Thinking back to the fiction I’ve enjoyed the most, two themes emerge: atmosphere, and cleverness. The atmosphere that really engages me in fiction is one that says: the world is huge; there’s so much to explore; and there’s a vastness of potential. But one that’s also a little melancholy - because you can’t possibly experience all of it, and time always flows onwards. I was particularly struck by the ending of The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo leaves all of Middle-Earth behind; by His Dark Materials, when Lyra gains, and loses, uncountable worlds; by the Malazan saga, occurring against a fictional backdrop of hundreds of thousands of years of epic history; and by Speaker for the Dead, as Ender skims through the millennia. Oh, and I can’t forget George R. R. Martin’s A Song for Lya, Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane, and Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia - none are the subtlest, but they're all exquisitely wistful. I’m compelled by the aesthetic: each of these a whole world that never was and will never be!
The other thing I love in fiction is cleverness: Xanatos Gambits and Magnificent Bastards and plans within plans that culminated in startling and brilliant ways. Ender’s Game is a great example; so too is The Lies of Locke Lamora. On the literary side, I loved Catch-22 for its cleverness in weaving together so many peculiar threads into a striking tapestry. Lately the novels which most scratch this itch have been online works, particularly Unsong, Worm, and A Practical Guide to Evil. Some sci-fi novels also fall in this category - I’m thinking particularly of Snow Crash, Accelerando, and Hyperion.
It’s hard to tell whether my fiction preferences shaped my worldview or vice versa, but I’d be surprised if all this reading weren’t at least partially responsible for me often thinking about the big picture for humanity, and personally aiming for ambitious goals. What’s more difficult is to point to specific things I gained from these books. I don’t identify with many fictional characters, and can't think of any personal conclusions that I've gained from depictions of them (perhaps apart from: communicate more!) I did read a lot of “big idea” books, but they were never that satisfying - fiction always seemed like an inefficient medium for communicating them.
But for some reason this has changed a bit over the last few years. I now find myself regularly thinking back to a handful of books as a way to remind myself of certain key ideas - in particular books that pair those ideas with compelling plots and characters. In no particular order:
- Unsong is the work of fiction that most inspires me to be a better person; to do the things that “somebody has to and no one else will”.
- Diaspora makes me reflect on the emptiness of pure ambition, and the arbitrariness of human preferences.
- The Darkness That Comes Before pushes me to understand my mind and motivations - to illuminate “what comes before” my thoughts and actions.
- Accelerando confronts me with the sheer scale of change that humanity might face.
- Island and Walden Two underline the importance of social progress in building utopias.
- Flowers for Algernon reminds me of the importance of emotional intelligence.