I have been reading a lot of books about the climate crisis lately, mostly because three separate work projects have put me in their path. These books are less about the science, per se, and more about how we should respond—emotionally, actionally, narratively. I’m grateful for these books having deadlines because, despite how much attention global warming takes from me, I tend to be an avoider of tough books.
I was once in a reading group made up of brilliant, accomplished women. One of them was a polar opposite reader to me. Of the books we read together she adored The Country of My Skull, a reporting on the findings of the post-apartheid South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; I favored Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Both of these are sad books, dealing with profound loss, but only one of them deals with the horrors visited on real people. Documenting and knowing those horrors matters…but I prefer to know at foot splashing level, no deep swims into awfulness for me if I can prevent it.
That said, I am glad to have read these hard books. While I may not seek them out they have expanded my heart and mind and capacity for looking directly at difficult things. They feel as if they are good for me, the Kale Salad of books.
Bear with me. I adore Kale Salad, particularly when its vegetal goodness comes drenched in lemony-acidity, perhaps accompanied by the crunch of nuts or shallots, or the tang of parmesan or feta. I legitimately like it and its unabashed healthiness serves as part of the pleasure.
But one cannot exist on Kale Salad alone and nor should one similarly limit one’s reading diet either. Which is why I turned last week to a book I’d been eagerly awaiting ever since I’d heard it described as “Lesbian necromancers…. IN SPAAACE!!!!” Yes, I finally got my mitts on Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth and exuberantly set aside anything having to do with melting glaciers, solastalgia, or climate grief and anxiety.
I expected Gideon the Ninth to be spaceship-laden science fiction, which is less my jam but, lest we forget, Lesbian. Necromancers. IN SPAAACE!!! I discovered, however, a mash-up of scifi, fantasy, horror, and murder mystery in the Agatha Christie style. The perspective of the titular Gideon anchors this fantastical construct, and she’s a foul-mouthed smart ass who loves her sword, stashes dirty magazines and comic books, and longs for nothing more than to escape the bleak, tomb-worshipping Ninth House of the Empire.
Even before starting the book and discovering this glorious genre stew, I struggled with what would be the food metaphor counterpart to Kale Salad. For while I turned to Gideon the Ninth as a pleasurable ballast to challenging reality, I do not want to imply that genre fiction is somehow less serious, valuable, important, or vital than other kinds of writing. So comparisons to sweets or snacks felt off, trite even.
But back to Gideon. Despite her loathing of the Ninth House, she finds herself serving as cavalier primary to her nemesis, the Reverend Daughter Harrowhark, necromancer and heir to the Ninth. They travel to answer a call from the Undying Emperor, along with the heirs to the other eight houses and their cavaliers. Each house has its own flavor and social obligations, and each necromancer has his or her own magical speciality. Abigail Pent of the Fifth House is particularly adept at speaking to the dead. For her part, Harrowhark can manipulate fragments of bone.
The novel mashes up literary style, as well, expertly balancing tropes and styles from science fiction, fantasy, and horror with Gideon’s contemporary-style wise-cracking. The fact that Muir pulls this off without it feeling gimicky or jarring testifies to her talents. Like the best genre fiction, it plunges you in media res to its world and trusts the reader to figure it out.
So what should I make of this literary medley and how shall we describe the dietary impact of genre fiction? For I truly believe that these things—fantasy, science fiction, speculative fiction, mystery—expand our minds, opening them to what’s possible and providing a different perspective on human motivation, society, and experience. If realism or non-fiction shine spotlights (or blacklights) on actual darkness (or beauty or banality), genre fiction places various lenses over those lights, asking, “What about this? And how about now–what if we saw it this way? And now this—what if we looked at it from this perspective?”
I realized that genre fiction is the Indian food of reading. A few years ago, scientists studying flavor similarities between foods discovered something unique about much of Indian cuisine: while most cuisines marry familiar flavors, Indian often does the opposite, bringing together disparate flavor combinations into a melange to melt the mind. And so too does genre fiction, bringing together divergent ideas, characters, situations, questions, possibilities, and impossibilities, thereby creating something brain-tickling and satisfying in the process. And just as it always feels too long between bouts of eating Tikka Masala, I have to wait patiently (or not) for the forthcoming sequel to Gideon the Ninth.
- Interesting, but not-gimicky playing with literary form.
- Complicated friendships, particularly among or including women.
- Speculative fiction (fantasy/sci-fi)