Seeking subversive fiction
November 6, 2019 6:39 PM   Subscribe

I really like fiction that takes established universes or tropes and plays with them or completely subverts them. What should I check out next?

I loved Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal and Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible!. Both are simultaneously whimsical and heartfelt reevaluation of Bible stories. I really enjoyed both issues of Spencer & Locke - it didn't really bring anything new to Calvin & Hobbes or detective comics, but the callbacks to C&H plus the question "what if Calvin's childhood had been really shitty?" were entertaining. Same for The Last Ringbearer asking "what if the history of The Lord Of The Rings is propaganda?" and The Gray Havens asking "what if the good guys lost? Does it even matter?"

I'm having a hard time describing what about these I like, other than callbacks to known works are fun as is subverting established stories and tropes.
posted by Tehhund to Writing & Language (36 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Terry Pratchet's Discworld books!
posted by Pastor of Muppets at 7:07 PM on November 6 [4 favorites]

I fucking love "did not finish" Goodreads reviews of China Mieville's Un Lun Dun that clearly only got 50 pages in because they're all complaining about the generic white girl chosen one portal fantasy trope, not realizing that about 1/4 of the way into the book the entire thing gets turned on its head and those tropes are blatantly called out.

Dianna Wynne Jone's The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is more upfront about its premise, but also good.
posted by brook horse at 7:12 PM on November 6 [7 favorites]

If you enjoy Biblical variants on this theme, Richard Beard's Lazarus is Dead is the story of the two resurrections in Christianity, but from Lazarus's point of view. It's entirely based on canonical scripture, and on things we can reasonably know—and it's also a minor literature review of other authors' reworking of the Lazarus story.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:19 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]

I've just started The Yiddish Policemen's Union and I am led to believe it is one of those.

I also recently enjoyed The Future of Another Timeline which is, first and foremost a time travel novel, but does basically look at the things that we take for granted as part of modern culture (in the US, things like right to abortion, women's ability to get educated etc) and posits that what if it were going to be different but a band of plucky feminists used the time travel ability that we all have to go back and make small edits so that women were seen as (more like) equals, Fun! Not about a known work, but more about a known political ideology.

is a really funny look at Star Trek from the view of those low people on the totem pole who always get killed.
posted by jessamyn at 7:33 PM on November 6 [5 favorites]

You've read Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, right? It's Tom Stoppard's absurdist tragicomedy about Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, minor characters from Hamlet.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:35 PM on November 6 [9 favorites]

It's been about twenty years since I read it, but Julian Barnes' History of the World in 10½ Chapters immediately came to mind. It's a series of interconnected short stories that riff on various historical and biblical events.
posted by mannequito at 7:41 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]

I recently read and absolutely loved Madeline Miller's Circe, which is Greek myths about Circe that appear in places like the Odyssey told from the perspective of Circe.
posted by urbanlenny at 7:43 PM on November 6 [5 favorites]

I really liked Drew Hayes's Spells, Swords, & Stealth series (which starts with the book NPCs) for how it both plays with and subverts tropes.

His series about The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant is also fun this way.
posted by Lexica at 7:45 PM on November 6 [2 favorites]

You might like Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley.
posted by Redstart at 7:55 PM on November 6 [4 favorites]

Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone tells the story of Cynara, one of Scarlett O'Hara's slaves, during the time period in Gone with the Wind.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:12 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]

John Gardner’s Grendel retells the story of Beowulf from the point of view of the eponymous monster.
posted by murphy slaw at 8:45 PM on November 6 [4 favorites]

To Reign in Hell is a 1984 fantasy novel by American writer Steven Brust. It deals with the revolt of angels in Heaven from a point of view that casts Satan as a sympathetic protagonist. The novel appears to be heavily influenced by John Milton's Paradise Lost.
posted by zengargoyle at 8:47 PM on November 6

Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls is The Iliad retold by Briseis, the woman enslaved by Achilles as a war prize.

Fair warning; it's really good, it is not fun, for all the reasons you would assume from the premise.
posted by jameaterblues at 9:49 PM on November 6 [2 favorites]

A lot of “Rational” fanfiction does a version of this, in that it takes existing fiction and changes the characters to be more “rational.” As you may be able tell from the scare-quotes, I think rationality is highly subjective. Many people in the community are a bit more prescriptive, so a common flaw beyond the normal online fanfiction issues is a tendency to be a bit preachy.

One of the primary community gathering places is /r/rational. There is a wiki with a list of well-liked works, and some discussion about what “rational” and “rationalist” mean.
  • Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (Harry Potter series). Harry’s aunt Petunia married a professor, so Harry grows up with more books and less horrific abuse. This was written explicitly as a set of lessons about rationality, so it can be quite preachy. Content warning: major character death.
  • The Metropolitan Man (Superman universe). Lex Luthor is less evil, but more genius. Content warning: major character death.
  • A Bluer Shade of White (Frozen). Olaf gets a brain.
  • Branches on the Tree of Time (Terminator). Kyle Reese travels backward in time to fix Skynet. Follows the “many worlds” version of time travel.

posted by danielparks at 10:40 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]

Check out James Morrow: Only Begotten Daughter, Bible Stories for Adults, or the trilogy starting with Towing Jehovah.
posted by kbuxton at 11:02 PM on November 6 [2 favorites]

I feel like The Princess Bride is a good example of this?

Also - because Circe and The Silence of the Girls have already been mentioned - The Penelopiad.
posted by rd45 at 2:08 AM on November 7 [5 favorites]

The "Magicians" series by Lev Grossman is Harry Potter/Narnia but with sex, drugs, and clinical depression.
posted by Captain_Science at 2:56 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]

Wild Wood by Jane Needle, a socialist retelling of The Wind in the Willows, from the POV of the Wild Wooders.

Oh, and Jo Baker's Longbourn - Pride and Prejudice from the perspetive of a servant in the Bennet household.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 5:11 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]

If you're familiar with Doyle's 'Sherlock Holmes' canon, you may enjoy Neil Gaiman's short story A Study in Emerald (link goes to free PDF on Neil's wesbite).
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 5:28 AM on November 7

It took me years to get around to reading it but I loved The Years of Rice and Salt.
posted by athirstforsalt at 6:08 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]

Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia is the story of the arrival of Aeneas in the Italian peninsula, from the perspective of the woman he marries (in the Aeneid, she never speaks.)

Fanfic may be the best answer to this question though. Book length works that completely discard canon, or work within it but to totally different effect, are available for every possible world you would like to explore.

For instance (I know it's previously been linked on MeFi) No Reservations: Narnia, about Anthony Bourdain drinking with Reepicheep the talking mouse and eating Marsh-Wiggle cuisine.

You may also enjoy Killing Elvis, which is about a xenomorph and also lab work.

Since you mention Calvin and Hobbes, you might like this one, about Susie in college.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:13 AM on November 7

Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series doesn't quite do this, but it's an alternate-reality universe filled with literary allusions and metatextual hijinks that I really enjoyed.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:36 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]

John Gardner’s Grendel retells the story of Beowulf from the point of view of the eponymous monster. -- posted by murphy slaw

Also along these lines, Tad Williams' novel Caliban's Hour, Caliban retells The Tempest from his point of view. It's very sympathetic to Caliban and undermines his drunken comic relief from the original play.

Related, Robert Browning's poem "Caliban Upon Setebos; or, Natural Theology in the Island" uses Caliban's relationship with his god Setebos as an ironic/satiric stand-in for humanity's relationship with the Christian god.

Jorge Luis Borges' story, "The House of Asterion," is the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur from the Minotaur's point of view, giving a different perspective on the hero vanquishes the fearful monster trope.

Similarly, in Steven Sherrill's The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break catches up with the not-killed and immortal Minotaur in the contemporary American south, where time has calmed his montrous appetite and he mainly just tries to get by.
posted by Boxenmacher at 8:26 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]

BANEWRECKER and GODSLAYER by Jacqueline Carey are essentially Lord of the Rings from Sauron's minions' point of view.
posted by mareliz at 8:53 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]

(Boxenmacher, I don't think I've ever encountered someone else who's mentioned The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break - I loved that book!). And I was just about to come in here to suggest Banewreaker and Godslayer, especially if you liked The Last Ringbearer, so consider those books seconded.

How about some fairy tale revisitations? T. Kingfisher's Byrony and Roses and Robin McKinley's Beauty are both entertaining takes on Beauty and the Beast, and if you like those, both authors have done other really enjoyable fairy tale reworkings, among other things (I LOVED McKinley's Deerskin, and T. Kingfisher - aka Ursula Vernon - writes wonderful stuff that I save as a special treat for myself when I'm going on vacation or just need a cozy story).

Naomi Novik writes good stuff in this vein as well - Spinning Silver is something of a Rumpelstiltskin retell, but it's so much more. And Kathrine Arden's Winternight Trilogy revisits Russian folklore through the eyes of a strong female protagonist (something all of the aforementioned stories share).

Oh! And I know Diana Wynne Jones has already been suggested here, but I'd specifically recommend her Dark Lord of Derkholm, which starts with the premise that hero tourism is a thing, and the "bad guys" aren't all that enthused about their roles.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:22 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]

If you can get your hands on The Problem of Susan, do so. I
posted by bq at 9:37 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]

Sarah Rees Brennan's In Other Lands is a gorgeous, thoughtful, witty remix of the "ordinary kid goes to magic school and must save the magical world" genre, without ever being mean-spirited about the tropes it is deconstructing.

It's beyond genre-savvy, it's meta-genre-savvy. It isn't shy about the allegories it's drawing: characters are constantly remarking on things like GEE ISN'T IT INTERESTING HOW THE ELF MATRIARCHY WORKS JUST LIKE NONMAGIC-HUMAN PATRIARCHY and UGH AM I IN A LOVE TRIANGLE THIS IS STUPID...

... but it never comes off as merely a device, or merely tongue in cheek. This book has a story to tell you. An epic story, even. The writing is loud and boistrous, yet paradoxically its deeper themes emerge in an elegant and understated way. I cannot rave enough about it.

The book is available for purchase on Amazon, but also: Rees Brennan has posted the whole draft of it online. I read it there, fell in love, and have purchased half a dozen copies for myself and friends.
posted by MiraK at 12:39 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]

Grunts is another orc's-view story, by Mary Gentle. Her pair of books ending with Ancient Light probably counts too, in a very slow-burn way.
posted by clew at 12:57 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]

Jane Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is a postcolonial retelling of Jane Eyre.

Rainbow Rowell's Carry On comments not just on Harry Potter and middle-grade fantasy fiction, but on Harry Potter fandom. It's more clever by half than it has any right to be. (Her related novel Fangirl is also delightful.)
posted by toastedcheese at 3:14 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]

I think you'd really like Ryan North's choose your own adventure Shakespeare books, starting with To Be And/Or Not To Be and then Romeo And/Or Juliet. Wicked is also the classic example of this.

Otherwise, Lawn Beaver has it right and I second all those recs. Some of the best subversive commentaries on fiction comes from fanfic. I'm not super into the rationalfic genre (it's just not really warm-hearted enough for me) but just in Harry Potter fandom you can get both documentary-style examination of Muggleborn assimilation or a scathing satire of Death Eaters as upper-class twits. You can get a post-apocalyptic Winnie the Pooh adventure or a queer romantic reading of the Frog and Toad series that embody the language and spirit of their original books. There's fic that challenges Star Trek's Western bias by focusing on 'ASEAN in space' and solves the problem of Susan.
posted by storytam at 4:26 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]

I loved Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff

Most of Christopher Moore's stuff does this to some degree, although you might have to be pretty familiar with horror story tropes to really get a kick out of it.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:28 PM on November 7

I notice you don’t explicitly state “fiction books” in your question, so I’d like to suggest an incredible fiction show that takes a trope, spins it, and ends up landing as one of the best pieces of art I’ve ever seen.

Puella Magi Modoka Magica. It’s an anime show streaming on Netflix. It’s ostensibly another magic girl series - like sailor moon. It’s short - 12 episodes I think - and starts to really get strange by the 4th one. By the end of it I was crying and yelling at my tv.

For the record I am extremely NOT a magical girl anime person. This show really took me by surprise.
posted by weed donkey at 11:48 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]

I previously asked about books that retell famous stories from somebody else's point of view. Separately, I asked about books that reuse other people's text. In both cases, I got a bunch of great suggestions. I suspect many of them will be great suggestions for you, too!

On a different note, Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away imagines that magic power is a non-renewable energy source, and filters a number of standard fantasy tropes through that idea. (Warning: I haven't read these stories for decades, so I don't know how well they hold up in terms of artistic merit and social attitudes.)
posted by yankeefog at 5:39 AM on November 8

John Scalzi’s Redshirts both spoofs the Star Trek universe and becomes a meta commentary on plot armor. It’s not his very best work but definitely a fun read.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 7:08 AM on November 8

In the same vein as the answer above: GalaxyQuest is an honest but loving parody film of all the tropes in Star Trek. 10/10 would recommend.
posted by queen anne's remorse at 3:05 PM on November 10

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