Saturday, November 12, 2016

Hive Mind: Obscure Brilliance

We're starting a new feature called Hive Mind, where we ask fans from all around Chicago for suggestions. (Just to cover our bases: opinions belong to the book-suggesters, and don't necessarily represent the opinion of any organizations they're connected to.)

For the first installment, Obscure Brilliance, we asked folks: what are the books that you really loved, or that have stuck with you strangely over the years, but it seems like practically nobody else has ever read or even heard of them?

Read on for our obscure and brilliant suggestions! 

City of Dreaming Books 
Walter Moers (2004)

One of the handful of books set in Moers’ fictitious land of  Zamonia, this is a fun, creative, easy-going read. The Zamonia books, which are translated front the original German, have been fittingly referred to as “Dr Seuss for adults.” The characters are all weird animals, monsters, and beasts, and the book includes quite a bit of illustration drawn by Moers himself to aid in the visualization. This story, at its core, is based on the love of reading, books, and authors, so I read this entire book smiling ear to ear.

David Shapiro is a member of the Classic Sci-Fi Meetup.

Way Station 
Clifford D. Simak (1963)

Way Station is an unusual science fiction book in that the hero is a man of inaction, by design. Asked by a friendly alien to watch a house—in reality, a "way station" for aliens passing through on interstellar travel—for centuries, Enoch Wallace is granted a type of immortality. But because his job is so secret, he can't interact with the people near him. Forever alone, he is spied on by the government, asked to inhabit his home with thousands of different aliens, and tasked with averting a coming nuclear war. This little tale becomes monumental as the Enoch's worlds collide in both minor and major ways. A true classic.

Dr. Paul Booth teaches media & cinema studies at DePaul, and is a fandom scholar specializing in Doctor Who. He also organizes the awesome Pop Culture Conferences (Harry Potter in May). Find him on Twitter @pbooth81.

Woman on the Edge of Time
Marge Piercy (1976)

The genre of feminist science fiction was largely squashed, but some of its classic authors remain (Butler, Russ). One oft-forgotten classic of the genre is this Piercy novel, which tackles racism, gender/sex, motherhood, reproductive rights, time travel, language, and more, packing an ending that will feel like a punch to the stomach.

Leah von Essen is a Chicago reader who blogs and reviews at While Reading and Walking (where she also has a full review of Piercy's novel). You can also find her tweeting @readingwhile.

Orbital Decay
Allen Steele (1989)
I've always had a fascination with stories involving close-knit people in a small space, so stories involving traveling on spacecraft or life in a space station appeal to me greatly. Allen Steele's first novel (and the first in his Near-Space series) follows a crew of engineers aboard a space station. His writing blends in a healthy dose of science/engineering terms to ground it in reality without losing focus on the story at hand. What really sets this book apart for me, though, is the pitch-perfect tone of his characters: these are blue-collar types putting in work on a space station, hoping to get their butts back to Earth and collect some hazard pay. There's some drama, some comedy, and some genuine thrills. This makes me think of those summer camps I never attended or that job on the oil rig I never applied for.

Grant McKee is one of the proprietors of Bucket o'Blood Books & Records in Avondale, who host several book clubs and many events. Keep up with Bucket o'Blood on Facebook & Twitter.

Behold the Man
Michael Moorcock (1969)

A stunning and intense story of a 20th-century man returning to the time of Jesus and finding a decidedly different Christ than he expected. An impassioned and compelling tale told by a Grand Master.

Jeff Deutsch has been a bookseller for over 20 years. You can currently find him at the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore in Hyde Park, who also host a lot of great author events—follow them on Twitter or check out their Facebook event page.

The Myst Trilogoy
Rand Miller, Robyn Miller, & David Wingrove (1995-1997)

The three novels based on the Myst video game series— The Book of Atrus, The Book of Ti'ana, and The Book of D'ni—are just as packed with mythology and ripe for cinematic adaptation as The Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones. You don't have to know anything about the games to appreciate or comprehend them, and they really deserve more attention as one of the best fantasy series to come out of the 1990s. It's an epic saga of a secret, collapsed civilization in a giant cavern deep beneath the earth, where an ancient humanoid species developed the power to travel between worlds with pen and paper. It's like a steampunk version of Star Wars where the spaceships are replaced with books.

Adam Morgan is a writer, professor, and the editor-in-chief at the superb Chicago Review of Books. Don't forget to check out their first annual awards ceremony next month! You can also catch Adam on Twitter @adamm0rgan.

The Affirmation
Christopher Priest (1981)

Once in a while I'll run into someone who has read The Prestige or, more likely, seen the Christopher Nolan movie, but few realize that Priest has a truly brilliant back catalog of books. Almost any are worth picking up, but I particularly love this strange little novel. This novel is about two men named Peter Sinclair, one is a man who has suffered a series of disappointments in his life in London, the other is a character in a book the first Peter is writing who has just one a Lottery where the prize is eternal life through a new medical procedure. The book interweaves the two men's stories until the reader is unsure which one is reality. Like most of Priest's books, it is a blast to read, while remaining thought provoking and keeping the reader on their toes. 

Wayne Giacalone is a co-manager of RoscoeBooks, a new independent bookstore in Roscoe Village who are already hosting a number of book-clubs and events each month. You can keep up with the bookshop on Twitter @RoscoeBooks.

The League of Heroes
Xavier Mauméjean, adapted by Manuella Chevalier (2005)

This book starts as a fix for classic literary hero team-up fans, but soon provides a nesting doll narrative that creates its own mythology strong enough to make you eagerly wait for the untranslated sequel—or learn French!

Dominic Loise is the manager of the West Loop bookstore for Open Books, a non-profit literacy organization. Open Books hosts a ton of programs, including the Megatext reading series in collaboration with Positron & Think Galactic. Keep up with them on Twitter @openbooks.

Wave Without a Shore
C.J. Cherryh (1981)

If you've spent much time with me, this book is probably not obscure to you, because I try to make everyone I know read it. This novella is one of a handful of experimental short works Cherryh wrote early in her career, and it's just unbelievably brilliant. Thoughtful, witty, and full of the kind of dialog that philosophy students will find very dramatic, Wave Without a Shore is actually a subtle and mildly subversive meditation on the meaning of art, on the difficulty and vital importance of connecting with others, on friendship and politics and the limits of existentialism. Small cast, tightly paced, cerebral but also visceral. Highly recommended.

Jake Casella is the editor of Positron, so if you're reading this we're probably okay.

Halfway Human
Carolyn Ives Gilman (1998)

It's a pretty amazing rewriting of Left Hand of Darkness—I'd say it not only engages with the questions of gender and perception or standpoint that Left Hand famously works on, it also thinks quite interestingly about a world in which all knowledge, including and maybe especially academic knowledge is thoroughly commodified, so that intellectuals/academics have become more or less entrepreneurs (a really, really timely thing to think about right now). That then has really interesting consequences for the novel's Le Guin-ian questioning of how we can come to understand, account for and even love cultures and ways of life other to our own.

Dr. Hilary Strang is the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities Deputy Director and English Lecturer at the University of Chicago. Her research interests include nineteenth century British literature, the novel, radical culture, science fiction and Marxism. She has published on Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and biopolitics.

The End of Mr. Y
Scarlett Thomas (2006)

I came across The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas in a bargain bin (3.99 euros) six years ago in Dublin, Ireland and couldn't stop reading.  It wasn't like anything I'd read before: strong smart female protagonist, Victorian philosophies, religious beliefs, video game-like alternate realities.  I think I'll need to reread soon to see if it's as great and weird as I remember.

It seems to have done fairly well actually, but I haven't seen it since and no one else I've talked to has ever heard of it.

Alyssa Sands is a member of the Weird & Wonderful book club at City Lit Books in Logan Square.

Iain M. Bans (2009)

Iain M. Banks, favorite sci-fi author of many a Brit, wrote Transition as a step into the multi-verse, and I continually wish I could talk to more people about its mechanics and themes. Transition created a universe that demanded that I consider the ways we interact with our own identities, the way we impact history, and the way places themselves accrue their own identity, or "fragre" as Banks labels sense of place, its accumulated history, and landscape. For me, this book brought out themes of transience and permanence—familiar for anyone who has ever felt like a nomad—and he combined all this with the intensity and thrill of a spy novel. The multiple perspectives, the discussions of history and human nature, and the unsettling narrative structure combine to make the story one that has stuck in my mind since I first read it. Though Banks is well known in many circles (especially the UK), this book, I feel, is underrated, and its political themes of power and fear continue to be relevant.

Jamie Waters is the communications coordinator at the Newberry Library where she finds historical inspiration for her sci-fi fanaticism. Visit the library for your own research or follow the Newberry on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook  for more literary events and archival inspiration.

Have an obscure but brilliant book you want to share? Sound off in the comments! And please email if you'd like to be involved in future Hive Minds.

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