Books I’d Like, That Aren’t Like Me?

I need to read more fiction that isn’t by white males, but it’s very difficult to find stuff I’d love, and I wonder if anyone here can help with that?

You see, I have fairly specific tastes for fiction, and the stuff that really appeals to me is… well, it’s pretty much exclusively written by white men. But it’s not *only* written by white men, and I think I have an absolute responsibility to read more of the stuff that isn’t.

Of course, I read anything I get recommended, and I read all the Hugo nominees most years (I didn’t get to all the novels this year as the surprise election got in the way), and I find plenty of good stuff by women and BAME people that way — but “good” isn’t the same as what I love. Something like The Long Way To A Small, Angry, Planet by Becky Chambers is definitely a very good, enjoyable, book, but it’s not one that satisfies the particular itch I have. I’d put it in the same category as, say, Ben Aaronovitch’s books, or Agatha Christie’s, or Stephen King’s — all authors who I can happily read and enjoy (I’ve read all of Aaronovitch’s stuff, and the bulk of the other two), but whose works don’t stay with me and cause me to think about them for weeks, months, or years afterward.

(Actually, a couple of Christie’s books do — The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and And Then There Were None).

What I’m after, ideally, are idea-based novels, with a multiplicity of narratorial voices. Metafiction is always good, as is time travel. I like self-aware narrators, stories in which multiple layers of reality collide, and books which posit wildly different ways of organising society. I like plots based around solving a puzzle — whether a murder mystery, a puzzle about the nature of the world, or a problem in politics. I like books to be thematically dense, and to have plots and structures that reflect the thematic concerns.

I tend not to read for character — I can appreciate a well-drawn character as well as anyone, but it’s not why I read — and I strongly dislike long descriptions of the physical environment (because I’m aphantasic) but I also don’t like the kind of “clear prose” that reads like it was written to be adapted into a film without any changes.

Now, I’ve asked for recommendations like this before, and what I’ve done then is describe the kind of book I want, usually by reference to white male authors, because so little of what I’ve read in the style I like is by anyone else — up until last year I could name a handful of short stories in City of the Saved and Faction Paradox anthologies and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and that was more or less it. But since the start of last year I’ve read three novels by women (or co-written by a woman in one case) which are absolutely the sort of thing I’m after, and so I thought I’d talk about them, and ask for recommendations *of books like them*.

The first of those is one I already wrote about, The Lathe of Heaven. I won’t rehash everything I said there, but will just say that it’s *exactly* the kind of thing I’m after reading more of.

Second, there’s The Just City by Jo Walton. This is the first book of a trilogy, and I intend to read the second and third volumes (I bought the second a year or so ago, but bounced off it because I tried reading it in a period when my mental health was wrecking my concentration. I’ll be trying it again). I was sure I’d reviewed it here before, but apparently not — and when I’ve finished the trilogy, assuming the other two books in the series are anything like as good, I *will* be posting a long review, because this is frankly one of the best SFF novels I’ve ever read. It’s a book I’d recommend to literally anyone — with the important caveat that one of its major themes is bodily autonomy and consent, and so there are several rape scenes, fairly graphically depicted, in which the rapist is someone previously portrayed as a sympathetic character or friend of his victim. These scenes are *not* gratuitous, and are *absolutely* necessary for the themes the book is working through, and at no point does the narrative treat them as excusable, but they may be all the more distressing for that, so people with triggers around that may want to avoid the book or only read it when they’re in an appropriate state of preparedness. Those scenes distressed *me*, and I’m (thankfully) someone who has never experienced anything like that.

The novel has Athena and Apollo set up a colony, in the past, to which they bring everyone throughout history who has ever read Plato’s Republic and prayed to Athena to live in that state (including a number of prominent historical figures, as well as people from our own future). Aided by robots (whose sentience or otherwise is a major theme of the book) they build the Republic, precisely as described by Plato, and the novel describes the problems they face. It takes Plato’s ideas utterly seriously, and as such is an incredibly strong critique of them. It’s told from multiple first-person perspectives — a child slave brought to the Republic, a nineteenth-century woman who wanted to live in the Republic because it treated women as equals, and the god Apollo, incarnated as a human to try to understand humans. It’s an utterly fascinating work, and *precisely* my kind of thing.

And finally there’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. I read this because of Stephenson, who’s a favourite writer of mine, but my guess is that here the plot and ideas came from Stephenson, but most (not all) of the actual prose came from Galland, just judging from the prose styles. This is another story that sits on the border of science fiction and fantasy — there’s a science-fictional handwave explanation for magic having existed in the past but no longer existing in the present day, and for time travel which allows a government agency to try to rectify that, and so various characters go back in time to liaise with witches in pre-revolutionary America, Elizabethan and Victorian London, and earlier time periods. But they find that changes to the past have some unpredictable effects on the present, and that not everyone is working towards the same goals…

It’s an epistolary novel, and has some wonderful pastiches of different writing styles and genre collisions — there’s a lovely bit, “The Lay of Wal-Mart”, which is a Viking saga about a gang of marauding Vikings who get a witch to send them to 21st century America and invade a supermarket:

The West-march of the Walmart
Held all the food in the world,
Bottled beer by the boatload,
Frost-kept food, milk and meat.
Setting up for a siege behind barricades
The Norsemen fetched food, collected clothing,
Turkish trousers with flies in the front
Kept closed with clever contraptions,
Tiny teeth, meshing like millipedes’ legs,
Gnashing, knitting, concealing the naked.
Zipper the Fatlanders called it.
Cock-catcher it was to Hunfast, the hapless.

The best analogy I’ve come up with to describe the book is that it’s clearly the same kind of thing as Stephenson’s earlier Anathem, but is to that book as the Doctor Who story City of Death is to Logopolis — a time-travel comedy romp, even involving a subplot very like the multiple Mona Lisas from City of Death, and getting by on wit and a general sense of joy and playfulness, but almost exactly as clever as it thinks it is.

All three of those books get as high a recommendation as I can give (with the caveat that D.O.D.O ends on a cliffhanger and leaves a ton of plot threads hanging), and I want more of this. So, where can I find it?

(Incidentally, no need to recommend Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library, which I’m told ticks all these boxes — I have it downloaded and it’s on the digital TBR pile already).

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8 Responses to Books I’d Like, That Aren’t Like Me?

  1. Scurra says:

    I’m sort of hoping that you’ve done Diana Wynne Jones’ already? :) I know she’s generally classed as YA, but… Hexwood and Fire & Hemlock are both lovely puzzle boxes that snap shut on you perfectly and make you wonder how it was done.
    Perhaps the Rampart Worlds trilogy by Julian May, which manages a pretty complex political plot entirely from a first-person narrative viewpoint (albeit that it is a male central character.)
    Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle is still one of my favourites from the early part of the century (it’s one of those fun books where the footnotes turn out to be at least as important as the “main” text, and where the ostensible “military historical” genre is somewhat misleading.)
    Claire North (aka Catherine Webb) seems to be doing some very interesting stuff at the moment too.

  2. Gilly says:

    Have you ever read any novels by Nnedi Okorafor? From the description you gave, I think I can recommend her novel Lagoon, a part magical realist part science fiction first contact story set in Nigeria. It follows a cross section of Nigerian society (plus a swordfish ecoterrorist and a god or two) as they experience the changes that comes from a benevolent group of aliens settling down to live in the waters outside of the city of Lagos.

  3. Wesley says:

    I’d second the recommendation of Lagoon. Since you follow the Hugos, I’m guessing you’ve read N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Here are a few other possibilities that I think fulfill at least some of your criteria:

    * Amatka by Karin Tidbeck
    * A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (She’s written another book, The Winged Histories, set in the same world, but it might not fit your criteria as well as this one.)
    * The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya
    * Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente
    * In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker–the start of a long time travel series which is a bit lighter than the other novels on this list, but very good at making historical periods feel historical but still relatable to 21st century readers.
    * Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks is an epic fantasy, but one that does a lot of things differently from other epic fantasies–among other things, it’s more about finding common ground with the antagonists than defeating them.

  4. po8crg says:

    Since you haven’t read this year’s Hugo novels, I’d suggest trying the Ada Palmer novel Too Like the Lightning. The summary of the premise is a future world as obsessed with the Enlightenment as the Renaissance was with the “rediscovered” ancient literature.

  5. I’ve got the feeling there’s at least one more just on the tip of my brain, but for now I’m seconding the recommendation for Too Like the Lightning. It’s one of the only things I’d recommend as similar to Just City specifically, and based on your other criteria (especially puzzle-based plot, self-aware narration, idea density, alternate ways of organizing society) I think it might be exactly what you’re looking for.

    • I remembered the other thing I wanted to recommend! Speak, by Louisa Hall—it’s about AI, and it’s got a very clever structure. (Clever in service of story and theme, not cleverness for its own sake.) There’s about five narrators, in all different time periods, and it’s all told through their diaries/letters/chatlogs/etc.

  6. Andrew Hickey says:

    Thanks all. I have the Palmer book (from the Hugo packet — in fact looking in Calibre I have *two* copies of it for some reason) and that’s three recommendations for that one (Alex Sarll mentioned it in the comments on the Goodreads feed of this entry) so I’ll probably try that one first.

  7. prankster36 says:

    I know you read The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, did you ever read the next book, The Dark Forest? It’s vastly more ambitious and better (riffing partly on, and critiquing, Asimov’s Foundation books) and it does NOT end on a cliffhanger even though there’s apparently a third book in the series coming. There’s “time travel” in the sense that the novel jumps forward several hundred years, and some really excellent 4th-dimensional chess as various characters try to outwit the aliens.

    It’s a comic, not a novel, but Carla Speed McNeil’s “Finder” has some of the qualities you’re describing here, being a dense “Sci-fantasy” series about what may be a future society or just a weird parallel dimension that reflects our own, told from multiple different viewpoints and employing a wide range of clever storytelling techniques.

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