I’ve been reading a lot in the last several months, mostly science fiction and fantasy novels of varying types. All of this has been part of a concerted effort, since I finished my Ph.D. in 2007, to spend time reading for pleasure, something graduate school simply allows no time for. You can find a sampling of my earlier reading successes in this post “Reading is Fun!” from last December. Since then, I’ve absorbed the three books of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars); Charlie Stross’ Iron Sunrise and The Atrocity Archives; Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy (The Way of Shadows, Shadow’s Edge, and Beyond the Shadows); the second book in Brian Ruckley’s Godless World trilogy (Bloodheir); Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon; and A.J. Hartley’s The Mask of Atreus. Additionally, in the non-fiction arena, I’ve finished Jon Meacham’s American Lion (about President Andrew Jackson) and Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air (about the Enlightenment thinker, scientist, and philosopher Joseph Priestly). Of course this doesn’t count the shitload of reading I do for work anyway, nor all my comic book reading.
I can sense, however, that my pleasure reading for the foreseeable future will most likely diminish, as I shift gears back into reading for research. In fact, the most recently finished book, Blue Mars, took me much longer to read than the others. So I thought I would write a bit more about my reading agenda lately before academic drudgery takes over my imagination.
Originally, the rest of this post was to be an epic rant about how I’ve grown tired of “Epic Fantasy,” particularly after reading Week’s Night Angel trilogy, which seemed to start off as a wonderfully gritty street-level fantasy story about assassins, but suddenly morphed into this world-saving epic complete with a holding-hands, “Kum Bay Ya” ending. However, I lost the point of what I was going to say, above and beyond what I just said, so we’ll just skip by that, shall we?
Instead, what I particularly want to talk about right now is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. I have said before, and I will surely say again at some point, that hard science fiction has never been my bag. Asimov, Clarke, and the rest never captured my imagination when I was younger, and although I was pretty good at science in school, it wasn’t something that seized hold of my brain the way reading about history did (and does).
Nevertheless, I have come to enjoy the hard sci-fi works of Stross, Robinson, and the like that I have read lately. Finishing Robinson’s Mars trilogy, in particular, has crystallized for me why. One of the reasons I enjoy fantasy and science fiction is the world-building aspects, the authorial creation motif, if you will. In the Mars trilogy, Robinson has woven a richly textured tapestry of humanity’s social evolution among the stars, grounded in real-world extrapolations (no completely outrageous future tech or anything) and reasoned attention to how human society and culture both shapes and is shaped by the environment. Historians do much the same thing (world-building) when crafting their narratives about the past (the past is another country, or world, in this case), an aspect that has always appealed to me. I can remember as a child building whole imaginary worlds for “novels,” D&D; campaigns, or afternoons of fantasy play in my own head with some rubber bands and a pen. I still do this now, to a certain extent, always thinking, tinkering, probing new ideas for my own fantasy fiction writing (isn’t everyone trying to write a novel?). Hard sci-fi represents an approach to world-building that is largely new to me and has thus become my “fixation” lately. At some point, I’m sure I’ll move on to something else.
Above and beyond this, I have one other random thought about Robinson’s Mars trilogy. When imaging the “Future” ™, why do so many sci-fi authors almost reflexively extrapolate future sexual relations as one big free love orgy? Of course, the society that Robinson creates on Mars has many aspects of utopia to it (de-emphasized patriarchy; demilitarization; heightened attention to environmental and ecological concerns, etc), but why is there always this assumption that sex will become decentered and polyamorous? It’s entirely teleological in approach, and I see it all the time. If I was less charitable, I would chalk it up to the sexual frustrations of nerdy authors writing about hot aliens fucking 200-year-old Martian explorers for shits and giggles. And I’m not being a prude here or anything; I eagerly await our polyphonic love orgy future (uh, hi Andrea, how was your trip this weekend, wife? *sheepish grin*), but I find this assumption that sexual liberation will continue its inexorable forward march toward Whig progress and Fourierian sex phalanxes a gross misreading of history.
So what’s in my future, pleasure-reading-wise? Well, if I can find the time, I hope to start Charlie Stross’ Saturn’s Children; Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind; and, if I’m feeling brave, Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, the first part of the Baroque Cycle. Oh, and Brian Ruckley’s Fall of Thanes is begging me to finish the Godless World trilogy.