Inspirations… (Jan. 27, 2017)

1984

The Women’s March was truly inspiring. I took part in my own small way. Our small North Carolina town had 1,500 people turn out. I was gobsmacked, because we are just not that big a town. There were 17,000 people marching in Raleigh. Here are some wonderful photos of the marchers around the world. What I loved about this protest is how positive it was, to counteract the terrible negativity we’ve been seeing from elected officials; women and men  from all backgrounds came together in solidarity, to support one another, and to start building a movement, rather than to tear down.

The news this week has not been so inspiring, I’m sorry to say, but in troubled times, people always turn to literature. Literature gives us a blueprint for how to deal with life, and that’s why telling stories is so important. One such story is George Orwell’s 1984, which is selling out this week in response to the newly coined phrase “alternative facts.” 1984 is a touchstone book for me; here’s what I wrote about it a few years ago, also in response to the political climate. Now, unfortunately, Orwell’s vision seems even more prescient. 

For those of you who, like me, feel somewhat overwhelmed by current events, this article is a must-read: “How to #StayOutraged without Losing Your Mind.” There is some important advice here–follow it.

And now, a ray of sunshine–more great news in overdue filmed adaptations: Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens is being adapted as a limited series by Amazon, joining American Gods on Hulu.

I leave you with the inevitable reading list (always more to read!). If you have already gobbled up 1984 and are looking for more dystopias, here’s a short list of recommendations that seem particularly well-suited for the current political climate:

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • The Children of Men by P. D. James
  • Parable of the Sower  and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
  • When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Links for readers…

Some interesting links I’ve stumbled across lately:

Neil Gaiman’s manifesto on reading

“I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.”

This was actually published in 2013, based on a lecture Gaiman gave to the Reading Agency, but it so wonderfully expresses why reading, and especially reading fiction, is absolutely critical for the future of our society and why we all need to support libraries as much as we can, that it bears reading and rereading and constant reinforcing: Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming | Books | The Guardian.

Recommended Reading: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman’s latest collection of short fiction and poetry, is recommended for readers who love creepy stories, fairy tales and well-written fan fiction.

PS Thanks to my friend Samantha Bryant for giving me a copy of this book. Samantha has a new book out: Going Through the Change: A Menopausal Superhero Novel. Check it out!

Most influential authors…

I keep a record of what I read in LibraryThing. I haven’t recorded every book I’ve ever read, because I don’t remember (boy, I wish I had started keeping a list at the age of 5 or something). But I have recorded almost 1,200 books, so I thought I’d take a look at my authors list and see which authors were most influential on me.

It seems I read widely, because there are only 2 authors with more than 10 listings, and only one, Stephen King, with over 15 listings. I think being an eclectic reader is a very good thing. For purposes of this little poll, done for my amusement only, I decided to count any author with more than 5 listings as highly influential.

Here they are then, in order of influence:

  • Stephen King
  • Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Jonathan Lethem
  • Edward Gorey
  • Christopher Moore* (once, maybe, but not anymore)
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Jane Austen
  • Michael Chabon
  • Fred Chappell
  • Nick Hornby* (like Moore, this one is dubious, unless it’s him writing about books and reading)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Octavia Butler
  • Tom Perrotta
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Roald Dahl
  • Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Shirley Jackson
  • Francine Prose

What’s the point? None, really, just thought it was interesting data.

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: