Everyone knows reading a book is good for you – Lifehacker says so and it’s never wrong: a larger vocabulary, better grammar, stress reduction, increased general knowledge… their list goes on. We could all use those things in our busy modern lives. And reading also gives us an escape from our own dreary existences when we need them the most. A rainy day with nothing exciting on the horizon? I can dive into my favorite books and be riding a dragon or conversing with a super-intelligent AI (or both if you go with the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey) before lunchtime! But that’s not all!
Reading has an enormous capacity to expose us to points of view we may never have considered before, or even knew existed. Your perspective is suddenly limited only by the scope of imagination your favorite author brings to their books. In a world where isolationism and fear of regular people (stranger danger ZOMG), plus growing anxiety over AI, climate change and the sustainability of economic systems built on exploitation may have us all metaphorically covering our eyes and ears, a change in perspective can help. What better way to consider some of the huge questions of sentient existence?
So here are three main books, plus four runners up, that look at some keystones of who we are now from another angle.
Forget your ideas of Sex, Gender and Love
The Left Hand of Darkness is a sci-fi classic for a good reason – the narrative in this book is amazing. LeGuin had a knack for surreal description and tone that fills every page with atmosphere. This book may give you a whole new idea of what relationships can (and should?) be. The entire plot revolves around a dignitary visiting a planet of related but very different humanoids. While the dignitary’s own people are born as one sex or another, the planet he visits is populated by a people whose sexes aren’t fixed. Once a month, each person becomes either male or female and can participate in sex or not (an event referred to as “kemmer”), after which they revert to their ambisexuality.
For our dignitary, this is a HUGE difference and it forces him to consider exactly how much sex and gender define a person on his world, and how sexuality often defines personal relationships. As he grows closer to his escort, he comes up against his own assumptions time and again. And as a reader, you may too. So if you’ve ever wondered about exactly how much of human interaction is is based on obvious sex traits (breasts, beards, etc), try this.
Runner Up: The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper – Here you’ll find a post-apocalyptic society that has literally split men and women apart from early youth onward (for the most part). Men act as honored warriors, with few responsibilities beyond being prepared to defend their city. Women act as the community planners and managers, overseeing the daily work that keeps everyone fed, clothed and sheltered. Men and women only freely mix on festival days, so when a young girl falls in love with a boy and he invites her to run away with him… You’ll have to see! A great look at how strict gender rules can influence a society, and what happens when some people are aware of it.
Technology: Entertainment or Salvation?
Modern thinking seems to be that technology will simply make all our problems go away, eventually. I loved Kelly Robson’s Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach because it approached what we ACTUALLY do with innovative technologies: turn them into marketable entertainment, sometimes at the expense of less-glamorous-but-more-helpful applications. This is apparent in the book as we follow a small group of ecological restoration experts in the near-future trying to get enough funding to save the world.
Our protagonist and her team research ways of restoring living ecosystems to the surface of the planet humans have destroyed, while humanity barely survives in buried cities trying desperately to distract itself. A newly invented time-travel technology will give them access to original ecosystems in the past to study, but costs and the potential for damage to the timeline dictate that only a few can be sent at a time. So the researchers must compete for access with each other as well as (paying) time-tourists. And they must not disrupt local populations of people or animals to boot. Conflicting loyalties and priorities make it treacherous.
This is a great perspective on modern academia and the financial pressures and social apathy that leave true innovation slaved to childish fancy and whim.
Runner Up: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – While the book has a LOT of things to say, the most hilarious bit is how the godlike level of technology out in the universe does not eventually save Earth, or even put Arthur Dent somewhere nice and comfortable. The message is simple; as technology expands its powers, so too do living beings expand their ability to do stupid stuff with it. The next iPhone won’t actually make you a better person or get your life back on track – sorry guys, big let down, I know.
Societal Perfection and Individual Happiness
Huxley’s Brave New World gets listed as a dystopia a lot. It’s the kind of future many of us fear; a drug-infused, morally-bankrupt morass of consumerism and inequality. But is it? After all, the people of the world are in the most part happy – because they’re designed and conditioned to fit their role and world from conception. Only outsiders such as those on the “reservations” and high-performing malcontents living on an independent island exist outside this world order. And when a half-reserve boy comes into this perfect society for the first time, he threatens the stability of everyone through his own angst and misery.
This book was written in the 1930’s, a time when utopian fiction was spreading like wildfire. Huxley seemed to want to give that regime a little poke – what’s the darker side of utopian society? Are the things that make life worth living diametrically opposed to the things that make a society stable? Can you have happiness without one or the other? Are individuals more important than the whole, is the whole more important, and how the hell do you reach a balance? Religion? Somatic suggestion? Genetic engineering?
If you step outside the “this place is evil!” mindset and really consider WHY Brave New World makes many people so uncomfortable, you’ll gain a little insight into how your own value systems work. Really realizing they’re not the same for everyone can be a bit of a shock.
Runner up: Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds OR The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuin. Both these books approach ways in which societies can achieve some kind of perfection through rather more usual means, yet do so well enough to make you think a bit about it.
Reynold’s book looks at how technology may give us the ability to honesty participate in a true democracy – everyone has a neural implant and all social decisions are relayed to every single person for a vote. Yep, citizens vote on EVERYTHING. But, being linked together through such a system means if anything compromises the network, everyone is at risk.
LeGuin uses her brilliant world and character building to show us a moon inhabited by anarchists who left the mother planet to live lives of their own choice, outside social classes and laws. One scientist risks himself to return to the mother planet in the hopes of sharing science and culture, to create a bridge of understanding between the two again. But mathematics and good intentions aren’t always enough to topple tradition or greed. Can two very different people really coexist side-by-side?