If I had two pieces of advice for my younger self, besides anything too serious, it would be that life is too short for bad books, and that reading fiction is not a wasteful extravagance. In fact, far from a vehicle for escapism, it is a device to prize open the greatest questions in philosophy, psychology and history.
I used to read a lot of fiction as a teenager and young adult. These ranged from the clichè – Michel Houellebecq, Chuck Palahniuk and Brett Easton Ellis (even then I knew they were all slightly weird) – to the classics, like Francois Rabelais, Ivan Turgenev and Nikolai Gogol. Some books I considered life-changing at the time, but now recall with bewilderment (think Ernest Hemingway, Milan Kundera and Jack Kerouac). Others surprise me, in that now, twenty years later, I still enjoy them. Step forward Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood.
But for some reason in my twenties, as I decided to take life more seriously, I came to the conclusion that fiction wasn’t for me. Perhaps because of the structure of university – and the dull-as-dishwater reading lists – I became a desiccated empiricist. I was hungry for facts – and the imaginations of others, no matter how brilliant, were infertile terrain. As a result, I became a voracious reader of non-fiction, much of it quite bad. Where I once perused Fathers and Sons, or The Master and Margarita, I now pondered GDP statistics, or read identikit books on philosophy and social theory.
And yet, as I’ve grown older, I’ve realised the value of fiction again – particularly speculative and historical fiction. Both strike me as the ideal remedy to capitalist realism and the notion that there is no alternative to how the world is currently organised.
Great novels challenge your assumptions.
Unlike some – who believe characters aren’t properly developed in the latter – I don’t see a distinction between literary and genre fiction. While it’s true that characters and relationships can sometimes take a back seat in genre fiction to a ‘big idea’, that isn’t always the case. At its best, it is able to offer broad insights about culture, time and the human condition at both the micro-level of characters and the macro-level of history.
In recent years the work of Kim Stanley Robinson – whose PhD supervisor was the Marxist Frederic Jameson – has gained widespread acclaim. His most recent novel, Ministry for the Future, has received plaudits across liberal America, from Barack Obama to Bill Gates and Ezra Klein. But while the book is useful in identifying how we might address climate change, and what horrors could arrive before we do, it also conforms to some of the worst stereotypes of science fiction. The book is didactic – its mission is to impart a clear lesson to the reader. Given the scale of the climate crisis and the inertia of elites, on some levels this is commendable. And yet I found it one of Robinson’s weaker books in its ability to shift my own thinking. Great novels don’t just wrestle with surface-level policy solutions, they dig deep, challenging your core assumptions. At their best, they challenge your very sense of self.
With this in mind, if I had to recommend anything by Robinson, it would be his alternative history The Years of Rice and Salt, and his more recent novel, Aurora. The former was written in 2003, and charts an alternative world history, in which Europeans have been wiped out by a plague. As a result, the world’s great imperialisms herald from China and west Asia, while the locales driving the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution are the Silk Road and India. The reader is asked to “imagine a world without Europe” (the continent is settled by Arabic-speaking settlers), and yet the developments that follow are strangely familiar: Chinese explorers ‘discover’ the Americas, capitalism still emerges, and a century-long war of competing imperialisms, between China and the Muslim world, offers a fusion of the first and second world wars with the cold war-turned-hot. The genius of the book is that the central characters are reincarnated, the narrative of their lives gradually intertwined with world historical events.
Aurora, meanwhile, offers more typical fayre for Robinson. It relates the story of a travelling space colony set for an Earth-like planet, Aurora, near Tau Ceti (a star 12 light years from our own solar system). Despite the journey spanning seven generations, it becomes clear on arrival that humans can’t settle the planet. Primitive prions, a kind of misfolded protein, are ubiquitous on its surface and prove fatal. Once the colonisation of Aurora is foreclosed, some of the group elect to remain and terraform its nearby moon, Iris, while others choose to return to Earth. On their arrival home the book’s protagonist, Freya, becomes involved in terraforming projects which reclaim beaches after centuries of rising sea levels. She marvels at the beauty of her species’ home planet, and its sun. No other book I have read has so powerfully undermined the argument for the colonisation of space – particularly while we devastate the only planet we know that is capable of sustaining life. Whereas The Years of Rice and Salt challenged my core assumptions about modernity, Aurora did the same with regard to nature.
Science fiction is the genre of our time.
During multiple lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, I found myself reading a glut of pandemic-related fiction. Among my favourites were Severance by Ling Ma and Station Eleven (which has since become a TV series) by Emily St. John Mandel. Both were written before covid, which should place them firmly in the speculative-fiction genre. But once the world went into lockdown – and debate even extended to the possibility of a more deadly pandemic – these became thought experiments of the utmost significance. Could humanity survive a pathogen as virulent as the most recent coronavirus but with a fatality rate as high as, say, ebola? And if it did what kind of society would remain?
Such questions get to the heart of why science fiction is such an important genre – I would argue the genre of our time. In an era where multiple crises overlap and technological change is accelerating in fields like genomics, artificial intelligence and robotics, it is science fiction where one finds the most eloquent debates on the ethics and politics of technology, and where plausible futures are mapped out in the clearest detail. The Handmaid’s Tale, and its sequel The Testaments, aren’t exercises in fantasy but an arresting provocation about a world defined by climate breakdown and falling birth rates. Could a response to such trends include, in some places, a rejection of modernity and the embrace of theocratic government? The experience of recent years has moved my views on that from plausible to likely.
In Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow, I’ve encountered the best response to my own hypothesis in Fully Automated Luxury Communism. Who’s to say that in a society inching towards post-scarcity, where the material wants of all are met, humans won’t contrive to create new forms of value? What if, in this respect, social media clout prefigures future economies built on reputation and social capital? Would that be substantially better? Or what if, with our basic needs met, ‘post-material’ values instead manifest themselves in a return to religion, superstition and irrationality? Personally, I think these are better problems to have than a billion people going hungry, and climate systems in freefall, but I can see why others might disagree.
For Fredric Jameson, science fiction offers a powerful corrective to a modernity founded upon anti-utopianism – and where ideological claims, rather than seen as offering a blueprint for a better way of living, are somehow considered tantamount to fanaticism. The genre is therefore crucial as a source of anti-anti-utopianism (Jameson’s words, not mine), rebutting the default, vacuous conservatism that claims nothing really changes – and if it does this can only be for the worse. This is the world of the ‘we should improve society somewhat’ meme, and where, in the words of Alain Badiou, “the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible.” Science fiction, and fiction more generally, takes an axe to this mind-numbing anhedonia.
Where to begin?
Besides the books already mentioned, I would add two more for the next twelve months. The first is Dawn by Octavia Butler, the opening volume of the Lilith’s Brood trilogy. Its key themes include the destructiveness of patriarchy and hierarchy, while it also probes questions about post-humanism.
The second is The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu – again the opening volume of a spectacular trilogy. As with Butler, the scope of Liu’s work is extraordinary, and it allows one to situate politics, and the human condition, within long sweeps of time far beyond a single lifespan. It begins with a young astrophysicist whose anger at the Cultural Revolution, which has claimed the life of her father, is enhanced by reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The two experiences combine to convince her that the Earth would be better off without humanity at all. And from there it only gets weirder.
Science and speculative fiction is of extraordinary use in a world where it isn’t just the future we often fail to understand, but the present too. Novels have a power that non-fiction lacks, to shine a light on both the crises of our age – from demographic ageing to climate change – and the possibilities too. Fiction can offer not only a map for new worlds, as Jameson might put it, but an ethical compass for the choices we will soon face.
So in 2023: read more fiction. Because it often provides a better guide to the world we live in – and the one coming – than social sciences, fixated on the past and befuddled by the present.