Given the nature of the next few books on deck for the Hugo Project, now seemed an appropriate time to discuss Defensive Reading, otherwise known as How Myriad Manages to Finish These Things Without Throwing Them across the Room or Setting Them on Fire.
The thing about speculative fiction is that it’s…speculative. Which means, if it’s any good, that it deals with unusual ideas. What if, instead of X being true, !X were true? What if X continues to be true – wouldn’t it evolve into Y? Have you ever really looked at the implications of X? If you look at it this way, X is actually Z which could lead to Q!
Good speculative fiction stretches your brain, forcing you to question assumptions you didn’t even know you were making and look at the world through a completely different lens. This is a good thing. It can be a profoundly liberating thing. It can also be a profoundly uncomfortable thing.
Or a profoundly infuriating thing, if you disagree with 95% of what the author appears to be saying.
Sometimes when I pick up a book, I can tell from the blurb/first page/excerpt/whatever that it’s likely to piss me off. Usually I just decide the book isn’t worth the time it would take to read it, but in the case of the Hugo Project, or an assigned reading, that’s not an option. Plus, if the book has won a prestigious award and/or is being assigned for a class, presumably it’s not complete and utter crap, even if I disagree with everything the author says. I probably even want to read it because I’m curious about why such a book has received so much acclaim.
But if I want to have any chance of appreciating whatever might be good/interesting/unusual about the book, I’m going to need protection. Otherwise all the misogyny/racism/religious crap/militarism/etc will feed the flames of my RIGHTEOUS ANGER* to the point where they burn away any hope I might have had of enjoying or at least appreciating some part of the book. I can’t just dive into the book unprepared!
Kittens may be the solution to most of life’s problems, but in this case, I think I’m going to need something a little more heavy-duty. Maybe a full-grown cat, preferably with a working knowledge of quantum physics.
That’s right, folks. I need…SCHRÖDINGER’S READING GLASSES.
If you’re not familiar with Schrödinger’s Cat, click the link for a refresher**.
Schrödinger’s Cat is one of the best-known examples of a thought experiment (or Gedankenexperiment, for those of us who enjoy the absurdity of the German language). You take a set of rules/assumptions, propose an event, and follow that event through to its logical (i.e. consistent with the predefined rules/assumptions) conclusion. Thought experiments are used a lot in both physics and philosophy, so it seems appropriate to apply them to science fiction as well. Plus, you know, zombie kittens.
By treating a book (or, on occasion, an entire religion…) as a thought experiment, I’m able to distance myself from the material just enough to set aside my emotional gut reactions of RIGHTEOUS ANGER. Instead of getting all hot and bothered at how incredibly wrong the author and/or characters all are, I’m able to identify the ideas presented and the chain of reasoning that leads to the author’s argument, which is (hopefully) at least consistent with the rules of the book, even if I disagree. In the long run, wearing Schrödinger’s Reading Glasses actually makes me more likely to accept some part of what the author is saying…even if I do mercilessly mock the rest of it. Plus, it keeps my blood pressure down and makes the reading experience much more enjoyable.
So far, SRG have gotten me through the next three Hugo winners, one of which is heavy on the fascism, two of which are heavy on the Catholicism, and all three of which are among my favorites of the Hugo Project so far. Yes, really. I may think most of what the authors and/or characters believe is complete and utter crap, but it was interesting crap, and it was interesting to see how they arrived at/justified their conclusions. SRG are currently helping me limp through Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horsewoman, the sequel to Hugo-winner #7, and will no doubt continue to provide much needed protection throughout the rest of the Hugo Project and my reading career.
There does come a time, however, when the
gloves Glasses have to come off. SRG let you set aside your emotions and actually engage with the book. But those gut reactions of RIGHTEOUS ANGER may very well have been entirely right. There may be a lot of Very Bad Ideas and Very Poor Logic in the book. The book may be full of misogyny and racism and queerphobia and all kinds of other crap. And the fact that it was interesting, thought-provoking, unusual, or daring does not excuse the crap. Hamlet is full of beautiful language and beautiful speeches – that doesn’t excuse the fact that Hamlet himself is a whiny, abusive, manipulative asshat***.
SRG will filter out the bad long enough for you to see the good. But once you’ve given yourself a chance to find whatever meritorious qualities, however small, the book might have, it’s time to take the Glasses off and rip the author and/or characters a new one for all of the utter Wrongness they tried to cram down your throat along with the good stuff.
Trust me, we’ve got a good few weeks coming up on the Hugo Project, complete with blasphemy, blind faith, fascism, Catholic-mocking, Eddie Izzard, and good ol’ Bobby Heinlein. Keep your Reading Glasses at the ready!
*irony fully intended, given that Catholicism is one of the things that tends to piss me off the most
**Fun fact: Today, Schrödinger’s Cat is usually used to explain the principle of superposition, but Schrödinger actually intended it as a rebuttal of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. Oops. Also, aren’t you glad I quarantined all these Scary Physics Words^ in a footnote?
***Yes, I just criticized Shakespeare. Yes, this is tantamount to a Catholic criticizing the Pope. The fun thing about being me, though, is that you can love something and still think parts of it are crap.
^This is sarcasm. Just in case you were wondering.