In my L-post for this academic alphabet, the one on Language, I noted that I was reading Embassytown, a SciFi book about Language. Did I mention that the author, China Miéville, mentioned Paul Ricoeur in his acknowledgements? No? Well now I have.
In parallel with Embassytown, I was revisiting the universe that Miles Vorkosigan inhabits. As I read and listened to five of the Vorkosigan saga books, I noticed the ways Lois McMaster Bujold uses familiar language to suggest the unfamiliar Not-Quite-Here nature of the Vorkosigan’s universe. Similarly, Miéville also uses familiar language to describe the unfamiliar, and even indescribable nature of the Embassytown’s universe. Both authors talk about similar concepts – the large universe away from the home planets of the point-of-view characters. Bujold uses the adjective “galactic” to describe things that are non-local, and to describe people who have non-local experience. Miéville uses “the out” to indicate everywhere that’s not the planet on which Embassytown is located. Similarly, Bujold uses the concept of wormholes for greater-than-light-speed travel. Miéville uses a concept he calls the immer for the space between local planets and worlds, through which travel is dangerous, and only possible for those who are immersers, who can stay awake for the trip. Miéville’s immersers have brain implants to aid them in navigating the immer; Bujold’s jump pilots have brain implants to aid them in navigating wormholes.
In Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, she also has a trick of using strange language for familiar things to set those things up as different in some way: chrono for watch, comconsole for computer, and so on. This use of strange language for familiar things reminds us that we are not in Kansas any more, but in some completely other place. Miéville’s world is so strange to us that we don’t need this constant reminder. Living walls that can grow ears if needed, biotechnology that is grown on farms, where farms are also living things, all these are constant reminders that the familiar words he uses actually represent completely unfamiliar things.
World building, that essential trick of authors, means using language very well. It may mean making words up. It may mean re-purposing familiar words for unfamiliar things. The trick is to do it well. Bujold and Miéville are masters of this art.
Karen Swallow Prior recently wrote an article called “Classic literary works to challenge the thinking Christian” in which she lists 12 + 1 (a baker’s dozen) works she recommends because they are challenging but rewarding, and all have helped her “to love the Lord my God with all my soul, all my strength, and all my mind—and to be a better steward of this world in which God has placed us.”
It is a good list. I’ve nothing against Prior’s list. So far I’ve read 2 of her 13, and have at least three others on my shelf. I agree that the list is challenging. I started one of the books she lists, and was not able to go on after about a page. I’ve not had the courage to try again, though everyone raves about Beloved. (Does this count as a true confession? Probably.) Though Prior’s list is good, it isn’t my list. So I’ve come up with a list of my own, not to replace hers, and not with exactly the same criteria. I made a list of books, works of fiction, that have in some way shaped my spiritual life and thinking. Often a particular author has been a spiritual guide in many works, but I have only chosen one work by any author.
Disclaimer: These are all works of fiction, and I don’t think any of them is classified as “Christian Fiction” anywhere. Some come closer to actually being that than others. Just because a novel is on Prior’s list, or on my list, you shouldn’t think it is “safe” or happy-clappy or filled with people going to church. These books gave me some kind of positive spiritual insight, but they are not in the least preachy.
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve set this as an option for an intro to the OT class I taught. I have enjoyed students’ thoughts on this as well, and learned from them.
- John Wyndham, The Chrysalids. I’ve also set this for that OT intro class. This has some striking ideas about what it means to be created Imago Dei.
- P.D. James, The Children of Men. You may notice a speculative/science fiction bent to this list so far. Yes, that is true. Sometimes by writing about worlds askew somehow from reality, writers are better able to comment on lived reality.
- Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion. And a fantasy novel?? Yes. See above remark. Also see the works of C.S. Lewis, who I have not included on this list anywhere.
- Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana. More fantasy. Don’t worry, I’ll turn to more “serious” fiction next. If, however, you think that the speculative/science fiction and/or fantasy is less serious than other kinds of fiction, I refer you again to that guy Lewis.
- John Grisham, The Last Juror. Yes, this could be classified as genre fiction of a certain kind (Thriller? Mystery?). Grisham is, however, a good story-teller, and his stories can pack a punch. You don’t need to go to the classics for the possibility of life-change.
- Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection. At last! A canonical writer! Bet you’ve never heard of this Tolstoy though. You should check it out. It is his last novel.
- Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. More solid recognized fiction, even recognized as Christian. I read Resurrection and The Power and the Glory this year. The timing was good for me on both of them. If you don’t find them appealing now, try again some other time.
- Susan Howatch, Mystical Paths. Again, Howatch’s Church of England series is pretty churchy, but not in a conventional way. I picked this one out of all of them because it was the one that resonated with me most when I read it.
- Chaim Potok, In the Beginning. All of Potok’s books belong on this list, as with Howatch above. Let’s just leave it there. With Potok we end the obviously religious books.
- Emma Donoghue, Room. This is a life-altering book. I’ve heard lots of people say so. I don’t think anyone who says that has exactly the same experience reading the book. You should try it.
- A.S. Byatt, Possession. I debated putting this book on this list. It could also be on a list of books that have influenced my personal life, or resonated with me personally/emotionally/intellectually. It does all those things, but it also has spiritual resonance.
And now the plus one for the baker’s dozen. Ready for it?
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I’ll just leave it there for you to ponder.
What about you? Books that have influenced your spiritual life in some way?
Filed under fiction, lists
I list these eight in addition to the six-that-stick other-worldly books I wrote about the other day. These are in no particular order, but are clustered as indicated by the subtitles.
Books other people recommended to me that I was pretty skeptical about:
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The Norwegian gave this book to me. I was pretty skeptical. How interesting can a book about a tiger and a boy in a boat be? If this is what you think, think again. It is really good. Try it and see.
- The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Again, this is the Norwegian’s fault. I should just stop being skeptical of books she gives me and read them. This book won the Booker Prize in 1997. I don’t think the Booker is infallible (there are a couple of Booker-winners that I thought were duds) but I’ve usually enjoyed the winners. This one kept me glued to the pages, plus the writing is beautiful.
- Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. 1Mom recommended this one to me. I was slightly skeptical because of the title. But I thought I’d give it a try. I usually like the books 1Mom recommends, though we don’t always see eye-to-eye on every book. (Her theory is that this is timing. Sometimes a book comes to you at the right time. I think there’s more to it than that, but agree that timing is important.) This book blew me away for a variety of reasons, not least that it is a window on worlds I didn’t know existed.
Books other people recommended to me, no skepticism to overcome:
- Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. One of my math students recommended this to me. “You are religious, right? And you like computers? You would like this book.” Who can resist this recommendation?
- Room by Emma Donoghue. This was the first book 1Mom lent me. I read it pretty much in one sitting. It blew me away. Look for the resurrection in it.
Books I read because of the author, but were better than I expected:
- Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. Link this to Cutting for Stone because of the twins if you must, but this is something else entirely. Surreal. Haunting. Mind-blowing. All of these things. Fair warning: it is not The Time-Traveler’s Wife in any way, they just happen to share an author.
- Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams. I expected a nice little scifi adventure and got my mind blown. Kaboom! You should read it even if you don’t like science fiction. It is philosophical. Yes, yes it is. Mind-blowingly philosophical.
- My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Potok’s book stick in my head in general, but this one sticks out more than the others. I’m not sure exactly why that is. Some of it is the art discussion I think.
So there are my 8 books that blew my mind. Which books blow your mind?
Follow-up from the number 7:
Many of you have read my previous post about books I’m not interested in reading — in fact the post has turned out to be the most popular post I’ve published in some time, with over two hundred hits in the last couple of days. I’ve enjoyed the feedback, both in comments on the blog and on fb. I’m not actually sure that I’m open to reconsidering some of the books on that list (as the Constant Reader astutely pointed out on fb), but I’m thinking about some of them in a different way now that you have spoken. Keep speaking! Who knows what will happen.
Filed under fiction, lists
Today I’m going to talk about other-worldly books, six that stuck in my head. This group of books is not clearly Science Fiction, or clearly Speculative Fiction. One is a Fantasy more than anything else. I’ve put them together because they are all set somewhere Other. Plus they all stick in my head. Books that make you think, that you remember for a long time, these are the ones that are good, not your every-day run-of-the-mill stuff. I won’t argue that these books are great, but I will say they are all worth reading. These are in no particular order.
- Children of Men by P.D. James. This is not a mystery novel, it is speculative fiction. I’ve just finished listening to the audio book version for a different spin on it. I want to assign this book for a children’s ministry course in seminary. This evening, I began comparing it in my head with The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. James and Atwood are onto some similar themes I think, but they work them out quite differently. Things that make you go hmmm.
- Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. So good. Kay’s best in my humble opinion. The Constant Reader thinks so too. This is the Fantasy book. Kay writes Historical Fantasy, in which his fantastic worlds bear some resemblance to some aspect of world history. This one is sort of Italian.
- A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright. A twist on time travel, with apocalyptic overtones. It references The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, which I’ve not yet read. I should get on that. One thing I remember about Wright’s book is that Harry becomes king and we never find out what happened to William. (This was written before George was born.) Henry IX is a very remote and background figure in the book, but it was an interesting future what-if detail, part of a well-imagined world.
- The Moon is A Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. Moon colonies and sentient machines, plus a lot of political manoeuvring, what else could you want in a SciFi book? I liked this one on audio quite a lot because the guy who read it performed the voices so well. (To be fair, others found the voices irritating.) The sentient computer is a key character in the book, which is part of what makes the whole thing interesting to me. Plus Heinlein managed to imagine a moon colony with its own evolving cultural mores.
- Red Thunder by John Varley. Part of the reason this one sticks in my head is the the giant engineering hack that is the centre of the plot. Home-built spaceship anyone? Oh yeah. Plus there’s a fake crocodile in a pool, and the space coast setting in Florida, what more could you want?
- Beggers in Spain by Nancy Kress. I read this one first a long time ago. It was recommended to me by a fellow physics teacher. This is speculative fiction that imagines what happens when people are genetically modified so they don’t need sleep. The Sleepless have 8 more hours every day than the rest of us. Think on that.
Any Other Worlds that stick in your head?
Numbers can be irrational. Euler’s number, e, is between 2 and 3, so in my numerical sequence, e comes next.
If you clicked on the link above, you were reminded that e=1+1/1!+1/2!+1/3!+1/4!+… This is very exciting. Look at all those excited numbers! You also may wish to recall that when a number gets excited it multiplies like this: 4!=4x3x2x1. Numbers in excited states often work well into probability theory as well as calculating Euler’s number.
How on earth does the irrational number e (approximately 2.718281828459045…) connect with books? I’m glad you asked. Initially I also had a hard time with this question. I’ve decided that the book that I’ll talk about that I’ve read that has the most to do with e is Anathem by Neal Stephenson. I’ve mentioned Anathem before, but a quick review of my posts indicates that I’ve not really discussed the book at any length. Let me remedy that situation.
I think that Anathem is Neal Stephenson’s best work to date. He is a pretty good writer in my books, so this is saying something. The book is set in a place that is like Earth, but not quite. The action takes place in an enclosed area called a “Math” which is something like a monastery. The main character is called Erasmas, and he lives in a ten-year Math — which means the math only opens its doors for a week every ten years. The book begins just before the open week after Erasmus’s first ten years inside. Within the week, everything starts to change. Along with the math references, the book involves fun with Quantum Physics and the multi-verse. Don’t worry if you aren’t a math/physics geek, this is also a good story.
(There are also books about Euler, the guy who the number is named for. He is pretty interesting. I’ve just not read a biography yet.)
Of course, you knew that — this whole alphabet is about women writers. Which Woman? you may well ask. Well, let me tell you.
is for Willis, Connie Willis.
Who? Yes, that’s the point! A woman who you haven’t heard much about. Ok, some of you out there know perfectly well who Connie Willis is, but I bet its only a few. The Constant Reader, the Norwegian, and — I’m not sure if there’s anyone else. Oh maybe the Vicar’s Wife out there in Alberta.
Connie Willis writes great time travel books and other speculative fiction. I particularly recommend To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Doomsday Book. Because the books are time travel, they are not your normal science fiction — yet the time travellers start in the future, but not any future I’ve imagined. I’m not sure what disaster occurred to make Willis’s Oxford the way it is, but that is part of the fun — looking for clues and thinking about what happened between now and that imagined future.
This is also a reminder of International Women’s Day! Why do you think I waited to write my W entry? Happy IWD and happy time change.
K is slightly skewed, a little off balance, leaning to one side, a bit of a kook really. Sitting in the middle of the alphabet, who can blame K really. Today, the letter
is for Kress. Nancy Kress writes Science Fiction. I don’t care if you don’t like SciFi as a rule — you should at least check out Beggars in Spain. I read this short novel (possibly a novella, but who can tell really) at the recommendation of a colleague back in the day when I taught High School. It sticks in your head. Here I am mumblemumble years later and I’m still thinking about it. Basic premise: there are people who have no need to sleep through genetic modification. What would you do with eight hours more every day?
Kress wrote a couple of follow-up novels to Beggars in Spain. She’s also written loads of other stuff that I’ve heard is good. I’ve not read it as she is not the easiest author to find in bookshops and libraries. Beggars in Spain, though, that you should find. Very Interesting.
In the spirit of the season of list making (Santa makes them, why shouldn’ t the rest of us?), three more lists that I found while lurking on the internet.
- Buzzfeed’s 14 greatest Science Fiction of 2013. Nice covers. Also Margaret Atwood is on the list along with Lois McMaster Bujold. I like both of those authors! Maybe I should try some of the others too. The one about the North Road looks interesting. You read any of these? Got any others to add?
- BookRiot’s Best of 2013 from different people. There are a lot of people contributing to this list, so it is long. Keep scrolling. Where else will you find Margaret Atwood, Chris Hadfield, and Alister McGrath on the same end-of-year list? Seriously. Keep scrolling.
- Finally, not limited to 2013, the ten best mysteries ever, as chosen by Thomas H. Cook. I’d never heard of Cook before reading this list. I’m intrigued by the list though. It may influence my reading in 2014. What are the ten best mysteries you’ve ever read? I’m appalled that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie is not on Cook’s list. And I’m not sure that I’d classify The Quiet American as a mystery, though it does have mysterious elements. Check out Cook’s list. Make your own opinion.
Hey the week is more than half over! And it is only two weeks to Christmas.
Loads of people talk about why on earth we should read fiction and not feel it to be a waste of time. Neil Gaiman recently claimed that our future depends on reading imaginative fiction. I found a particularly interesting tidbit about science fiction in the middle of the text of this speech. Here it is:
I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?
It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.
Read Science Fiction. It is good for you. Also other kinds of fiction are good for you, but the Chinese government especially recommends Science Fiction.
The other day I asked my fb friends these questions: What is your preferred genre of books? Why do you like that genre? What is your favourite example of the genre?
I was rather surprised that fantasy came back as the number one answer. I knew some of my fb friends were fantasy readers, but was interested at how many people came back with that as their number one. Some people blended sci fi with fantasy (I don’t, reasons previously posted) and some people had sci fi coming a close second to fantasy. One person said mysteries were a guilty pleasure. I’m not sure why my dog-loving friend finds mysteries a guilty pleasure unless she has murdered someone?
While Fantasy was the overwhelming winner of my completely unscientific online poll, there were other genres mentioned — survival stories (non-fiction), travel, biography/memoir, and historical fiction.
Me? I am having a hard time with the question. I am prone to purchase/borrow and read mysteries by the ton because these have a predictable shape that I enjoy, and they make good brain candy reads. I am much more inclined to try a new mystery author than a new sci-fi or fantasy author without recommendation. BUT I do like sci-fi a lot. And I do like fantasy a lot. Those kinds of books tend to stick in my mind longer than formulaic mysteries. I am more likely to be completely blown away by a sci-fi or fantasy work than by a mystery novel. So what is my favourite genre? It depends what I’m looking for.
Some favourite examples of the genres I like? All these are 21st Century books, and they are pretty sweet examples of things that I like in each genre.
Mystery, Val McDermid, Killing the Shadows
Fantasy, Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion
Sci-Fi, Walter Jon Williams, Implied Spaces