NOTE: Sometimes I don’t have anything particularly funny or snarky to write, and sometimes I’m in between more academically-aimed historical or other scholastic pieces. In those periods, I still have things I want to write about, they just fit somewhere in between. This is the second post in a category I call “In Between.”
I’ve been reading a lot of post-apocalyptic style fiction lately. Okay, by “reading” I mean listening to audiobooks–see my post “Lessons from a First Semester in ACS” for why they might just be saving my soul from a slow death by commute.
Speaking of souls, soulless zombies, post-EMP USA, alien invasions, and the challenges of struggling through what happens when the proverbial shit goes down are the subjects for loads of popular new books. Right now, I’m listening through the first few books of the Arisen series by Glynn James and Michael Stephen Fuchs while I wait for Stephen Moss’ third book in his Fear the Sky trilogy to drop on Audible.
These books are brain candy. I could read or listen to memoirs, treatises, classics, studies, and professional discourses. But I don’t. This time–the ridiculously long time it takes me to drive from home to school and back again–that’s my time.
I read enough about public policy analysis, and economics, and statistics, and American politics, and other subjects for my grad school coursework. And I try to deliberately carve time out to stay abreast of the latest in the military professional writing forums. (“Military professional writing forums” is a fancy way of saying I troll through Twitter, Facebook, Medium, and a handful of my favorite sites and blogs for new and interesting natsec, defense, professional development, history, and military-related articles.)
But maybe, just maybe, there’s a little something valuable to fantastical stories of fiction.
For one, many of these stories explore arguably legitimate concerns. William R. Forstchen’s One Second After proposes numerous potential consequences in the aftermath of crippling EMP blasts that made America a third world country. Good lord is this book super right-wing and preachy. (Seriously, I lost count of the digressions where the author basically wailed “if only we’d have done something!” And its intro is written by none other than Newt Gingrich.) Fear mongering aside, it really hits home when the main character’s daughter finally runs out of insulin to treat her childhood diabetes.
In similarly realistic fashion, Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer and August Cole explores how our military might react if one of the US’s biggest global rivals opened up war by using cyber offensive tactics and other techniques designed to disable our technological advantages. I personally like to preach the gospel of training to operate in austere operating environments under analog conditions, and Ghost Fleet drives that point home.
Why are these stories so doggone appealing? Perhaps the most attractive quality is that they place people in extreme situations that demand extreme reactions. Readers (or listeners in my case) imagine themselves in those same dire circumstances and endeavor to answer the unanswerable: how would I react? Would I make those same choices? Could I? Readers can question their morals, search for their ethical lines in the sand, all without having to do so by experiential learning.
By and large, these stories are optimistic. Maybe that’s where the real appeal lies. Authors plunge their characters into impossibly bleak and hopeless scenarios, make the reader care for these made-up characters, and then, usually after desperate trials, have them emerge successful. Of course, that’s not always the case, but who doesn’t love a happy ending?
Fiction can stimulate critical thought, challenge beliefs, exercise the imagination, and can be damn entertaining. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy non-fiction as much as the next Army officer. It’s a little disappointing, though, when General Odierno’s 2014 Professional Reading List only included one fictional book: Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle.
I’m not alone in finding the value of fiction writing. Joe Byerly argued on his blog From the Green Notebook for “more fiction on military reading lists.” Rachel A. Brune offered ten fiction books military professionals should add to their reading list in this Task & Purpose article.
I don’t care how cliché the quote is, just remember what ol’ Harry S Truman said: “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” Nothing in there about reading non-fiction only, so mix it up!
Other fiction books I’ve listened to recently that I recommend:
- The Martian, by Andy Weir
- American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
- Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
- Saturn Run, by John Sandford and Ctein
- The Wool trilogy, by Hugh Howey
- Beacon 23, by Hugh Howey
Feel free to recommend your own!
Views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the US Army or the Department of Defense.
Featured photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.