I had a teacher in high school who once went around the classroom and insisted that each student answer the question of whether literature was “a window or a mirror?” When she got to me, I tried to argue that it was both (and if I’d had the language for it at the time, would have told her that binaries are a poor premise to begin with). But she insisted I choose, so I picked one and she continued her round, finishing with the revelation, “Surprise, it’s both.”
Pretentious pedagogy aside, this story came to mind lately because I was torn about which book to recommend this month. I’ve recently been diving into mysteries, which are, in many ways, escapist “windows;” they offer the comforting fantasy that there’s a satisfying conclusion to every case, and that sense that can be made of life’s chaos and confusion. (I promised you a postcard, so I do not have time to get into the concept of “justice.”) I also read a terrifyingly good dystopian novel that felt more like a mirror than was comfortable to contemplate. So, should I offer you reality or escape? Luckily I remembered, once again, that neither books nor people fit neatly into categories (binary or otherwise).
Mysteries and science fiction both make you question the world and its aspects of dysfunction, albeit on vastly different scales. Even with their fantastical elements, good mysteries are grounded in real psychology: the changing, flawed, and conflicting parts of human nature and society. And the mirror that a fictional dystopia holds up is still a portal into another world, an escape from the immediate frustrations of our own (if not the most comforting one). Reality is always changing, flawed, and conflicting. And there’s never a perfect solution to deal with it all—not even in fiction. But at least in fiction, you can choose how far you want to explore within the everyday frameworks of mystery, reality, frustration, and change.
The Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler
If you’re ready to dive in to the terrifying realities of a[n even more] dystopian world, I strongly suggest Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. It’s dark, riveting, and powerful, following a teenage protagonist in the crumbling, post-apocalyptic Los Angeles of 2025. (A date I found much more alarming than 1984, which I’ve only ever approached as part of the past.) Preacher’s daughter Lauren Olamina lives in a world of scarcity and chaos, where the only protection comes from the communities you form yourself. After a disaster destroys hers, she sets out to find a new safe place, slowly building a new community and a faith.
The Parable is not an easy read—it’s very Old Testament in its pain and horror—but I loved Butler’s explorations of the troubled morality of survival, and of empathy as vulnerability and strength. She handles the gray areas so well, right down to the mix of perceptiveness, resignation, and confusion in Lauren’s journal entries. Lauren’s ideas about the world and God unfold in the way most questioning adolescents’ would, although they are tested harshly and immediately in her landscape. I might quibble with occasional elements that felt reductive or flat, but not the refrain of her nascent religion, Earthseed: “God is change.”
I think the measure of fear we derive from a dystopian novel is a measure of how possible it seems. The exploitation and ecological disaster that Butler details is overwhelming precisely because it is rooted in present-day possibilities and realities. But I like to remember that it’s a window as well as a mirror: there are also possibilities for hope. As Butler points out, change is neither good nor bad; it is constant.
If you like it
If you want to double down on thought-provoking dystopian changes, I also recommend Robert Harris’ The Second Sleep, which manages to plot out a mystery and an apocalyptic parable at once. It’s hard to describe without giving away a key plot point, but what starts as a quiet medieval murder mystery takes a hard left turn to unravel a much larger, longer story about the precariousness of the worlds we create.
If you don’t
If a gentle or genteel mystery appeals more to you at the moment than an outright scary story, Y.S. Lee’s A Spy In The House is an excellent choice. The protagonist, Mary Quinn, is a biracial orphan/thief who goes undercover to solve mysteries as part of a secret all-woman detective agency in Victorian London. It’s exactly as wild a ride as it sounds. Mary grapples with issues rarely examined at depth in period novels—her mixed-race identity, having a criminal record, class boundaries, the, uh, rampant abuse of working-class women—but it’s far from despairing in tone; like most mysteries, it’s arced towards a solution against any odds.
If you’re interested…