I’ve made some progress in my reading list in the past two months, both from my reading resolutions and my Black History Month list, so I thought I’d check in and give an update on a few of the books I’ve finished.
First, I did finish Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds right around the end of the year. It was on my Reading Resolutions list for 2016 and I wrapped it up shortly after my year-end reflection. The book didn’t always feel totally cohesive since it’s collected works from many different sources. In particular, there are introductions and reviews of science fiction by other writers that seem like they should be followed by the book itself, but these introductions have been excised from their proper places.
For the most part, though, it’s an excellent collection of essays, even with those introductions to books I’ll now need to go look up separately. I found the chapter “Dire Cartographies: The Roads to Ustopia” particularly fascinating. Atwood coins the term “ustopia” as a mix of utopia and dystopia. Today, it seems like we’ve got dystopian stories all the time, though there was a time when utopias were all the rage. Atwood argues, though, that these two are linked more closely than we usually think: every dystopia implies the world that should be, the one that the characters long for. And every utopia is built by removing undesirables … but where do those undesirables go? Even if they’re not directly addressed, wherever they are, it’s probably not a wonderful life.
In one chapter, she digs into the mad scientist trope, and explores where the idea came from. Why do we have this image of the wild-haired, lab-coated scientist who takes things too far, whose scientific capacity outpaces his ability to reason? She proposes that the B-movie mad scientists trace their lineage back to the scientists of the Grand Academy of Lagado from Gulliver’s Travels. Apparently many versions of the book leave out Part Three, where the Grand Academy appears—at any rate, it made me want to go back and re-read Gulliver’s Travels.
The chapter that stuck with me the most, however, was her essay about George Orwell. She writes about discovering Animal Farm as a child and reading it, not knowing that it was “inappropriate” for her age and missing a lot of the politics. Despite that, though, it taught her a lot of the warning signs that lead from “an idealistic movement of liberation toward a totalitarian dictatorship,” and then 1984 depicted life under such a regime. Writing just a couple years after the 9/11 attacks, she compared our situation to the dystopia of 1984 and the false paradise of Brave New World, and suggested that somehow we had achieved both.
It’s a fascinating book and one that has inspired me to add a few of Atwood’s other books to my reading list.
I’d read the first two books in this trilogy in 2016, and wrapped up the trilogy at the beginning of this month. First off: wow. These three books are hefty and contain multitudes, spanning centuries in Earth’s timeline. It’s basically a first-contact story: it’s about what happens to Earth after establishing communication with a distant alien civilization known as the Trisolarans. But Cixin Liu really uses that prompt to examine human nature, and we see humanity at its best and at its worst.
I really enjoyed the whole trilogy and stayed up late many nights because I got sucked into the story. I felt Liu did a good job creating a story that was about all of human society while still giving us some specific characters to follow throughout the story. Because of hibernation technology, he was also able to carry some characters through big leaps forward in time—it served both to connect the past with present and also give us a character from closer to our own timeline that we could relate to, since there were sometimes enormous cultural shifts. Our minds aren’t used to thinking on such a large scale—the distances, time, population dealt with in the book are often too much to easily grasp, so it helps to have some specific people to pin our attention on.
It’s hard to say more without giving spoilers, though, so if you want to avoid those, just jump ahead to the next book below.
One of the fascinating parts of this trilogy is that, for the vast majority of the story, the humans don’t actually have face-to-face contact with the Trisolarans. There is a form of communication, because the Trisolarans have managed to send some “sophons”—sort of intelligent particles—that allow instantaneous communication with Earth, but the aliens themselves are still several light-years away. Still, just the confirmation that another intelligent species actually exists is enough to cause tremendous disruptions in society, and Liu explores the varied reactions: some welcome our new Trisolaran overlords; some feel that the Trisolarans are a threat. When it is revealed that a large fleet is headed to Earth, there are those who want to build up forces to fight and those who want to flee.
Still, because it will take centuries for the fleet to arrive, it’s hard to maintain those levels of anxiety indefinitely. The world falls into crisis, and then a century later things seem to have stabilized, in time for a new crisis to raise its head. The title of The Dark Forest comes from a theory of the universe that one of the characters eventually pieces together: that the universe is like a dark forest filled with hunters. If you see light—evidence of another intelligent being—either that light is a threat to you, or it could become a threat given enough time. So everyone remains hidden, and those with sufficient technology wipe out any system that appears to harbor intelligent life. Earth had simply been incredibly lucky so far that nobody besides the Trisolarans had received any of their signals. That “dark forest” theory is played out in a brilliant plan to deter the Trisolarans from coming to Earth.
The timeline of Death’s End has overlaps with the previous books, but eventually carries us far into the future, and we get to see human civilization at several different stages, as its relationship with the Trisolarans shifts and changes a few times. One of my favorite sections is one in which a character tells a series of fairy tales in which he has hidden scientific messages for Earth. The fairy tales themselves are intriguing just as stories, but I loved the way that Liu had nested meanings and metaphors in them, and then gradually revealed the correct interpretations as people muddled their way through them.
The trilogy is an amazing feat of world-building and an exploration of human nature. While there are some characters that feel a little one-sided, I really enjoyed it and felt that Liu’s perspective was foreign to me and quite thought-provoking.
I had already read the first two books in John Lewis’ award-winning comic book account of the Civil Rights Movement, but before reading Book Three I sat down and re-read them. I found it to be a really moving, challenging, and heart-breaking experience.
In case you aren’t already familiar with the books, they’re written by U.S. Representative John Lewis, who was deeply and personally involved in the fight for desegregation. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and helped organize the March on Washington, among other things. Lewis and his Congressional Aide Andrew Aydin worked with comic book artist Nate Powell to create this trilogy shows the Civil Rights Movement from Lewis’ perspective, interspersed with scenes from Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 as Lewis prepares for the ceremony and chats with a few people or reminisces about his own journey.
While many of us know the broad strokes and major characters because we learned them in school—we know about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the March on Washington, Selma, the image of black kids finally attending a desegregated school surrounded by soldiers—these books fill in a lot of the details. It reminds us of people, both blacks and their allies, who were beaten, arrested, and killed for daring to ask for equal rights. It digs into the political maneuvering and behind-the-scenes debates.
One of the things that really struck me in particular was the training that the SNCC did before any sort of protest or sit-in. They took nonviolent resistance very seriously, and took turns being the aggressor to see how far somebody could be pushed before they lashed out—because if anyone did lash out, they were not allowed to participate in these protests. They stressed that it was important to love their enemies and see their humanity, even while they were being dehumanized by these attackers. Not everyone agreed, of course—Malcolm X wasn’t interested in giving his life for the cause without taking somebody down with him—but Lewis was set on those principles.
The book doesn’t sugar-coat things—it doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence and the language—so it can be quite difficult to read, and I think it warrants discussion with your kids before they read it. But despite the violence and language, I think it is an important book for kids to read, because it is such a significant event in America’s history—we publicly celebrate the triumph but often gloss over the shameful parts. As a nation, we don’t want to admit that racism was such an ingrained attitude, that it wasn’t just personal but systemic, and that legal protection was often no protection at all. Reading this book, you can see how the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t something new that just sprang up recently, but traces its roots to the same issues that Lewis was battling in the 1960s.
That may be the part that is most heart-breaking to me. The book paints Obama’s inauguration as sort of a culmination of the Civil Rights Movement—after the years of struggling to give blacks the right to vote, Lewis lived to see our first black president being sworn in. But it didn’t mean that racism was eliminated, or that everything has been fixed. There is a hint of that at the end of the book: that the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act broke down the last legal barrier, but there are still other very real barriers to true equality.
The March trilogy serves as a much-needed reminder of the high cost that was paid by so many for the right to sit at a lunch counter, ride a bus, and vote. I highly recommend it for both adults and kids (with some adult guidance).
Nate Powell, who illustrated March, also illustrated this 2012 graphic novel inspired by a particular event during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1967, after the SNCC was banned from the Texas Southern University campus, students organized a class boycott. A sit-down protest turned into violent riot, resulting in the death of an undercover cop. Hundreds of TSU students were arrested, and five were charged with the murder of the officer. Mark Long’s father was a local TV reporter at the time, and became friends with Larry Thomas, an activist for the SNCC, though crossing racial boundaries was dangerous for both families.
Long has created a fictionalized account of the days leading up to the protest as well as the trial and its results. It is not meant to be a historical account, the way March is, but still tries to convey the emotions and people in an authentic way. It makes a good pairing with March, particularly because Powell’s art style carries over and the events take place a few years after the end of March.
The title comes from a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
I’d put this one on my list because it was one of those books I’d heard about but just never actually read. I’d read a little bit of Coates’ current Black Panther run (mentioned in this Stack Overflow) but I really didn’t know anything else about him.
Between the World and Me is a small book, written in the form of a letter to Coates’ teenage son, about what it means to be a black man. It’s a book that uses beautiful language to talk about ugly truths. Coates describes what it was like growing up in Baltimore and the moment he realized how easily he could be killed, going to Howard University and discovering the vast diversity of the black population, learning that the threats to his body were not due to specific people but to an entire system. It’s a raw and honest glimpse into what it is like to be a black man in America—and what it’s like to be the father of a black boy. He struggles between telling his son to be himself, to enjoy being a kid, and telling his son to be careful, to be fearful.
Reading this right after March, one of the big contrasts that struck me was that Lewis and many of those he worked with were driven by their faith: that’s why they insisted on nonviolent tactics, on loving their enemies. It’s why they were willing to die for the cause—because they believed in a future glory for themselves as much as a better future for those who would live after them. But Coates was raised an atheist, and so for him his body is his spirit and mind. For him, every death is a permanent one, part of a “plunder” that is irreversible and that much more destructive.
If you want a deeper understanding of what it means to be black—what it is like to live in our country with a black body—then read Between the World and Me. If you are not black, and particularly if you are, in his words, a person who believes you are white, reading this book may make you uncomfortable. But Coates isn’t writing to comfort us. Coates uses writing as a way to ask questions—not because it always leads to an answer, but because the investigation is part of the journey. This book isn’t necessarily so much an answer as a series of questions, getting his son (and us) to dig a little deeper, perhaps to ask some hard questions of ourselves.
The premise of Colson Whitehead’s novel is that the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape to the Northern States, is a literal underground railroad. It’s a tunnel that’s been dug out, laid with tracks, and small engines with a single boxcar serve as transit. Stations are hidden underneath barns and farmhouses, and abolitionists secretly serve as station managers in the Deep South.
That isn’t the only thing that separates Whitehead’s American history from our own, though. As his protagonist, Cora, makes her way through various states, he makes each border crossing an entrance into another world—another possible outcome. South Carolina has become a beacon of black uplift, with negroes accepted as part of white society, given jobs and dormitories to live in. But their welcoming attitudes hide a sinister scheme. North Carolina, fearful of a black uprising because of their growing population, has decided to do away with blacks altogether, instead enlisting poor immigrants from Ireland and Germany to work the cotton fields. Blacks are now entirely outlawed and North Carolina has become a police state, with weekly festivals to lynch those who have been captured. And so on.
Although these aren’t true histories, Whitehead has drawn from real history in creating his alternate worlds. South Carolina takes some inspiration from the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which blacks were given free “health care” but really were just hosts for untreated syphilis. North Carolina, meanwhile, was based on the white separatist supremacist ideals similar to towns in Oregon when they were first settled. Whitehead pushes these aspects to their extremes—though arguably what really happened in many cases was extreme enough.
The story itself follows Cora, a slave on Georgia cotton plantation who eventually takes a ride on the underground railroad. Reading about her life on the plantation is painful and disturbing—all the more so because it’s based on reality. At one point Cora gets to see what whites in South Carolina think of plantation life—”the contented slave who sang and danced and loved Massa”—and I think that’s the image that we as Americans like to imagine, rather than the one in which slaves were beaten for learning to read, killed over trifles. The white abolitionists who help them are treated no better, and it’s a reminder that—as seen in the March trilogy—there was often a special hatred reserved for those “race traitors” who dared to work against the system.
The thing is, the underground railroad itself is not really the focus of the book, so if you were hoping to find out more about how it was engineered and built or how it is run, you may be disappointed. The book is told mostly from Cora’s point of view (though we do get some glimpses into the minds of some of the other characters), and so mostly we see the railroad from her limited experience with it. Still, I found the book worthwhile reading. I can’t say The Underground Railroad is an enjoyable read, but it’s definitely fascinating and engrossing. It’s a powerful example of using fiction to uncover and illuminate reality, and it’s one that I’ll be thinking about for a while.
Despite reading quite a bit this month, I definitely was too ambitious with my Black History Month reading list, and I’ve got several of the books still on my shelf to be read. That said, I’m glad I set these goals, and I’m looking forward to making my way through the rest of the list. I’ve found myself challenged in many ways by the books I’ve read this month.
Disclosure: I received review copies of In Other Worlds, the Three-Body Problem trilogy, and The Silence of Our Friends. I purchased the other books on this list myself.