Once, in my graduate school days, I took Heidegger’s Being and Time on vacation. I was trying to squeeze in a bit of work during my free time. Needless to say, it was difficult to pay attention. Heidegger does not have a lot to say about Being-at-the-beach.
Since then, when I go to the beach, I take what my wife calls “brain candy”, books that quickly and effectively pull you out of your world and entertain you. These books have become a double-pleasure for me. They are fun but also do some serious reflection on human relationships and society.
Below are five of my favorite summer reads that do both. They are all sci-fi because I find this genre (when it does not get caught up in the technology) is particularly well suited for understanding our world. Like apocalyptic literature, they explore the long-term consequences of the way we are currently living in order to illuminate the dangers and threats to what is good and true and beautiful.
- Scott Westerfeld’s Extras. Extras is the fourth book in the Uglies series, which includes Uglies, Pretties, and Specials. The set up for these books is that kids are “uglies” until they turn sixteen when they get extensive reconstructive surgery to become “pretties”. (As someone who is about to turn forty, I want to say that the grown-ups in this world are called “crumblies”. ) These new “pretties” then get to move to Prettytown where they live out their day in mindless, harmless partying. Extras picks up with new characters in this world, but in a city where only the top 100 people matter and everyone else is an “extra”. Everyone in the city has a ranking—think of the way books on Amazon are ranked—and people will do almost anything to break into the top 100.
- Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon. Morgan explores one technological advancement and how it reconfigures people’s understanding of life. In this future, humanity has discovered a way to capture every mental aspect of a person and download it into a cortical stack. This bundle of information can then be sleeved into a body, any body, several bodies, and even bodies across the galaxy. This interchangeability raises the question about the importance of bodies. One example: Killing a person is called “carbon damage” and is a minor offense, unless you actually destroy their cortical stack. (Catholics are the only group in this world who do not believe in re-sleeving.) My only caution about this book is that it is “hard-boiled” sci-fi, so it has harsh sexual and violent scenes. They are not gratuitous but are used to emphasize how meaningless the physical body has become.
- Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain. In this story, a small group of people are engineered not to need sleep and inevitably excel in society. They have more time, almost eight extra hours day, to accomplish whatever they want. Their rise to prominence results in resentment and fear by others. Most of the sleepless respond with contempt, thinking that those who do sleep are petty, lazy, and jealous. The most crucial group is a mixture of sleepless and sleepers who try to build a place of reconciliation and figure out how to life with genuine differences.
- Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games. This is the first book in a trilogy, the other two being Catching Fire and Mockingjay. It is about a world where Capitol City controls twelve districts (and destroyed a thirteenth). One of its main resources to maintain control is a yearly spectacle called the Hunger Games. Two “tributes” (i.e., a male and female child under the age of 18) are taken from each of the districts and brought to Capitol City to compete to the death. The games, however, are presented to the citizens of Capitol City as a form of entertainment. Before they start, each tribute is attached to a fashion consultant, honored with food and parades, interviewed on television shows, and given a “story” for the viewers. For Capitol City, the ratings of the show matter, both for revenue and for political control. For Katniss, the tribute from District Twelve, the challenge is not just to survive but survive in a way that does not destroy her humanity.
- Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. The best for last! The story is set in the 1970’s and begins with a series of strange events in the life of a young girl, Miranda. There is a homeless man who practices kicking the air as well as a streaker in her neighborhood. A close friend of hers gets beat up for no apparent reason and her mom prepares for her appearance on the $10,000 Pyramid game show. As if this were not enough, add an element of time travel. Yet, the story is perhaps the most gentle, hopeful, and surprising as it explores the shape life takes from repentance and love.
I hope you enjoy some of these books. I am heading to the beach in a few weeks. Any recommendations?
I haven’t been doing any sci-fi reading recently but I have read a few works of fiction in the past few months which, like the sci-fi genre, may help us understand human nature and our world a little better.
In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden, a thrilling look at Benedictine life in the 1950s, and a beautiful and thought-provoking examination of human nature.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a beautifully written story about black maids working for white women, told from the perspective and in the distinctive voices of three women living in Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: Definitely not mind-candy, but a surprisingly quick and fascinating story of Napolean’s campaign in Russia. Tolstoy’s views of history and the forces that drive world events are surprisingly relevant for starting to make sense of the wars that we find ourselves in today.
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy: I am mad for westerns these days since I am about to move to Montana, but this book is a stunning caption of the old west clashing with modernity, with powerful ideas about life and death, human dignity, and moral character interwoven in the dialogue.
Have fun at the beach!
Thanks for the recommendations Beth! I have heard of The Help and plan on picking it up. I read McCarthy’s The Road and loved it. I will have to pick up All the Pretty Horses. Speaking of westerns, did you ever read The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford? It is written by Ron Hansen who also wrote Mariette in Ecstasy and is the Gerard Manley Hopkins Professor in Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University. I’ve enjoyed his writing, and he has some interesting reflections on being a Catholic writer in A Stay Against Confusion.