies).

Thank you so much in advance for any and all recommendations!
posted by R.F.Simpson to Media & Arts (34 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
I liked Cloud Atlas mostly because it reminded me a bit of Murakami. His stuff is all great, but I'd start with A Wild Sheep Chase, as it's a bit shorter and tighter. Very weird stuff, not distant future, but very much high-brow literary stuff.

For distant future/politics stuff, maybe Anathem by Stephenson. Sort of literary, definitely hits on some of your themes.

Maybe not so literary in the current sense of 'literary fiction', but hitting most all your point three themes very squarely is the Foundation series by Asimov. Asimov's genius is in his ideas, his prose and characters may feel a tiny bit flat for your tastes (and is definitely flat compared to Murakami), but it never bothered me too much. Asimov is no genre schlock, he's one of the greatest speculative writers of all time.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:30 AM on July 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed. It’s got politics, faith in humanity, character development, & far-future imagining that isn’t all goopy genetech or nanotech or the kind of props that turn some people off of some genre fiction & send them hurrying toward stuff marketed literary fiction. (A debate I won’t get into here; I like both, but I struggle with the phrasing sometimes too, especially when recommending books for others.) It’s an inspiring novel. Bonus: though the puzzle-framing isn’t key for you, it’s got a tidy and satisfying structure.

Also, two recent-ish fantasy books with engrossing worlds and very likeable protagonists who get caught up in political struggles and bring some humanity to them (or at least positive moral choices, they’re not all actual humans). Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria (gorgeous worldbuilding); and Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor (a teeny bit steampunk & a teeny bit silly).

Good luck with the upcoming changes and some immersive downtime between now & then.
posted by miles per flower at 7:32 AM on July 12, 2017 [8 favorites]

Too Like the Lightning has perhaps a more complicated relationship with hope than you've described here, but it might be an ideal choice despite (or maybe because of) that.
posted by dizziest at 8:03 AM on July 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yes, read LeGuin and Murakami. Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro. Lessing's Shikasta. Try The Bohr Maker by Linda Nagata (less literary, but still solid and hits your other criteria).

This one is a harder sell, but you might like some China Mieville; he's darker and drifts into fantasy and steampunk, but tends to focus on the ability for an individual to affect small-to-large change even in repressive or uncaring environments.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 8:12 AM on July 12, 2017 [6 favorites]

Books with SFnal elements that are also "literary" -

Life, by Gwyneth Jones, a near-future novel about a woman geneticist.

Mara and Dan, by Doris Lessing. IMO the plot weakens toward the end, but I've always remembered it. Doris Lessing generally might be a writer of interest - many of her books have some SFnal themes. My very favorite of hers is the series Children of Violence, which starts out in the forties and follows the protagonist from her late teens on a farm in fictional-Rhodesia through her involvement with communism, anti-colonialism and many men. The series was finished in the late sixties and the last book, The Four-Gated City, finishes up with a near-future dystopia and a new community emerging. The first 4.5 books draw heavily on her own experiences.

Samuel Delany is a very literary writer indeed, although some of his books are more re-imaginings of genre plots and themes than others. Dhalgren is a strange, circular novel that a lot of people start. I've read almost all of it in bits and pieces, but never all the way through. Honestly, if you're looking for engrossing literary prose, you could do a lot worse than his memoirs The Motion of Light In Water (he opened for Dylan when Dylan played coffee houses!) and Heavenly Breakfast. Delany is just a beautiful writer.

China Mieville's very strange novella The Last Days of New Paris. Mieville has really grown as a prose writer since the early days of The Scar (which is a wonderful, wonderful revolutionary fantasy/SFnal novel written in a very ambitious style that does not always succeed - it's one of my favorites.)

It's fantasy and not SF, but I would also recommend Angela Carter's Wise Children. Also maybe Nights At The Circus. Those are both novels that foreground class and gender, they're wonderfully written and they always cheer me up. They're very definitely novels about class struggle and solidarity though not about activism.

Some SF and fantasy that are directly about near future (or futures past) political struggle that ends well. (These are all at least tolerably written and foreground interpersonal stuff, unlike very good but super "genre" books like, eg, the Mars trilogy, but they are less "literary" than the ones above):

Marge Piercy - He, She and It. Actually, if you can live without the SF but want some literary fiction about politics, you would also probably enjoy her other novels - Braided Lives will totally take you out of yourself, for instance.

The City, Not Long After. It's a weird novel and an eighties post-apocalypse, but it is memorable.

One that is not so well-written but that resonate incredibly deeply with me as an intermittent activist and all-the-time anarchist:

The Fifth Sacred Thing, by Starhawk. Every single activist I know who has read this always says "It is so schmaltzy and it has a million things wrong with it, but I love it and it's so moving".

I really like this very strange series: The Marq'ssan Cycle by Timmi DuChamp. To me these are very special books, even though the writing, which improves over the series, still stays pretty rough. They're disturbing books with a lot of creepy stuff about sex, prisons and violence in them, but they're also books that really feel to me like...not like the present, exactly, but like fascism as it comes to the United States. DuChamp draws on her experience with the Latin American solidarity movement in the eighties and her general experience as an activist. I mean, basically these are some of the few SF books I've read where I actually feel like reality isn't worse. And yet they're books about various revolutions and end with one truly liberated society and one society with a strange potential.

Quality of the writing is average, but I swear this will pick you up: Fire On The Mountain by Terry Bisson. It is relevant that Bisson, who is white, has spent his entire activist life involved with Black-led liberation projects. The idea behind the story is that the uprising at Harper's Ferry does not fail - Tubman arrives and leads it instead of being too sick - and the Civil War starts as a guerrilla anti-slavery conflict, leading to a radically different present America. But this is a very character-driven book, mostly told from the perspective of a young enslaved boy who observes and then joins the uprising. This is my favorite SF book - if I could step into a near future, this would be the one.
posted by Frowner at 8:29 AM on July 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

On "reinforcing the value of humanity without being schmaltzy and simplistic" I'd suggest "Always Coming Home". One of LeGuin's best books. Another LeGuin book that is relevant to your interests is "City of Illusions." One of the main elements is duplicitous leaders destroying solidarity. These are more literature cast into fiction.

Ian Banks Culture series is about a distant post-scarcity future where hedonistic humans have their affairs run by AIs. They look at questions of the need for purpose, what makes humans not machines, political goals of immortal AIs, end points of technological advance. The first book "Consider Phlebas" is a page turner. High action space opera elevated to literary fiction would be a good description of this. There are 10 or so books in the series.
posted by bdc34 at 8:32 AM on July 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

Nothing about the future, but how about The Bridge of San Luis Rey?:
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is American author Thornton Wilder's second novel, first published in 1927 to worldwide acclaim. It tells the story of several interrelated people who die in the collapse of an Inca rope bridge in Peru, and the events that lead up to their being on the bridge. A friar who has witnessed the accident then goes about inquiring into the lives of the victims, seeking some sort of cosmic answer to the question of why each had to die. (Wikipedia)
posted by ShooBoo at 8:33 AM on July 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't think there is another Sonmi and Cloud Atlas, it was unique. All I could think of to meet your other criteria was another Stephenson novel, Snow Crash.

Let me see if I can tease this out a bit, because besides Sonmi, what you are talking about doesn't have a lot of hope and presents as bleak and bad news. I'm not sure what fictional worlds I want to recommend because I'm so so over dystopian futures. That way lies madness and I think it is worth getting stuck down into other possibilities rather than the same old re-tread. Sonmi is murdered by the state in the end. I feel like we can do better here, and I agree with you that what Sonmi represents is the answer.

Not fiction but philosophy, I hear the way this book is arranged very much mirrors the theme and will take you on a thinking literary adventure.

I'm going to read it, too. I really think I understand where you are coming from with this question and I hope this recommendation ultimately speaks to your need.
posted by jbenben at 8:35 AM on July 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm interested in a novel that focuses on philosophy/politics that centers on a sort of faith or hope in humanity in the face of utter nihilism.

Iain M Banks's The Player of Games fulfils this criterion. Whether Banks is sufficiently "literary" for you is probably going to be a matter of taste. His register can change hugely between books (between the poles of commercial, genre and literary author) but The Player of Games is, as I recall, at the very least, at the literary end of genre. Might be worth picking up a sample perhaps.
posted by howfar at 8:42 AM on July 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

It was not a personal favorite, but Station Eleven by Emily Saint John-Mandel is both very literary and has that human affirming against dark odds (in this case, an apocalyptic plague) essence. Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being was great, my favorite Murakami is Hardboiled Wonderland at the End of the World, China Melville's Embassytown is a stone cold classic about langiage and rebellion and creating a unified people out of miscommunication. Thirding anything by LeGuin, though I've never gotten into any of her books easily (it's always a fight for the first 100 pages), so if you do take any of these recs and don't get into it, don't let it stop you from picking up other of her books. Lathe of Heaven would be my recommended start
posted by theweasel at 8:57 AM on July 12, 2017 [7 favorites]

The Three Body Problem is one of the most innovative first contact stories I've read.
posted by spunweb at 8:58 AM on July 12, 2017 [6 favorites]

I also think OP would like The Three Body Problem
posted by thelonius at 9:03 AM on July 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

You never mentioned whether you have read the rest of the Mitchell canon. In a very loose sense, all of his novels are intertwined into a meta-novel that is ongoing. The Bone Clocks is the most futuristic, but they are all wonderfully well written.
Others have mentioned Neil Stephenson. I would agree that Snow Crash is a good choice, but so is Seveneves (you might even like the last third, which I did not despite loving the first 600 pages).

Books I never hesitate to recommend to lovers of Lit:
The Land of Laughs
Long Division
The Name of the Rose
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:03 AM on July 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Also, what about The Underground Railroad?

A book with fantasy elements that has themes of racial justice and solidarity: Tripmaster Monkey, His Fake Book. This is one of my favorite novels and while it doesn't meet all your criteria, it's definitely a political book that makes you feel that there is some use in struggle.
posted by Frowner at 9:12 AM on July 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I love Cloud Atlas for many of the same reasons you do.

I also love Chang-Rae Lee's On Such a Full Sea-- beautifully written, hope in a dystopic future, etc. It's written in first person plural, which is quite cool and unusual too.

Also, Elan Mastai's All of Our Wrong Todays is very, very Woody Allen-esque.

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake triology fits the bill, too, and is sure to kill A LOT of time. I found it far more enjoyable to listened to as an audiobook for some reason.

Finally, not quite futuristic, but a commentary on the way we live not via the folkloric: Michael Cunningham's The Wild Swan.
posted by redwaterman at 9:16 AM on July 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Broadly speaking, I find that Michael Chabon fits in the same imaginative-fiction-with-literary-prose category as David Mitchell. The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier and Clay is my favorite of his, but thematically, The Yiddish Policeman's Union seems like it might suit you. It is not set in the future, but it is set in an alternate present, and part of the fun is extrapolating how various historical differences played out.

I would also recommend Philip Reeve's Railhead and its sequel. It's set in the far future, and although it isn't exactly dystopian, it does deal with issues of human freedom vs. authority. It's a real page-turner, and very much immerses you in a beautifully detailed world.
posted by yankeefog at 9:21 AM on July 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

From a "making fun of the way we live now" perspective:

You might enjoy some books by Margaret Drabble. Even now that I've read most of her books a gazillion times, they still absorb me, and the older ones are a fascinating and sometimes unsettling mirror of their times. I'd say that her books are serious about feelings but contain some satiric "how we live now" observations.

I'm a "read the books of yesteryear" person, so I particularly enjoyed The Millstone, Jerusalem the Golden (which helped me process a LOT of feelings about college amongst posher people), The Middle Ground, The Ice Age and The Radiant Way. The Needle's Eye led me to make a series of incredibly bad decisions - don't read it if you are susceptible to guilt and lassitude.

Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty and The Swimming Pool Library are wonderful novels of manners, but both are pretty sad in the end. My personal headcannon for both is that both protagonists, like, get their shit together in the wake of events and nothing terrible happens to them.
posted by Frowner at 9:28 AM on July 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Try A Canticle For Liebowitz, which has some elements in common with Anathem, recommended upthread as well.
posted by lousywiththespirit at 10:02 AM on July 12, 2017 [6 favorites]

I also thought immediately of Murakami. Have you read IQ84?
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:05 AM on July 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think William Gibson fits what you're looking for, specifically The Peripheral. It basically gives you 2 points in our current trajectory of environmental degradation and economic predation, one maybe 20 years in the future and the other around 100 years in the future.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:37 AM on July 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Version Control by Dexter Palmer is a cross between nihilistic future and how we live now. Here's an NPR review that might explain it better.

I'll second Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake triology, but there's also her newer novel The Heart Goes Last.
posted by gladly at 10:41 AM on July 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

One more, it's not speculative, but it's a well-conceived totalitarian regime (North Korea), The Orphan Master's Son. It's exactly "a narrative that paints a type of well-thought out totalitarian regime (like 1984) but then reinforces the value of humanity without being schmaltzy and simplistic."
posted by gladly at 10:46 AM on July 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

You may enjoy the book My Real Children.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 12:14 PM on July 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Paolo bacigalupi's books might fit the bill - I think his short stories are the best, but The Wind Up Girl was very enjoyable.
posted by Dmenet at 1:14 PM on July 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I thought of George Perec's "Life, a User's Manual" - I think it's use of interlocking narratives may have been an inspiration for Mitchel. But both authors put an emphasis on readability over all the clever stuff going on beneath the surface- if I told you the book was about a Parisian apartment block where the narrative switches from one location to another in the manner of the way a knight moves on a chess board - you might be put off. Don't be.
posted by rongorongo at 1:34 PM on July 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Click is a novel with chapters written by ten different authors, it has a future section in it. It is a bit of mystery. I loved it. It felt a bit like Cloud Atlas to me in that way. I think it is Young Adult. There are lots of books named Click, so be careful you get this one instead, if you are requesting it from a library.
posted by coevals at 2:41 PM on July 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Winter's Tale, Mark Helprin. It might not be political enough for you but does involve NYC politics and infrastructure to some degree.
posted by colorblock sock at 4:26 PM on July 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

N'thing The Three Body Problem trilogy (warning -- very dark at times, but ultimately I feel like the very end was hopeful). I also wonder if you would enjoy Version Control by Dexter Palmer which is more like near-future but I think might hit some of your various preferences.
posted by rainbowbrite at 5:17 PM on July 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also recommending Station Eleven, which is literary (and beautiful), hopefully and active, and a very plausible now-but-future scenario. One of the very best books I read last year.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 5:28 PM on July 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I came here to second and third the recommendations here:

Philip K Dick: A Scanner Darkly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (made into the film Blade Runner),
Haruki Murakami: 1Q84, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Ursula LeGuin: Earthsea series

In terms of philosophy and style, they are most similar to Cloud Atlas (literary, speculative elements and/or fantasy). You should definitely also read other David Mitchell's books -- Number9Dream stands out for me.

Also, I will throw in Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go (which was also made into a movie), The Unconsoled.
posted by moiraine at 2:43 AM on July 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

A couple of people have mentioned China Mieville. I'd suggest The City & the City as a starting point. It's an average length with a sense of imagination and humanity that should connect with a David Mitchell fan, as well as a unique angle on philosophy and politics.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 11:28 AM on July 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

A newer book that I haven't yet seen recommended above is Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. It hits on your criteria of beautiful writing (which I'll use here as a proxy for "literary"; it struck me as literary enough but I'm not sure if there are more specific markers one looks for?), dystopian future, characters worthy of survival in it do their survival thing with realistic levels of hope and courage, and it's not like anything else I've read.
posted by shelbaroo at 3:45 AM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nthing Neal Stephenson and China Mieville. Seveneves in particular hits a lot of the notes you're describing - 2/3rds of the book are very detailed present day, and last third is how those ramifications play out 5000 years in the future. I didn't think the last third hit its potential, but definitely worth a read.

If you're open to something that's a bit more poetic/abstract, I highly recommend John Crowley's Engine Summer. So strange and so beautiful, and ultimately still quite narrative. Crowley's writing is really lovely.
posted by taltalim at 8:50 PM on July 14, 2017

I completely forgot to add:

Michael Faber: Strange New Things

Beautiful writing, philosophical and strange. I still think about themes in that book till this day.
posted by moiraine at 2:28 PM on July 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

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