The Book Drop: Sci-fi offers spiritual, social and psychological explorations

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Aaron Francis is the chief librarian at the Creston Valley Public LIbrary.

My guilty secret is a love of sci-fi.

Even though I always feel like a fool trying to describe a favourite book to my wife: “Well, the earth is being colonized by three rival alien empires, you see, and one of them did all kinds of experiments on humans — which is where fairies and elves came from—and there are nine different planes of existence within the earth’s sphere and… Why are you looking at me like that?!”

When it comes to sci-fi, the adage “Never judge a book by its cover” is especially true. Ridiculous sketches of scantily clad warriors clutching laser-guns on a distant moonscape belie fables expressing deep and real spiritual, social and psychological explorations.

Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing describes sci-fi writers as playing “the thankless role of the despised illegitimate son who can afford to tell truths the respectable siblings either do not dare, or, more likely, do not notice because of their respectability. They have also explored the sacred literatures of the world in the same bold way they take scientific and social possibilities to their logical conclusions so that we may examine them. How very much we do all owe them!”  I agree!

Lessing herself penned a series of five “space fiction” novels, a deeply thoughtful and enlightening collection that explores human history, religion, and social and environmental awareness. The first book, Re: Colonized Planet 5 Shikasta, revolves around the notion of “Substance of We-Feeling”, or SOWF, the successful development of which might lead Earth into greater social and cosmic harmony. Unfortunately, development of SOWF is undermined by two alien colonizing powers, Sirius and Shammat, whose empires represent a failure of awareness of greater human possibility and potential.

While extremely tedious in parts — the book reads more like a series of self-indulgent lectures than a novel, and lacks any identifiable plot or character development — Shikasta has become lodged in my consciousness like no other work of fiction. Having read it three times already, I believe I am just starting to understand its deeper implications and meanings.

Another favourite writer in the sci-fi/fantasy genres (the two genres can be hard to separate, both falling under the broader “speculative fiction” category) is Gene Wolfe. Labelled “the most dangerous writer alive today” by Neil Gaiman, Wolfe’s works, like Lessing’s, are not easy reads. Clever, surprising, insightful, thought provoking, but never easy.

Filled with mystery — unanswered questions, unresolved sequences — Wolfe’s tales meander through half-familiar worlds and landscapes, leading the reader always forward and deeper into the labyrinth, but never reaching the destination. Kind of like life that way. They play elegantly with our expectations of a tidy conclusion. And one has to say that Wolfe is a joker, if a very serious and intelligent joker.

Wolfe’s masterpiece is The Book of the New Sun, following the journey of a disgraced journeyman torturer who is destined to lead the earth to rebirth under a new sun. My favourite Wolfe work, however, is the diptych The Knight and The Wizard. Now, if I summarized the plot here, this column would never end and it is so fantastical that you would think I’d lost my marbles, so let me just say this: you may not enjoy this work, but it will affect you. It will stick in your soul, and colour your experience and vision for years to come. And you will be richer for it.

As always, I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions for the library. Send me an email at aaron@crestonlibrary.com, or just drop by and say hello.

Aaron Francis is the chief librarian at the Creston Valley Public Library. He is currently reading Night of the Jaguar by Joe Gannon.

 

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