Arcadia and The Book of Phoenix: Critical thinking about science fiction and enjoying the fluff

Book of PhoenixThinking critically is an important life skill. Having your own opinions and being able to back your arguments shows you’ve understood your subject. I always think that you can’t describe one side of an argument without at least acknowledging other options. I can argue that this is green without understanding the rest of the colour spectrum. Fandom is full of opinions, and many are informed and interesting. Many less so. I’ve decided to apply these concepts to the last two science fiction books that I’ve read: both Clarke Award shortlisted Arcadia by Iain Pears and The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor.

Critical thinking (2015) can be defined as “disciplined thinking, by a rational agent who is able to evaluate the information available to them and the relationships among pieces of that information, and analyze and synthesize the results in the process of developing their views. Key to critical thinking is the awareness of the process, of one’s own biases and the biases of others, and the ability to see multiple sides of a scenario, rather than responding from emotion or “going by the gut.””

Everyone lives within a personal bubble. People rarely think consider viewpoints beyond those that immediately affect them. A farmer might be pro-EU, for example, because she gets a good subsidy. She might, however, have ideological reasons opposing a non-elected European institution deciding on that subsidy. I’m reminded of the Asian story of the bug in the rug, as found on Harmonic by Hex. I love science and logical and pragmatism. I love storytelling and imaginary worlds. I love fairy tales and heroes. I know my bias, both emotionally and politically.

ArcadiaI sometimes think about critical thinking before I start reading a book, especially if I’m planning to review it. Sometimes, however, I want to enjoy the book without thinking too much about its contents. Sometimes I want just the gut pleasure. At times, I start thinking critically about books only after I’ve started reading them. Arcadia is a complex tale of time travel and alternative, fictional realities, and how a variety of characters interact with either other through these periods and realities. It is also very much as story about storytelling and the production of fiction. Henry Lytten used to be a spy but now he’s an academic who scribbles away trying to create the perfect fictional world: Anterwold. Lytten’s fiction begins with the character of Jay, a young boy who one day thinks he meets a fairy. This fairy is Rosie, Lytten’s friend, who has stumbled into a portal made by another of his friends, Angela. Lytten doesn’t know that she is from the future and has created this fictional universe based on his writings. It gets even more complex that, and Pears writing is sublime. It is one of my favourite novels that I’ve read for a long time, although didn’t pack the emotional punch I’d hope it would, as it built towards the climax.

Arcadia is generally known as a kind of pastoral utopia, which has a connection to the ancient Greek region of the same name. I’m not sure which came first and I don’t want to look it up. This is key. I don’t want to think too much about Pears novel. I wanted to enjoy it for what it was, much like one might imagine the enjoyment of a pastoral utopia might feel like.

I’m not for a second suggesting Arcadia is fluff. Far from it, but I enjoyed it as something light, not something I had to think too deeply about; it was something I could get swept up in and enjoy the lives of the characters. I suspect it is Pears writing, rather than the story itself, that made me feel like this. It wasn’t overly analytical and the science fiction bits weren’t too sciencey. The issue with time travel and alternative worlds and physics in fiction, is that unless you are an expert in the fields discussed, it is hard to known if they make sense. Without giving the plot away, the cause and effect created by Angela’s machine and Henry’s fiction world are so wrapped up in knots, it is impossible to say if they made sense. For me, anyway.

But of course there’s nothing wrong with some fluff every now and then. My favourite fluff are the early books of Robert Rankin for example. After all, you need a little bubble-gum to with the broccoli sometimes.

The Book of Phoenix has almost the opposite issue. While half the size of Arcadia, it appears to be more densely packed with meaning but with not a whole lot of plot. It is a delicate Persian rug, one which I can see but not necessarily understand. The story is about an accelerated human; a woman called Phoenix, who falls in love and finds out about the horrors perpetuated by the company that created her. As she discovers herself and her past, she also awakens her powers, including the truth of her creation. One day, Phoenix’s boyfriend witnesses an atrocity and kills himself. Grieving, Phoenix decides she is in a prison rather than a home. She escapes, finding an usual seed en route. She ends up in Africa where she learns some truths before deciding to take out the company that created her and her kind. Her revenge is total. There are some interesting characters and ideas, and especially when writing about the relationships between characters, Okorafor’s writing is charming. It feels almost like a superhero – or supervillain – origin story, without being so explicit.

The book is, on the surface, about slavery and oppression. Americans and their corporations taking Africans and their lives as if they mean nothing. An American life is worth more than an African life. A white person is worth more than a black person. It is powerful stuff, with very tender moments. I can’t really think critically about it, textually. I have no frame of reference. I’m not oppressed and I’m fairly certain I’ve never been directly culpable of oppressing anyone else, although I do benefit from being a white, middle-aged, middle-class male, whether I like it or not. Plot-wise, not a lot happens. Phoenix travels about, learning bit and bobs and makes a few decisions, before moving to the next place. As a piece of fiction, I can say it’s far from the greatest I’ve read, but I did enjoy reading it, and spending time with Phoenix.

 

When I read about so-called fans arguing about the relevant merits or lack-thereof of this book or that author, I suspect that they’ve either missed their critical thinking training, or missed the point. A book can entertain without any depth of meaning. A book can oppose your worldview and be a valid work or art. Some books are all about the characters or a situation. Others are about story or plot. Others still are about the process of writing or reading. People, fans, forget this. They argue vehemently that their opinion has validity and none other does. A recent thread on Reddit tore apart The Sparrow. I should have countered, but I couldn’t face the argument, to be honest.

Many people who read The Book of Phoenix won’t think about it critically, I suspect. Which is fine, of course. I wanted to, but couldn’t. I have no personal understanding of racial oppression. I don’t know if Okorafor’s perspective is fair or valid. Of course slavery is heinous and corporations do take at the expense of people. All this is true, but I don’t think I can appreciate her writing critically.

I didn’t want to read Arcadia critically; in case it didn’t make sense. I wanted the story regardless of accuracy and the opinions of Pears.

I enjoyed both books but for very different reasons. The Book of Phoenix won’t be making by best of books of the year by some distance, although Arcadia might.

 

Critical thinking (2015) In: J. Mcray (Ed.) Leadership glossary: Essential terms for the 21st century. Mission Bell Media, Credo [online]. Available at:http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/mbmlg/critical_thinking/0 [Accessed: 3 June 2016].

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