Why you should read an epic four-volume sci fi series on the beach this summer.
If you’re a fan of science fiction already, I probably won’t have to work very hard to convince you to give Tad Williams’ Otherland series—all four 800-page volumes of it—a shot. Williams has had a long and impressively varied career in sci fi, fantasy, and related genres, in print and in numerous other media (Otherland is in fact currently being developed into an online gaming system and also has been optioned as a film which Williams is set to script), and to my mind this series remains his most significant achievement; I’d put it alongside Dan Simmons’ Hyperion novels as the best sci fi series of the last couple decades. So if you’re a fan of the genre and haven’t read Williams’ series yet, feel free to stop reading now and go pick ‘em up; I promise you won’t be disappointed.
But if you’re not a fan, I know that much of that paragraph—and especially the part about 3200 pages of epic science fiction—is more likely to send you running in the other direction than to scream “beach read!” to you. Moreover, Williams’ series is set in numerous places, real and virtual, and if I’m remembering correctly only two of its many central plot threads take place in the United States; hardly an obvious fit for a series on American Studies beach reads. Yet I am including Williams’ series in my own, and there are a couple of pretty good reasons why. For one thing, Williams sets his series in a near-future in which numerous early 21st century American and world trends—historical, cultural, technological, and more—have been extended and amplified; as with all of the best sci fi, then, his works allow us to consider and analyze our own moment and society from that distance. It doesn’t hurt, for the beach reading and for helping that socially critical medicine go down more smoothly, that Williams’ touch in these areas is both wry and funny; each chapter begins with a brief glimpse into one or another of these futuristic trends, and taken together they comprise a dark satirical vision on par with the kinds of black comedy I referenced in yesterday’s post.
That’s one good reason for any American Studier to engage with science fiction, and particularly with a series as pitch-perfect in its futuristic world-building and social commentary as Williams’. But I would argue that the series’ central theme is even more salient for any and all 21st century American Studiers. I’m not going to spoil the specifics of how Williams develops this theme, as it’s central to the series’ mysteries and arcs, but will say that his characters and his books are concerned, on multiple key levels, with questions of story-telling: how we create and tell stories; what stories mean for individuals and communities; how stories can be put to the worst as well as the best uses; what the oldest and most enduring stories have to offer all of us in a 21st century, technologically driven society; and many more such questions. As I’ve argued many times in this space, I think few questions matter more to American politics, culture, society, and Studies than that of our national narratives, the stories we tell about our past, our community, our identity. Williams’ series makes for a hugely imaginative and entertaining way in to thinking about such narratives, and about the deepest human questions to which they connect. Definitely worth your suntanning time!
Next beach read post tomorrow,
PS. Nominations for American Studies beach reads, for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post? Bring ‘em!
7/12 Memory Day nominee: Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s foremost philosophers, environmentalists, political activists, travel writers, lecturers and essayists, and literary voices.
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