Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: Mary Shelley

A balanced reading diet

We’ve all heard the expression, “you are what you eat.” The idea behind it is that what we put into our bodies affects the health of our bodies. We’ll be healthier if we eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. But I think that can be extended to our reading diet as well. What we put into our minds by reading affects how we think. Thus, “you are what you read,” far more than we may realize. If we’re wise, we’ll cultivate a balanced reading diet.

This photo still life shows a beautifully-staged breakfast of figs, yogurt with granola, and tea, next to a magazine open to an article by Zadie Smith titled “New Books.”
Three feasts in one: visual, gustatory, and literary! (photo still life by Juliette Tang, via Food52)

How we understand the world

Our teachers and families may have taught us that balanced nutrition keeps us healthy. Whether we actually eat a balanced diet or not, we’ve probably heard of the concept. But, a balanced reading diet? What would that even look like?

For this discussion, I won’t debate whether listening counts as “reading.” Audiobooks and podcasts? Ebooks and online materials? Print books and publications? Different delivery mechanisms, but they all deliver ideas. Same goes for fiction and nonfiction. They simply are different ways to transmit ideas.

Verbal communication evolved for survival reasons. Humans navigate our world better when we understand it (or think we do). Because of our experiences and influences, we accept some ideas, and reject others as unhelpful. The ideas we keep and use guide us when something new happens. They determine how we understand the world.

What’s in your reading diet?

For me, a balanced reading diet consists of some nonfiction and some fiction. Some of my reading/listening focuses on contemporary issues and news. Other reading/listening is more timeless. And a lot of it, because of the culture in which I live, reflects a white-dominant perspective. I have to make a special effort to find other perspectives.

Portraits of two Black 18th-century writers, Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley from editions of their books.
Portrait engravings of Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley from 18th-century editions of their books. (British Library)

That’s why I think it’s important to talk about this during Black History Month. Because for a white person like me, it’s all too easy to get caught in a dominant-group-exclusive perspective. It’s way too easy to ignore other’s experiences.

But white people who cocoon themselves in a “white-perspective-only” bubble render themselves clueless and unfit to influence community affairs. Ignorance leads to dangerous blind spots. Demographic shifts place white people in a majority group that’s dwindling. The privilege many of us take for granted today—and defend with savagery, in some cases—cannot last.

Why do we need a balanced reading diet?

My sister spotlighted some pitfalls of a whites-only perspective in her post last week. Her “tale of two histories” gave a vivid glimpse of why separate is not equal. Nor is it balanced. Nor respectful. And certainly not wise.

People from minority groups have no choice but to pay attention to others ideas, needs, and priorities. If white people don’t develop a wider understanding of the world, we’ll have a far harder transition when we become part of a “majority minority” nation.

Long before that happens, we need to wise up and start rebalancing our inputs. Granted, a minority of white people—and seemingly a majority of one major political party—have embraced a leader linked to white supremacy. They have committed themselves to the “white bubble.” That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to. Or should.

A young man sits on the floor between two bookshelves. He has a book open on his upraised knees and several other books open on the floor beside him.
(uncredited photo via BuddyMantra)

A balanced reading diet prepares us for the future

If we want to prepare ourselves to help create and participate in a more equitable world, we have work to do. We need to learn about white privilege, if that’s a new concept. For those who’ve lived in the “white bubble,” we have to practice before we can perceive the privilege that surrounds us. We also need a willingness to understand how our privilege actually hurts all of us—yes, even those who enjoy the privilege.

We need to ground ourselves in non-white experiences, to keep our thinking lives balanced. Learn about microaggressions, and why their relentless barrage is so destructive. One of my teaching classes included a book titled We Can’t Teach What we Don’t Know. We can’t teach, and we can’t live, in more adaptive ways without broader understanding.

Why seek a broader understanding? We owe it to ourselves, if we value the ideals of a resilient democracy. We’re at a crossroads. Unless we work with other Americans to build a national identity that embraces diversity, we’ll limp into the future diminished and wounded by internal strife.

Recipe for a balanced reading diet

If you want to build a balanced reading diet, I’d recommend several things, but first a guiding principle: just as a balanced diet incorporates a variety of foods, a variety of information sources build a balanced reading diet.

Logos for two great podcasts from NPR, “Code Switch,” and “Throughline.”
Two great podcasts from NPR, Code Switch focuses on culture and current events, while Throughline offers insights from lesser-known history. (Logos via NPR podcast listings)

News and commentary

Study up on antiracism, especially if you’re not sure about claims that white people enjoy a privileged status, or why that might be a problem. Authors who are persons of color can speak from a place of authority on this topic. Podcasts I’d particularly recommend: Code Switch and Throughline, both from NPR.

If you’re lucky enough to have a local newspaper—or at least a broadcast station that covers local news—listen to it or read and support it. Local media keep local governments and other centers of power more accountable.

Likewise, get your national and international news from a variety of well-regarded sources. Include at least one national newspaper, and a news source from a foreign country, such as Reuters or Al Jazeera. Don’t rely on just one source for everything! And make sure you can distinguish straight news from opinion.

This image provides a montage of book covers for works by Black authors, giving a glimpse of the recommendations list in the article.
TED speakers offered their recommendations for 62 great books by Black authors. (TED Ideas)

Don’t neglect fiction

Both nonfiction and fiction offer new windows on the world. Fiction is arguably one of our earliest forms of meaning-making, so don’t dismiss it as useless and frivolous. It is primal. (And, serious novels aside, sometimes we urgently need frivolity in our lives. Fiction has you covered there, too!)

Seek out authors from a variety of backgrounds. As influential novels of the past have shown, sometimes the best way to explore an idea is to wrap it in a riveting story.

That’s my recipe. What do you think? Do you have a balanced reading diet? Please comment below! What’s on your “must-read” list?

This quote-image features the silhouette of a young boy and the William Godwin quote, “He that loves reading has everything within his reach.”
A classic quote from Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin. (GladReaders)

IMAGE SOURCES:

Many thanks to CASSIEM and Food52, for the photo still life by Juliette Tang, as well as an enjoyable article and several more photos by Tang. I appreciate the British Library for an interesting article on some of its holdings by 18th-century Black authors, and the illustration of the portrait engravings of Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley. I’m grateful to BuddyMantra for the uncredited photo of the young man in the library, from Pallavi Dutta’s article about “30 Things Only Booklovers Can Relate To.” Thanks also to NPR podcasts, Code Switch, and Throughline, for their logos, and to TED’s “Ideas” for the illustration and the article on “62 Great Books by Black Authors Recommended by TED Speakers.” And finally, I also want to thank Glad Readers for the Quote-image featuring the quote from Mary Shelleys father, William Godwin.

Recent political-comment books

Politics in Science Fiction

Do you read science fiction as an escape? If you hoped the politics would die down after the election, and now you just want to get away from it all in a sci-fi world, I’ll try to break this gently. Politics in science fiction is pretty much baked-in.

No romance, no adventure story, no mystery, and no historical drama can completely evade society or politics, even when it’s not the focus. But most of these are based on actual events or places. If your romance is set in Tuscany, or if your historical novel takes place in Kublai Khan’s court, certain rules are already set.

But sf was kinda built for political or social comment. Science fiction can range from a simple town hall to a matrilineal nest-colony. But every sf story resides in a world that the author chose to create that way. For a reason.

Sometimes it’s just the wallpaper

Covers for Murderbot stories: “All Systems Red,” “Artificial Condition,” “Rogue Protocol,” “Exit Strategy,” “Network Effect,” and “Fugitive Telemetry.”
Jaime Jones illustrates the “Murderbot Stories” of Martha Wells, from Tor.com Publishing. Cover images courtesy of Martha Wells.

Would-be escapists take heart! Politics in science fiction novels isn’t always center-stage. Some sf authors choose the “background political system” more for plot-utility.

Martha Wells’ “Murderbot” stories take place in a system quite different from our own. What kind of place would allow such a cyborg to be made and exploited? We can believe this world would. It’s not obviously presented as a dystopia, but a writer with a different story purpose could actively portray it as one.

But maybe you’d rather take out your political frustrations in another way.

Dystopia

Maybe you’d like to see characters triumph over their politically- or socially-caused adversity. In that case, the politics in science fiction of certain kinds may be right up your alley. Perhaps counter-intuitively, some of the most inspirational science fiction unfolds in a dystopian world.

Writers use dystopian novels to critique some aspect of their current world. Suzanne Collins drew inspiration from both classical and contemporary sources for her “Hunger Games” books. Her critique focuses on social and economic inequalities, extreme versions of contemporary trends.

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale also makes an extremely relevant point about patriarchy taken to extremes. Women still struggle for the right to control their own bodies. Handmaid remains as relevant now as when it was published in 1985. Buzzfeed offers a list of 24 excellent dystopian novels you’d like to explore this subgenre.

Covers for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Ecotopia,” and “Brave New World,” as well as a boxed set of the Suzanne Collins “Hunger Games Trilogy” and the flag design for Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets.
Atwood book cover courtesy of Thriftbooks. Hunger Games boxed set photo courtesy of Goodreads. Ecotopia and Brave New World book covers courtesy of Bookshop. Star Trek United Federation of Planets flag by Shisma-Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Utopia

Ernest Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia gets pointed to a lot, as an example of a utopian novel—one set in a supposedly “perfect” society. Published in 1975, it influenced the dawn of the Green movement (so did fact-based books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962). See my 2016 post “How Science Fiction Impacts Environmental Awareness.”

Utopias are harder to find in fiction—especially influential utopias. How do you present an interesting story set in a perfect world? Conflict and problems are the soul of plot. This may be the primary reason the Solarpunk movement has been able to produce inspiring and beautiful visual art, but no “breakout” novel to date.

The background society of the Federation in the Star Trek universe has a utopian nature. But few stories in the franchise take place there. Most are set in a less-utopian corner of the Final Frontier.

When one person’s utopia becomes another’s dystopia in some way, we tend to find more stories. Aldous Huxley took that approach in Brave New World (that society’sinhabitants believed it to be a utopia).

Political and social commentary

Politics in science fiction and speculative fiction is alive and well. And has been, all the way back to the genre’s roots.

Many people consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) to be the “first science fiction novel.” It’s a cautionary tale against technological hubris ( see Victor Frankenstein’s dying admonition to “avoid ambition”).

H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine commented on his contemporary social class system. He employed Darwinian concepts to speculate in an oh, so Victorian way that the upper and lower classes would evolve separately over the millennia into separate sub-species of humans.

Covers for historic books “Frankenstein” and “The Time Machine,” contemporary novels “Ancillary Justice” and “A Memory Called Empire,” and XK9 books “The Other Side of Fear” and “What’s Bred in the Bone.”
Book covers for Frankenstein, The Time Machine, Ancillary Justice, and A Memory Called Empire are courtesy of Bookshop. Covers for the “XK9” novels courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. XK9 cover art is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk and © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

More recent examples

But the sf writers of the past have nothing on today’s works. Nnedi Okorafor, for one example, frequently tackles such topics as racial and gender inequality, environmental destruction, corruption, and genocide through the lens of her fantasy and science fiction.

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice takes a unique approach to gender (for one thing, the “default pronoun” is she, which leads us interesting places). Her long, hard look at what Genevieve Valentine calls “the disconnects of culture” opens more parallels to consider.

Arkady Martine‘s acclaimed debut novel A Memory Called Empire tackles political intrigue (she’s a Byzantine Empire historian), and the multiple facets of colonialism.

Politics in the world of the XK9s

My own science fiction isn’t overtly political. My focus in the XK9 books is trying to tell a good story. But I built Rana Station, the environment where most of the action takes place, on ideas garnered from decades of teaching, studying history, and observing our contemporary society.

What kind of environment would enable all of my students to reach their full potential? If a political and social structure made that its guiding question, how would the resulting society look?

I built the world of Rana Station on ideas I started gathering during my coursework. But I don’t believe in “perfect” worlds. In my next post I’ll go into more depth on how and why I created the system where my fictional characters live.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to all of the following: Jaime Jones, who illustrates the “Murderbot Stories” of Martha Wells, from Tor.com Publishing. Cover images courtesy of Martha Wells. Atwood book cover courtesy of Thriftbooks. Hunger Games boxed set photo courtesy of Goodreads. Ecotopia and Brave New World book covers courtesy of Bookshop. Star Trek United Federation of Planets flag by Shisma-Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0. Book covers for Frankenstein, The Time Machine, Ancillary Justice, and A Memory Called Empire came from Bookshop. Covers for the “XK9” novels courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. XK9 cover art is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk and © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

Choosing one’s path

The Artdog Quote of the Week 

A note to the wise: to all of us, beware what path we choose. For writers: this the ultimate key to a good antagonist. Thanks, Mary!

IMAGE: This is another quote-image that’s been pinned several million times to Pinterest boards. I found this file on–yet again–on the pinboard of Stephanie Girolami-James, this time via the “Horror Quotes” pinboard of Amanda Rios.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén