Staff Picks of the Month: Escapism

| June 21, 2016

IMG_2085When my turn to do the Staff Picks of the Month came around, I knew right away what I wanted to focus on: speculative fiction. Or do we call it genre fiction? Sci-Fi/Fantasy? Weird-books-where-sometimes-there’s-magic-and-sometimes-there’s-robots-and-sometimes-both-oh-my-god-how-do-we-define-all-of-this? The books featured in this collection belong to a form of storytelling that is often incredibly difficult to pin down with a title. It’s hard to define a genre that has so many variations. Editor John Joseph Adams gives it a go in his forward to “The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2015”, proposing the following definition:

SF/F–which is sometimes referred to by the larger umbrella term “speculative fiction”–essentially comprises stories that start by asking the question What if…? What if one of the fundamental operating principles of the universe didn’t work the way we actually think it does? What if technology existed that enabled you to upload your consciousness to a computer? What if the creatures from our myths and legends actually existed?

It’s not a perfect definition, but in a short blog post I think it’s as good as it’s going to get. That “what if” is essentially what draws me to this type of literature. I’m familiar with the every day. Sometimes it’s boring, and sometimes it’s incredibly exciting, but it ultimately functions based on a set of principles that are known quantities. What speculative fiction does is take those known quantities and throws in a monkey wrench to muck them up. Everything that happens in a piece of speculative literature is still driven by a set of principles, but they’re a set of principles the audience is not familiar with. They are forced to reckon with them, make sense of them, and understand them in order to comprehend the story. As a reader, that’s as exciting as the story itself.

Some frown upon speculative fiction, especially in the world of academia, and dismiss it as “just escapism” (code for : not real literature). However, I don’t think that “escapism” should be a bad word when we discuss and consume fiction. It’s something we should embrace, because it in no way means we, the readers, are escaping into a lesser place. Instead, we just escape into a different place, and it is amongst those differences in reality and function that we find stories that ultimately reflect ourselves. Ourselves, that is, plus more robots.

Here is a complete list of the books in the collection, accompanied by the first line of each piece.

Fiction:

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
PS3603 .L548 R43 2012

Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard about the contest. I was sitting in my hideout watching cartoons when the news bulletin broke in on my video feed, announcing that James Halliday had died during the night.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
PS3601. N428 A79 2016

When Patricia was six years old, she found a wounded bird. The sparrow thrashed on top of a pile of wet leaves in the crook of two roots, waving its crushed wing. Crying, in a pitch almost too high for Patricia to hear.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
PR6057.A319 O28 2013

It was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm. It wasn’t very big.

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
PR6103 .A72 G57 2014

Her name is Melanie. It means “the black girl”, from an ancient Greek word, but her skin is actually fair so she thinks maybe it’s not such a good name for her. She likes the name Pandora a whole lot, but you don’t get to choose.

Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley
PN6733 .O43 S43 2014

She woke up, and there was a glow.

Dodger by Terry Pratchett
PZ7 .P8865 Dod 2012

In which we meet our hero and the hero meets an orphan of the storm and comes face to face with Mister Charlie, a gentleman known as a bit of a scribbler.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
PZ7 .B132185 Sh 2010

Nailer clambered through a service duct, tugging at copper wire and yanking it free. Ancient asbestos fibers and mouse grit puffed up around him as the wire tore loose.

The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Regan Barnhill
PZ7 .B26663 Wit 2014 c.2

Once upon a time there were two brothers, as alike to one another as you are to your own reflection. They had the same eyes, the same hands, the same voice, the same insatiable curiosity.

Summerland by Michael Chabon
PZ7 .C3315 Su 2002

Ethan said, ‘I hate baseball.’ He said it as the followed his father out of the house in his uniform and spikes. His jersey read ROOSTERS in curvy red script. On the back it said RUTH’S FLUFF ‘N’ FOLD.

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
PZ7 .L66278 Pre 2008

All of this happened because a boy I once knew named Miles Sperry decided to go into the resurrectionist business and dig up the grave of his girlfriend, Bethany Baldwin, who had been dead for not quite a year.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
PS3619 .T53548 R38 2012

Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
PS3618 .O8755F36 2013

There was a boy in her room.

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan
PZ7 .T16123 Tal 2009

When I was a kid, there was a big water buffalo living in the vacant lot at the end of our street, the one with the grass no one ever mowed. He slept most of the time, and ignored everybody who walked past, unless we happened to stop and ask him for advice.

A Day with Wilbur Robinson by William Joyce
PZ7 .J857 Day 1990

I was going to spend a day at Wilbur Robinson’s house. Wilbur is my best friend. His house is the greatest place to visit.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
PR6052 .E27 D37 2012

Thud, thud, thud. Old Roger was banging a stick on our group log to get us up and out of our shelters. ‘Wake up, you lazy newhairs. If you don’t hurry up, the dip will be over before we even get there, and all the bucks will have gone back up Dark!’

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
PZ7 .D66237 Lit 2008

I’m a senior at Cesar Chavez High in San Fransisco’s sunny Mission district, and that makes me one of the most surveilled people in the world.

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
PS3603 .I4342 A6124 2007

A month before his deadline, Eddie Carroll ripped open a manila envelope, and a magazine called The True North Literary Review slipped out into his hands. Carroll was used to getting magazines in the mail, although most of them had titles like Cemetery Dance and specialized in horror fiction.

Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman: Trinity by Matt Wagner
PN6728 .B36 W354 2016

Planet! Daily Planet! Superman on Page One! Daily Planet!

Non-Fiction:*

The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction by Ursula K. LeGuin
PN3435 .L4

So: why are Americans afraid of dragons?

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
BL313.C28 1968

Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will be always the one, shapeshifting yet marvelously constant story that we find.

Grokking the Future: Science Fiction in the Classroom by Bernard C. Hollister and Deane C. Thompson
PN3448.345 H6

Ideally, we would like to help our students, in Robert Heinlein’s term, to “grok” the future– to grasp it with all their senses and all their being. We can’t take them via time machine to tomorrow, but we can offer alternatives, through SF, for grokking the future.

The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy ed. by Leonard Marcus
PS374.F27 W36 2006

This might surprise you: until quite recently, fantasy writers were an outcast bunch whose work was rarely prized or rewarded. More often than not, fantasy writers of the past had to defend themselves before a doubting world, to explain why it could possibly make sense for grown persons to spend years creating stories about impossible wizards, witches, dragons, and trolls.

*I admit to cheating a little here, the first line of non-fiction doesn’t always have the same punch as the first line of fiction, so I looked for a particularly good line in the book’s opening.