Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Daydreaming During the Sixth Mass Extinction: A Conversation with Chris Szego of Bakka Phoenix Books

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Daydreaming During the Sixth Mass Extinction: A Conversation with Chris Szego of Bakka Phoenix Books

The most horrifying things that I’ve been reading lately haven’t been horror fiction, but non-fiction. I’ve been reading about climate change that’s accelerating faster than anticipated, potential earthquakes that could affect millions (including people I love), and instances of mass animal deaths that nobody can explain, among many other upsetting things. I don’t know what’s going on. Initially, I wanted to understand it all better, so I bought This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, but I admit that I’m having trouble reading it. I’ve been having nightmares for weeks. I want my son to be okay. I want his life to be okay. I don’t want him to have to run from relief centre to relief centre. I’ve been reading a page a day of This Changes Everything, and still, I’m googling anxiety remedies.

Since I couldn’t handle the non-fiction, I moved on to apocalyptic fiction instead. Dr. Keith Oatley posited (a few posts ago) that novels are simulations; these particular simulations have served a very specific purpose for me. I haven’t been reading to understand what might be coming, but have been reading instead to get used to the idea of change. These books have helped me to imagine different landscapes, since my landscape (emotional, physical, political) might well be quite different soon. I read, in short order, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Boneclocks by David Mitchell, and I reread the Maddaddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood. They’re phenomenal books, and their worlds are wonderfully and chillingly realized, and I could put them down and look out the window, and still see the view that I normally see, and that was a relief.

I also went to talk to Chris Szego at Bakka Phoenix Books, as I often do.

We talked for a long time. I’m including some of the conversation here. I wish that I include all of it, but I had trouble taking notes since my son was running around the store unshelving and reshelving all the books (and this would have been fine, but, like his mother, he likes to sort by cover-colour).

I love to talk about books with Chris. She’s a phenomenal close reader, and I’m always so impressed, especially given how many books she reads. I’m always impressed with the depth and breadth of her knowledge as well. We talked about many things including science fiction and fantasy in general, climate change and apocalypse, the history of apocalyptic fiction, publishing trends, kids, and, of course, books. Our conversation included many of my favourite books, and I realized, as I was walking home, that these are my favourite books precisely because she’s introduced them all to me over the years. She’s also a tremendous reading match-maker. Her suggestions are always spot-on.

Here are highlights from our conversation.

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What is needed for good dystopian fiction? (Full disclosure: I didn’t ask this question. It came up in conversation. I wish I had asked.)

Chris said that she needed ups and downs. There needs to be balance. If everything is dire, and there are no spots of light, nobody makes a joke or snuggles with a child, then she just doesn’t buy it. [I agree. I need ups and downs as a reader. I can’t stomach hours and hours of pure dread. And the ups help me to invest, and make the downs that much more traumatic.]

What are you favourite dystopian or apocalyptic books? Can you recommend some recent titles that are doing interesting things with apocalypse as a theme?

Chris offered three tiles, which I’ll link to here:
The Walking Knife trilogy by Patrick Ness*
The Tripod Series by John Christophe
The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

[*Lex: I loved the Walking Knife trilogy by Patrick Ness. Chris also recommended A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness several years ago, and it made me cry and cry and cry. I’m going to read the other books soon.]

Have you noticed a change in the appetite for apocalyptic fiction recently? Do you think that outside forces like climate change and the attention paid to it influence people's interest in this kind of work?

Yes, certainly, but the trend is also driven by what else is popular. THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy created a huge appetite for similar kinds of stories, but we're reaching the saturation point.

No matter the specifics, there are indications that the world is about to change in a significant way. Can you recommend titles that might prepare a reader for these changes? I'm not looking for guidebooks, but rather titles that put the readers in an intellectual and emotional place to be ready for change.

The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi
Forty Signs Of Rain; Fifty Degrees Below Zero; Sixty Days And Counting – a trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson
But really, all good SFF – heck, all good fiction – can help prepare you for change. Because every story gives you a chance to try on another reality.

I feel like I'm missing an opportunity if I don't ask you more broadly about science fiction and fantasy, because you're one of the best experts around. What excites you the most about science fiction and fantasy?

Science fiction isn’t what people often expect. It's not all spaceships and robots, or whatever other cliché you can come up with. Fantasy isn't just about impossible magical things. The speculative nature of genre fiction can put very human problems in non-typical atmospheres. That way we can think about issues at a safe distance. So it isn't OUR religions under discussion, or OUR environmental damage, or OUR refugees. That remove gives us a chance to think about problems without the immediate cultural triggers.

Because you're a book seller and we are in Bakka Phoenix Books now, how about we conclude with you picking a book in the store you're passionate about and hand selling it to me. What's the pitch?

Ooh, my favourite kind of question!

THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB, by Genevieve Valentine, is a personal favourite. It's about twelve sisters, who are locked up by their father, who sneak out and go dancing at night. You know this story... but you don't, really, because this one's set in 1927 Manhattan, and there's not magic in it anywhere. Except the magic of a beautifully told story.

Also, I really enjoyed THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir (soon-to-be a movie – in fact, it's premiering at TIFF). A classic hard-SF story about an astronaut stranded on Mars, and the solutions he (and NASA, and other space agencies) come up with to get him home.

***

I walked out with both these books.

This store means a tremendous amount to me. I’ve been going there since I was very, very young, when I used to rummage through books with my father. (This was in Bakka’s old location, and we would then cross the street to Active Electronics, speaking of changing landscapes.)

I came home feeling much less unsettled. Until I turned on the news.

1 comment

Thanks for the nice chat! I'd recommend that you keep going with Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything. She does offer some recommendations and a plan for action within the book! Also, you may find the Leap Manifesto inspiring as a way to make the future disruptions into an opportunity for change: https://leapmanifesto.org/en/t...

Thanks also for sharing Chris Szego's book recommendations. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club sounds intriguing. I don't usually read fantasy but I'm going to give this one a try!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Alexis von Konigslow

Alexis von Konigslow has degrees in mathematics from Queen's and creative writing from Guelph. Her debut novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, was recently called Arcadia for the connected age. She lives in Toronto.

You can contact Alexis throughout the month of September at writer@openbooktoronto.com

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