Reading journal: January wrap-up

Not full reviews or even necessarily recommendations, just some notes on what I’ve been reading.

I will never read all the dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction out there, but I keep trying. This month I read a very early apocalypse story by Jack London: The Scarlet Plague (free to read online). This short story feels like an ur-story for George Stewart’s Earth Abides (also set in San Francisco). It doesn’t really have a plot; rather, it’s just a description of civilization’s quick fall from disease and a meditation on how easily humanity could return to savagery. Frequent readers of apocalyptic fiction will recognize a lot of ideas that were later fleshed out by other writers, but London should get credit for being one of the first. This might also be considered an early steampunk story, as well. London’s vision of the future–the plague hits in 2013–includes dirigibles and steam power, as well as some radically altered version of U.S. government. However, it’s also terribly classist and sexist. But it’s short enough to read in one sitting and would be of interest to anyone studying this genre of fiction.

I also read Margaret Atwood’s latest dystopia: The Heart Goes Last. (I linked to the NYT review, which I pretty much agree with.) Not every book by a favorite author can be great (with the exception of Jane Austen). Inevitably, a disappointment comes along, and here comes one from an author who is a personal hero of mine. Atwood’s messaging regarding security and freedom is pretty heavy-handed, the sexual content is more than a little disturbing, and the end just left me cold. It feels like a throw-off and certainly in no way resembles Atwood’s more masterful dystopias, Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale.

I do have a book recommendation to post soon, and I am just starting another post-apocalyptic novel: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins. 

Another Blog Reboot

An Empty Earth is another project blog of mine that I’m reviving. It is mostly a bibliography of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, with my notes. There are also some older essays about these genres, as well as essential reading lists. Check it out.

A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I discuss a less brutal and, I think, more realistic approach to the post-apocalyptic novel in this essay published on my blog Sci Femme.

Sci Femme

This essay also discusses Into the Forest (Jean Hegland; 1996);A Gift Upon the Shore (M.K. Wren; 1990); and Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985), among various other stalwarts of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre. There will be spoilers for these books.

Pop quiz, hotshot. It’s the apocalypse: What do you do? What. Do. You. Do?

If hundred (thousands?) of post-apocalyptic books and movies are to believed, you break out your cache of automatic weapons, gun down every guy you see, capture a woman and lock her in a cage for later, then chow down on some roasted baby.

There is a certain amount of wish fulfillment going on there. The apocalypse novel is one part fear, one part fantasy. All the rules are suddenly gone; you can do whatever you want! It’s a dim view of humanity that assumes that all people want to do is murder, rape, and…

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Cli-Fi: Fiction about climate change

I have just discovered a new genre: cli-fi, or climate change fiction. Set in the present or near future, these novels imagine a changed world once the effects of climate change are really beginning to be felt.

It’s not such a new genre to me, after all. I read David Brin’s Earth and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain quite some time ago, and science fiction writers have been speculating about climate change for a long time now. Cli-fi now seems to be gaining some literary legitimacy, though, with writers like Ian McEwan (Solar), Margaret Atwood (the Oryx and Crake trilogy) and David Mitchell (The Bone Clockstackling the subject.

If you are interested in this sub-genre, I highly recommend you start with Rivers by Michael Farris Smith. Set in the near future on the Mississippi coast, which is ravaged by perpetual storms and has been abandoned by the US government, this is a beautifully written and powerful novel.

For further reading, here’s my cli-fi list on LibraryThing.

The end of the world as we know it…

On Quora, there are a lot of interesting responses to this question: Pandemics: If society started collapsing due to a global pandemic killing more than half of the world’s population within a year or two, what would you do when you realized what was really happening? – Quora. There are a number of detailed, well-thought-out answers that represent a gamut of responses to a cataclysmic event.

With all the apocalyptic literature I read, I of course have thought about what I would do if society started collapsing around me. I have seen many scenarios presented in books, most of them not at all appealing. Women, in particular, have a tough time in these situations. Very few of these books show people cooperating to try to rebuild society, or at least help each other get through the crisis. Although that may be the most likely scenario, it doesn’t make for a very exciting story.

One aspect I think we overlook about post-collapse survival is how much work it would be. We really don’t have any idea anymore how much labor is involved just in producing enough food to sustain us through a year, for instance. The last post-apocalyptic book I read, Into the Forest by Jean Hegland, gave a good accounting of the work involved in raising a garden, canning food, keeping out pests and gathering wild plants. Sometimes people seem to fantasize about the collapse of society enabling them to live a simpler life and return to the land, but I don’t think they take into account the never-ending drudgery of it. That’s why we invented all these machines and systems in the first place.

I personally think society would only collapse in an absolute worst-case scenario, such as all-out nuclear war. Based on history, people tend to pick up the pieces and keep progressing. The Black Death, for instance, was a major catastrophic event, but Europe survived it and even thrived afterward.

Today, I think we would turn to the very things that we fear oppress us in order to save us: science and technology. We have the ability to use science to understand the world around us and develop technological solutions to fill our needs. We won’t lose that if there were a global pandemic or some other catastrophe. There may be a period of chaos, but I believe it would be temporary. Unless we somehow wipe ourselves out completely, I think we humans will continue to move forward.

Read what other people think on Quora.

Hell is repetition: The theme of cycles in science fiction

Recently, I have become fascinated with the notion of cycles. We humans tend to regard everything linearly, with a beginning and an end, because that is our individual experience. But taking a wider view, we can see that events tend to happen in cycles, that an end leads inexorably to another beginning. It’s easiest to see this in nature, with our regular seasonal cycles and the cycle of growth to death to fertilizer to new life again. In physics, the concept of eternal return posits that the universe has been recurring and will continue to recur in a self-similar form an infinite number of times. According to Eastern religions, we are all caught up in the Wheel of Life, an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth, until we can escape via enlightenment.

Post-apocalyptic literature, a favorite of mine, is obsessed with endings, an interesting mind game in itself. What would happen if everything, as we know it, just stopped? But the concept of repeating patterns, of endless cycles, is even more of a mind bender. Recently, a couple of favorite TV shows have explored this theme.

**Spoilers for Battlestar Galactica and Lost follow, so stop reading now if you don’t want to know.**

Battlestar Galactica‘s controversial finale, seen as a happy ending by some and as a silly warning to be nice to your robots by others, was, in my view, highly pessimistic. Despite all their efforts to break the cycle of Cylon uprising and mutual destruction, even to the point of sacrificing their technological advantages, the surviving characters only managed to put the inevitable off for a few thousand years. But all this has happened before, and will happen again — and the cycle begins anew on modern-day Earth.

Lost is exploring similar themes, although it is not clear yet whether the pattern can actually be broken. Still, last night’s excellent season finale asks the question: If the pattern is destined to keep repeating, why take action at all? Why not just opt out? In my opinion, the show has not taken a side. We’ve seen characters opt out (Bernard and Rose), and they seem perfectly happy. We’ve seen other characters take action to try to change the pattern, break the cycle, but we don’t know if they will be successful. Even if they are unable to change the pattern, will just trying be enough for some kind of personal salvation or redemption? Is what matters making a choice and doing something, rather than the effects of that action? These are great questions to ponder on a sleepless night.

I am now getting interested in science fiction novels that explore similar themes. Here are a few that I could think of (ahoy, there may be spoilers ahead):

  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which is structured in a cyclical manner progressing forward and then back through time.
  • The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, in which Roland seems doomed to relive the events of his quest for the Dark Tower until he can find a way to break the cycle of repetition.
  • The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, in which an alien civilization is doomed to cause its own apocalypse and then rise from the ashes over and over.
  • Replay by Ken Grimwood, in which a man relives his life again and again (I haven’t read this).

Does anyone have other suggestions? I would love to hear them.

What is speculative fiction?

The kind of fiction I like to read the most, and that I tend to focus on here, falls under the broad umbrella of “speculative fiction.” I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the traditional genre labels of science fiction, fantasy and horror. The definitions that are most often applied to these genres seem so limiting, and they leave out a wide swath of really great books.

All three of these genres have one thing in common: The stories concern elements that do not exist in the so-called real world. In other words, they speculate about what might be possible but, in our everyday experience, isn’t.

In science fiction, the speculations must be grounded in the principles of science; they might not be possible now, but someday they could be, which is why science fiction is often set on future Earth or on another planet. The subjects of science fiction are space travel, dimensional travel, time travel, post-apocalyptic societies and technological innovations.

In fantasy, however, the speculations are usually based on magic and the supernatural. These speculations must follow rules, but they are not the rules of science. Generally, fantasy stories take place in imagined worlds (but not necessarily another planet) or on a fictional historical Earth.

Horror, on the other hand, most often takes place in the present day, in the world in which we live. But it introduces a fantastic or supernatural element, usually a monster of some kind. Horror also differs from fantasy in that it, by definition, should be frightening and dark.

But what about fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into one of these three categories? For instance, where would Neil Gaiman’s American Gods be classified? It is set in the modern-day world, but with its cast of mythical gods, it shades more toward fantasy than horror, although it does have horrific elements. Or what about David Mitchell’s excellent novel Cloud Atlas? This experimental novel is set in several different times, in the past, present and future, including a post-apocalyptic society. But it doesn’t read like traditional science fiction.

That’s where the label speculative fiction is useful. It covers any work of fiction that posits a “what if” question and then attempts to answer that question. That includes science fiction, fantasy and horror, plus narrower genres like alternate history and magical realism, as well as works that defy any neat label.

More contemporary writers who aren’t often associated with genre writing are stepping out of the bounds of literary fiction and into the realm of the speculative, and I’m glad because they are turning out some great works. For example, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a fascinating alternate history, and one-third of Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days is set on a future Earth, with aliens and space travel. I first started reading Jonathan Lethem via his genre-defying novels Gun, with Occasional Music, As She Climbed Across the Table and Amnesia Moon.

I like the speculative fiction label because it describes my favorite kind of writing but is much more open than the traditional genres. When I read speculative fiction, I can read hard sci-fi, traditional fantasy, contemporary horror or experimental literary fiction. The label also encourages good authors to experiment and stretch themselves without fear of being pigeonholed into an undesirable section of the bookstore. The stigma of writing about such subjects seems to have been dropped. For proof, just look at Cormac McCarthy‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning (and Oprah Book Club pick) post-apocalyptic novel The Road or Kazuo Ishiguro’s foray into science fiction, Never Let Me Go, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and named one of Time‘s 100 Best Novels of All Time.

Want to know more? Check out these sites: