What do you think of when you hear the phrase “science fiction?” Robots? Time travel? Aliens? What about ‘realism?’ Not so much?
Most people don’t think that science fiction has much to say about reality. Science fiction is supposed to be about adventure and entertainment. It’s supposed to imagine futures that are far more advanced than our own, and to stretch modern science into something fantastic. Science fiction isn’t supposed to tell us anything about the actual state of things, right?
Well, this week, instead of picking just one book to feature, I have created a summer reading list comprised of twelve science fiction books that each depict the reality of one or more mental health conditions, sometimes even better than textbooks or realism. Whether it’s providing a nuanced depiction of addiction, exploring the complexities of violence, or exposing uncomfortable truths about pleasure and consumption; in these twelve examples, Sci-Fi is the best vessel for teaching us something about real life. It’s the time of the year when people are creating summer reading lists. If you want to keep things fun and exciting, while continuing to explore and better understand mental health issues, try these twelve science fiction books.
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A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
Even if you’ve never read the book, you’ve probably heard of A Scanner Darkly. The star-studded film adaptation was a pretty big deal when it came out in 2006. Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, and Robert Downey Jr. were just a few of the stars who helped bring this dark SF thriller to life. But it’s the book that really shows us the reality of addiction. Although the drug in the book is fake, the depictions of addiction are very real. Because the narrative character falls deeper and deeper into his addiction as the story progresses, readers get to watch the gradual toll addiction takes on a human mind. He loses track of his own identity, facts collide with fantasies, reality disintegrates, and by the end of the book even the reader questions what is really going on. The author, Philip K. Dick, is no stranger to addiction: In the epilogue, he includes a huge list of real friends and family who died or experienced serious complications because of drug abuse.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
There’s been a lot of talk about George Orwell’s 1984 lately, but if you look more closely, Brave New World is the book that got it right. It describes a dystopia ruined by pleasure. Everyone is controlled by their desires, which the government over-feeds. The population is so addicted to media, pleasure, sex, and sensations that they have no time or desire to protest-or even notice-what the government is doing behind the scenes. The overwhelming desire for escapism becomes humanity’s downfall in Brave New World, a story about an entire people who sold their freedom for convenience. Sound familiar?
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Set in a dark, near-futuristic Europe, A Clockwork Orange explores the phenomenon of human violence. Although there are several graphic scenes of extreme violence, including violent rape, this novel is far more than lewd pulp fiction. Burgess explores the nature of violence with unprecedented insight. Science fiction villains are often maniacal and one-sided, but Alex, the narrative character in A Clockwork Orange, is a fully fleshed criminal; equipped with fears, desires, and motivations as complex as any real person. No other book better depicts the intricacies of criminality and reform. If you’re buying in the Americas, make sure to purchase the newest edition (linked below). The earlier US publications left out the last chapter, which also leaves out the part about genuine reform.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
Kindred is a story about a modern Black woman who gets pulled into the past. And not just any place or past, but a pre-Civil war era plantation. She cannot control her time travel, either forward or backward, nor the length of her intervals on the plantation, which makes for a dramatic, heart-wrenching read. The time travel caveat allows Butler to explore racism, racial tensions, and interracial interactions with unique depth and insight. By placing a modern Black woman onto a pre-Civil war slave plantation Kindred is able to use contrast to explore race and racism with more creativity than a more realistic text ever could. Some people may argue that this book does not fit into the “mental health” category, but I believe that racism is the manifestation of some kind of mental aberration; either low self-esteem, herd mentality, psychopathy, or some combination. Plus we also get insight into the nature of abuse/abusive love, and the toll which sudden imprisonment takes upon a woman who lived the majority of her life in freedom. In fact, I would argue that the sudden and unexpected nature of the time travel experiences mirror the waves of calm and terror that occur in an abusive relationship.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Scholars consider Frankenstein one of the original works of science fiction. Though Mary Shelley was only nineteen when she wrote the classic text, she managed to explore a variety of complex philosophical topics, including humanity’s place within the universe; the relationship between humans, animals, and the divine; and the origin of evil. It makes this list, however, for its depiction of grief. Did you know that Dr. Frankenstein creates his famous monster out of grief? Dr. Frankenstein becomes crazy with grief, and anxiety over experiencing more loss. He rages against death, to the point that he creates a living abomination. Who hasn’t felt the same crazy sadness and rage at the loss of a loved one? It may be hyperbole, but anyone who has experienced true grief knows how real this story feels.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
This book already got its own feature on “Book of the Weeks,” but it’s such a creative and nuanced Sci-Fi and mental health narrative that I can’t leave it off this list. This future dystopia by Margaret Atwood throws our modern obsession with genetic modification into hyper-drive. The quest for longevity turns into an apocalypse in Oryx and Crake, with one man the apparent sole survivor of the human race. As he wanders the world, the de facto caretaker to a new, engineered race of people (people who eat their own crap, by the way), he experiences classic symptoms of trauma: flashbacks, depression, even psychosis. Though Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is never mentioned in the book and there is no one left to give him a diagnosis, this science fiction novel depicts PTSD with more accuracy than most essays on the subject. If you want to learn what it’s like to live after trauma, check out Oryx and Crake.
The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
Written in the 1960s, this Sci-Fi classic proves its timelessness by describing the fluidity of human gender roles and sexuality far before the questioning of cultural gender norms became popular. The gender-queer movement, which is partly based on beliefs held by some indigenous tribes, should champion this book, which articulates gender as far less static than many people assume it to be. The Left Hand Of Darkness even describes the difficulty some people have in facing the gender fluidity of others…and within themselves.
Before trans-rights activists go into an uproar, this book is not on this list because I think genderfluidity is a mental illness. Transsexuality (as it was formerly called) was once classified as such, but thankfully is not included in the DSM-V. The reason this book makes the list is because we get to see the distress and confusion experienced by the human ambassador to this genderfluid planet. It might not exactly be categorized as a “mental health condition,” but his reactions and thought processes certainly give us insight into the human mind when faced with an uncomfortable truth. Plus, this is just a really good book. You should read it.
Wool by Hugh Howey
A recent bestseller, Wool, is one of the newer books on this list. Which makes sense because the part of the human mind that it showcases has certainly played a major role in current events. I am talking about human gullibility. Look, I’m not going to get all partisan here…I mean I think anyone who follows my blog knows where I fall on those lines, but I think we can also agree that conservatives and liberals alike, in a few different countries, have recently fallen prey to some pretty wild stories. The big news story these days is FAKE news, and all because humans are apt to believe something if it’s told by someone in a position of power. Or even just someone who writes like he knows what he’s talking about-a skill taught in English 101. That is what Wool is all about. I won’t give you any spoilers, but this book pretty much wouldn’t exist if people weren’t naturally gullible.
Gateway by Frederik Pohl
Gateway is another book that articulates the human experience of trauma. This time, it explores the effects of traumatic grief. It may be hard to believe that an interstellar epic which focuses on alien technology could also serve as a tell-all about traumatic grief…but it does. Though there’s plenty of space hopping action and weird descriptions of alien doodads, the narrative character is also continuously processing a partially unremembered traumatic event. He has all sorts of trauma symptoms including memory blackouts, fits of rage, and flashbacks. It gets trauma spot on, while remaining a riveting sci-fi thriller.
The Postmortal by Drew Magary
Another fairly new book, this one explores immortality. Or at least psuedo-immortality. Once someone opts to get a certain injection, he or she ceases to age and is immune to disease. She can still die violently however, and there are plenty examples of violent deaths throughout the story. It’s not the violence that earns The Postmortal a place on this list though. It’s the ennui. It gets the despondency, confusion, and stress of adulting exactly right. The ‘postmortals’ in this book are experiencing the ultimate adulthood: endless adulthood.The main characters go through a second adolescence, enjoying the long stretch of their potential immortality, but then they begin to feel hopeless, stressed, and confused about their place in the universe. Sound familiar, thirty-somethings?
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
This 1970s military science fiction epic won the prestigious Nebula award for good reason. Adventure packed and entertaining to boot, it also describes military fatigue with stunning accuracy. Haldeman uses time travel to extend the marines’ service time almost indefinitely, and the result is a piercing examination of war, service, and the mental and physical effects of combat on soldiers. Lots of war narratives talk about this phenomenon, but none get it across quite as vividly as The Forever War does by using wormholes and time travel to make military service and war, quite literally, endless. There is a pretty startling discovery at the end, which I won’t reveal, but trust me: It says pretty much everything that needs to be said about the use of war.
Dune by Frank Herbert
No science fiction book list would be complete without Nerd Kingdom’s most beloved classic: Dune. I was once afraid to read Dune. I kept hearing people talk about how verbose and confusing it was. It seemed daunting, and the nerds who loved it so much more sweatpantsy than I. Then, one summer, I finally decided to take it on. And guess what? It was amazing. I honestly have no idea why anyone ever said it was confusing. It’s long, sure, but it is so interesting that the length doesn’t matter. When I finished, I wanted more. And I didn’t need to wear sweatpants to enjoy it either. In fact, I wore short-shorts the entire time! So if you have ever been scared off by talk of a confusing, SuperNerds-only Dune, never fear…Dune is for you too.
Now let’s find out why Dune is on this list: If A Scanner Darkly is a tell-all about drug addiction, Dune portrays the stark realities of chemical dependency. A lot of people are totally disgusted by heroin addiction, to the point that their minds shut down if somebody starts describing their experiences of it. But nobody has a problem reading about Spice. The physical dependence, and almost religious reverence given to Dune‘s drug ‘Spice,’ mirror opiate addiction and chemical dependency in a way that is accessible even to the most judgmental skeptic.
So there you have it! Twelve science fiction books that totally tell it like it is when it comes to mental health issues. Still don’t think sci-fi can both entertain and teach? Why don’t you pick up one of these books and see for yourself?
Did I miss something? What’s your favorite SF epic that also covers mental health related topics? Leave it in the comments please!
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My July newsletter is going out tomorrow. It will have a bunch of great summertime+mental health info, including the bonus answers from MomMandy’s Parenting with Mental Illness interview. So if you’re not yet on the Betty’s Battleground e-mail list, you can-and should-fix that right here right now 😉
Til next time.