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Books We Like

Published 6/8/2014 by Jamie Stroble

Books We Like

I like getting a little creeped out by the books I read. For some people this means monsters, zombies and aliens, but for me it means thinking about what might happen in the near future to make our planet a creepy place to live. In fact, there’s even a genre for this kind of literature - it’s called speculative fiction, and while similar to science fiction and dystopian fiction, there are a few small differences.

While you will likely find an oppressive, totalitarian society in a work of speculative fiction, the overall picture is one that could become reality given the technology and trends that exist today. Often you’ll see themes of genetic modification gone awry, extreme fundamentalism, environmental destruction and the ever-present Big Brother. You’re also more likely to find authors of literary fiction writing speculative fiction, which lends greater complexity and depth to the characters, language and themes.

The Circle (2013) by Dave Eggers. In The Circle, author Dave Eggers shows us a near future America where the quest for information has reached new and frightening heights. Mae Holland is a recent college grad who’s ecstatic to have been hired by The Circle, the world’s most important company - a sort of Google/Amazon/Apple hybrid where innovation abounds and information-gathering has become both an art and a science.

The Circle is designed as a self-sustaining community in southern California (a bit like Google), so full of parties, brainstorming sessions, and the brightest young talent from all over the world that there’s really no need to leave the campus. Ever.

Meg starts out working in the customer service department, but soon she is caught up in a dizzying storm of social media, 24/7 surveillance, and the maddening idea that there may be a single piece of information out there that cannot be discovered, tracked, measured and monetized. It’s uncomfortably easy to picture our current information-based society evolving to this level of transparency, where privacy is an outdated notion and secrets are tantamount to treason.

This is Eggers’ first foray into speculative fiction, with most of his work in contemporary fiction, memoir, and biography, and it’s clear from the suspenseful, all too possible world he creates that he has every genre he attempts totally under control.

On Such a Full Sea (2014) by Chang-rae Lee. When Fan’s boyfriend Reg disappears, there’s just no explanation - not from his family or friends, and certainly not from the government of their isolated labor community, which, by the way, used to be known as Baltimore. Environmental damage and some hazy catastrophe from the past have caused America to end up splintered.

There’s the wealthy, gated charter communities, the labor settlements like what’s now called B-Mor, and the open counties, where lawlessness reigns. In an unheard-of move, Fan, a contented diver in B-Mor’s massive urban fish farms, leaves her safe, walled village for the uncharted territories, of which she’s only seen pictures and videos, to find Reg.

It’s a dangerous quest, and while we can recognize Fan’s fear, the story is narrated from the collective point of view of the citizens she left behind in B-Mor. Fan’s shocking decision to leave behind everything she knows for an almost certain death in the open counties soon begins to stir a hint of revolution among the townspeople.

Like Eggers, this is Chang-rae Lee’s first foray into speculative fiction, which gives On Such a Full Sea the feel of a tightly crafted literary novel that introduces more questions than answers about identity, trust and love.

Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood. In Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, genetic engineering has led humanity to an increasingly unfamiliar place.

In the beginning we meet Snowman, an insane man who lives in a tree and watches another group of humans from afar - except, they’re not human because they were created in a lab by Snowman’s geneticist friend Crake.

There are other genetically engineered creatures running wild through the woods, and it’s not until later in the story that we learn why these creatures were created, and why there are seemingly no humans left on earth other than Snowman. Atwood alternates between the past and present, slowly revealing the catastrophe that led to Snowman’s forlorn existence, and poses the question: just because science can, does it mean that science should?

Oryx and Crake plays against a dystopian backdrop similar to the one in Atwood’s,em> Handmaid’s Tale,, so if you like well-developed characters, imaginative world-building and questions about humanity that will make you uncomfortable, pick up Oryx and Crake - which you can then follow with Year of the Flood and MaddAddam to complete Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy.

If you enjoy speculative fiction the way I do, here are a few other books to check out (available at your local public library, of course)

Super Sad True Love Story (2010) by Gary Shteyngart

When She Woke (2011) by Hillary Jordan

Afterparty (2014) by Daryl Gregory