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Speculating on Big Questions
Speculative fictions—fantasy, science fiction, and horror—are often described first as escapism, a way to run away from this world on an armchair voyage through fantastic landscapes or the reaches of space. It’s true: plenty of quick-reading, thrill-packed books populate the shelves of genre collections, and no apologies are required from those who enjoy light pleasure reading. However, the need to escape reality is probably overestimated as a motive for reading genre fiction.
In fact, much of speculative fiction has always been interested in exploring deep questions, not avoiding them. Science fiction allows us to explore issues of race, class, or the dark side of human nature, as well as the ethical development of technology or our response to environmental collapse and other dire future scenarios. The current popularity of dystopian fiction, especially in YA literature, isn’t just about bloodlust or exploitation of tragedy; it’s motivated by real interest in conditions that threaten our world and a desire to know how people should and would behave under extreme pressure. In this spirit, Great Reads looks at just one of the big questions—What is it to be human?—and finds fantasy and science fiction titles that have something important to say.
Fantasy fiction often uses sentient, intelligent creatures whose rights have been restricted to explore our humanity. Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series, beginning with Ship of Magic (1998) is a fine example. In this trilogy, sailing ships made from wizardwood become sentient if maintained by the same family through generations and are much more valuable than standard craft. But what happens when a sentient ship doesn’t like the ends for which it is used?
Naomi Novik explores similar ground in her Napoleonic-era fantasies, starting with His Majesty’s Dragon (2006). In this popular alternate-history series, dragons are used as living aircraft by the world’s battling nations, but they are also extremely intelligent, sometimes more so than the human riders to whom they loyally bond. One of the central conflicts of the series is the dragon Temeraire’s struggle to pursue his own path and advocate for dragon rights.
N. K. Jemisin takes a different tack in her Inheritance trilogy. The first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010), finds Yeine Darr, a provincial young woman, brought to the capital city of Sky, supposedly to inherit her grandfather’s throne. Instead, she’s thrown into a power struggle with vicious relatives and a set of gods, more powerful than the humans but forced, precariously, to do their will. Yeine will question her own nature, that of the gods, and their relation to each other as this exotic debut thunders to its climax.
Other fantasy novels explore the question of whether the powers of those who can do magic make them more valuable than normal people. This subject is treated on a young-adult level in J. K. Rowling’s popular Harry Potter books, but on a more adult level in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (2009) and The Magician King (2011). In both cases, student magic wielders are severely tempted—and sometimes succumb—to viewing lesser humans as a means to their powerful ends. It’s not a big step for readers to think of this as an allegory about how any specially gifted or privileged human should behave.
Science fiction has a long tradition of examining the differences between humans and our futuristic derivatives: clones, robots, androids, or artificial intelligence. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) appears to be set at a typical English boarding school until the reader realizes that these students are clones, raised specifically for the purpose of donating organs in the future. In this poignant novel, only a few question their fate in a world where some people have entitlements that others don’t.
What will it mean to be human if we gain the means to reload an intact personality into a new body? In Cory Doctorow’s first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003), this is done with software and regular personality “backups.” In John Scalzi’s debut, Old Man’s War (2004), elderly people get new, young athletic bodies. In Drew Magary’s The Postmortal (2011), an aging cure requires government-sponsored grim reapers. All three novels blend humor, action, and philosophy to potent effect.
If your concerns with how to be human focus on not becoming part of the system—a cog in the machine—science fiction can also fill the bill. Nick Harkaway’s postapocalyptic first novel, The Gone-Away World (2008), is heir to the cynical humanism of Catch-22 or the work of Kurt Vonnegut (or, if you are a genre reader, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash by way of Douglas Adams). Add in a Dickensian cast of characters, a gift for entertaining digressions, and a flair for words, and you have a book that’s truly special. Look to other books that get the “punk” moniker frequently—cyberpunk or steampunk—to tap into more of this individualistic streak.
Finally, if you’re the kind of reader who wants to suck straight from the tank of philosophy without diluting it with distractions like atmosphere, plot, and characterization, then science fiction can accommodate that, too. Try Bernard Beckett’s Genesis (2009) about a postapocalyptic oral exam that morphs into something unexpected or Ted Chiang’s novella about artificial intelligence, The Lifecycle of Software Objects (2010).
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