Written by: Camryn Johnson
We all love science fiction and fantasy novels for their magical and otherworldly elements and the rich worldbuilding that makes for a great escape from reality. But SFF often hits a lot closer to home than some of us care to think about. Personally, I find the social commentary to be riveting and I’m excited to share a few examples.
Warning: These quotes from bestselling fantasy authors do not spare you the existential dread.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo:
“The crazier the victima, the closer to God.”
At first glance, this quote from chapter one of Leigh Bardugo’s adult fiction debut holds a clandestine kind of air, one that’s a bit uneasy, and cully characterized by the use of the word “victima.” It is presumably of latin origin used to describe the subjects chosen for a psychic ritual conducted by the fabled secret society embedded in Bardugo’s imagining of Yale University. But when you look again, and place it within the cultural context of our own world, you can point out the symptoms of how we conceptualize mental health.
Those that have been culturally or clinically “insane” get a bad social rep, often perpetuated by media but certainly substantiated by the long history of abuse and unjust institutionalization (we won’t even get into the whole female hysteria side of history). So the fact that these bodies of the “clinically insane” are desecrated without thought in what’s 99% a self-serving practice of the 1% in Bardugo’s novel – and is justified by saying they’re closer to God has a lot more social implications than I can fit into this blog.
Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin:
“You could become someone new, maybe. You’ve done that before, it’s surprisingly easy…But. Only one you is Nassun’s mother. That’s what’s forestalled you so far, and ultimately it’s the deciding factor…so you must stay Essun, and Essun will have to make do with the broken bits of herself that Jija has left behind.”
If you’re familiar with The Broken Earth trilogy or with Jemisin’s work in general, you know to expect the unconventional themes that pick your brain and make you think about the real world in relation to the fantastical one she’s wrought between the pages. A more clinical realization of trauma coping is dissociative identity disorder, something that typically begins manifesting in childhood as a way for the brain to protect itself.
I don’t think that’s exactly what Essun (who we later find out is also Damaya and Syenite (spoilers, sorry!)) is doing. It’s most likely that she is running away from her past; she’s creating a new life in order to leave the traumas of the former ones behind her and start fresh without burden. It’s easier to forget one’s past if you’re able to create a new one. But that doesn’t become as easy when the life you want to leave behind involves abandoning the people who may need you. Furthermore, it becomes an unhealthy coping mechanism when the hardships of life immediately turn you in that direction. Luckily (or unluckily depending on your take) for Essun, her daughter tethered her to her current self. She wasn’t able to run away as easily without sacrificing the thing most dear to her.
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. Mandel:
“If definitive proof emerges that we’re living in a simulation, the correct response to that news will be so what. A life lived in a simulation is still a life.”
It does not get more existential than this quote about the precariousness of our perceptions of reality. It’s easy to default to the notion that what we see is real and that what is real is what we see. It’s the more radical version of the quintessential philosophical question: if a tree falls and no one’s around, does it make a sound? By the laws of science, yes, the tree does make a sound. But without anyone (or thing) around to perceive that sound, what’s the meaning or purpose behind it? If we step beyond the scientific and into the cultural, the actual perception of sound (whether audibly or physically) is arguably 50% of its purpose. In that sense, the tree doesn’t really make a sound does it? At least, it doesn’t make a sound that matters.
Another take: The fact that I had a 10 minute debate on whether Rihanna’s Superbowl outfit was hot pink or crimson red goes to show that our personal realities are not always shared by the people around us. Even our own eyes can deceive us to the truth. Or they indicate that there are multiple truths. Now Mandel simply enlarges this idea to ask the question…what if the lives we live are curated? Not “organic”? Well, what a mind bending reality that would be. But it would still be ours.
So the question still stands: if a tree falls and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
The answer: Maybe, maybe not. But it doesn’t change the fact that it still fell.