Which Writers Are Asking The Hard Questions Today?
As I move from summer to winter, I tend to switch from lighter, fun reads to deeper, more complex reads. I don’t know if I am simply echoing Hollywood’s transition from summer blockbuster action movies to Oscar-worthy dramas. Or perhaps after consuming a steady diet of “candy” books, I need something a bit more substantial, something “good for me.”
But let me say right up front that there is nothing wrong with action movies and beach reads. I don’t think entertainment should be disparaged or looked down upon simply because it’s fun. Everyone deserves to have a little fun in his or her lives. It’s just that sometimes I want my entertainment to be a bit more serious.
So what do I mean when I say, “deeper, more complex”? Specifically, I mean books that ask difficult questions, or books that challenge a reader’s preconceived notions. Recall my August article, in which I quoted a Myke Cole interview from mythicscribes.com. Cole said one of the benefits of writing SF/F was that he could present difficult issues without immediately triggering a reader’s biases. That’s what I’m looking for: genre fiction that can slip past my defenses and get me to confront issues in a new and surprising way or that will test and tweak my assumptions.
(And, by the way, if you haven’t picked up Cole’s CONTROL POINT, do so. I think it does a great job of straddling the line between fun and complex. And the sequel, FORTRESS FRONTIER is coming out in a few months.)
These sorts of books tend to stick with me. I wrestle with the ideas, turning them over, and attacking them from various angles. I can’t escape the orbit of these books, so I return to them. It is no surprise then that these books tend to reward re-reading because I pick up more information and tease out more subtleties with each read through.
And, in my opinion, authors who write these books become the greats of the SF/F world. For example, Philip K. Dick presented a number of stories that questioned the nature of reality and our perception of it, what it means to be human, and the effects of drugs and madness. Ursula K. LeGuin explored the rules of society, gender, race, politics, and sexuality. Fantasy-Faction’s own Paul Wiseall recently interviewed Iain M. Banks (Part 1, Part 2), whose Culture works explore the effects of war, the imposition of one society’s values on another, and anarchic societies. And lastly, there is Gene Wolfe, the author who first comes to my mind when I think of works that reward re-reading. More important than his use of religious or mythic imagery, I think Wolfe challenges readers to work as they read and re-read because of his dense, subtle, and complex use of language combined with unreliable narrators.
But what if you are looking for something new? Who are the authors asking deep, complex questions today? Who are the younger authors getting readers to confront difficult ideas or challenge their pre-conceived notions? Here are four.
Bacigalupi discusses bioengineering, post-fossil-fuel worlds, genetically modified organisms, climate change, and how humanity adapts to these changes in The Windup Girl, Ship Breaker, The Drowned Cities, and his short stories collected in Pump Six and Other Stories.
Mieville’s works, such as Perdido Street Station, The City & The City, Kraken, Embassytown, and Railsea; cross genres, but he describes them all as “new weird.” His stories often contain colorful monsters, complex and surreal scenarios, and elements of Mieville’s left-wing politics are sprinkled throughout. You can see China Mieville spotlighted here on Fantasy-Faction.
Catherynne M. Valente
Valente’s books, which include Palimpsest, Deathless, her Prester John series, and her Fairyland series; reinterpret and experiment with folklore and myths. She also often explores love, religion, feminism, and sexuality in her works. Additionally, Valente is an accomplished poet, so her works often contain beautiful lyricism.
N. K. Jemisin
Jemisin’s works, including The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (book one of The Inheritance Trilogy) and The Killing Moon (book one of The Dreamblood series), explore cultural conflict, oppression, discrimination, and even socialized medicine.
Are Bacigalupi, Mieville, Valente, and Jemisin destined to join the ranks of the greatest SF/F writers of all time? Only time will tell. But the number of award nominations and wins these authors have amassed should give you a hint of their talent. Regardless, I think incorporating complex issues into the SF/F genres and exposing readers to new ideas is always a good thing, particularly when the writing is top notch.
So this winter, maybe the stress of the holidays and visiting family will have you begging for a something lighter. As for me, I’ll be curled up under a warm blanket, sipping on a glass of something, and pouring over a great book that forces me to slow down, take my time, and maybe learn something in the process.
And of course, I’m sure I forgot many young authors who can stand shoulder to shoulder with Bacigalupi, Mieville, Valente, and Jemisin (and I probably forgot some older masters as well). I can practically feel you wanting to scream at me through the internet. Please post those authors below. Help me and other readers find a new favorite author.