Monday, December 16, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013, pt.12: Andrea Hairston

Science Fiction and Fantasy Define Our Humanity
by Andrea Hairston

I never have enough time to read all that I want to read. Still, my local bookseller, Broadside Books, rejoices to see me walk in the store. I collect the books I want to read, even when I am too jammed-up to get to pleasure reading. Delicious books are stacked around my house and office, towers looming over all that I do—millions of pages, curling in humidity and sighing out dust. Books chatter, whisper, and bray at me. But, this is not horror. It’s romance. Books are very seductive, very compelling. A juicy book is my reward for doing the tedious or odious tasks I don’t really want to do, but have to slog through. Books are what I use to persuade myself not to waste precious time dithering. A book-reward snaps me right out of the deadliest of procrastination fits. 

SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed by Martin A. Nowak with Roger Highfield was the book that helped me clean my office—which was suffering from four years of writing and teaching mess! Theoretical biologist Nowak argues that cooperation is competitive—it allows us to succeed in the struggle for survival. Altruism evolves. Morality is in the genome. Reasonable, slightly unpredictable generosity trumps selfish, rigid, fire and brimstone, dog-eat-dog genes. Nowak’s research points to cooperation not competition as underpinning innovation. Cooperation is the architect of creativity throughout evolution and the impetus for the evolution of our big brain. Stories facilitate cooperation. Stories and storytelling allow us to be shapeshifters and mind readers. These same ideas are brought up in other books that I enjoyed while digging out my desk and trying to make space for my next writing projects:

James Gleick’s The Information: a history, a theory, a flood

Annalee Newitz’s Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction

Pat Shipman’s The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human

Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods’s The Genius of Dogs

Frans De Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates.

Our ability to be social animals relating to others with large memories, big vocabulary, and a repertoire of strategies based on accumulated knowledge that we didn’t directly experience (stories) is a defining quality of our humanity. It doesn’t give us sovereignty; it doesn’t make us the only subjects, but living in the shadow of the future has a marvelous impact on us.

Science Fiction and Fantasy define our humanity!

Besides binging on non-fiction related to cooperation, evolution, and humanity, I got into near future techno-thrillers. I particular enjoyed Homeland by Cory Doctorow and Blackout by Marc Elsberg. Unfortunately, Blackout has not been translated from German into English yet—but you could get it in Japanese! Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear was a rip-roaring adventure-fantasy and an imaginative exploration of gender, power, and possibility. Bear’s dramatic mix of procreative power, wizardly magic, and necromancy was a seductive read.

I watched Season 2-5 of Fringe—no commercials, just straight story on the DVD. Watching Olivia Dunham save the world from evil geniuses (cut off from their emotions) before drifting into dreams was my summer rest and inspiration. The film that stayed with me was Any Day Now, starring Alan Cumming, Garret Dillahunt, and Isaac Leyva.  Any Day Now tells the story of a teenager with Down syndrome abandoned by his parents and taken in by two gay men in the 1970’s. The couple want to make a family with the boy but social services and the courts get in their way.

I have to give a shout out to my students this semester in Playwriting and Black Women Playwrights Interrupting the Master Narrative. The students’ final projects and plays were a treat to read, which made grading particularly painless. More importantly, the students offered marvelous insights, engaging dramatic narratives, and much hope for future books, play, novels, and films.


Andrea Hairston is the Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre and has created original productions with music, dance, and masks for over thirty years. She is also the Louise Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Afro-American Studies at Smith College. Her first novel from Aqueduct Press, Mindscape, won the Carl Brandon Parallax Award and was shortlisted for the Phillip K Dick Award and the Tiptree Award. Her second novel, Redwood and Wildfire, published by Aqueduct in 2012, won the James Tiptree Jr. Award as well as the Carl Brandon Kindred Award. She will be a guest of honor at the 2014 Readercon. Her next book, Lonely Stardust: Two Plays, a Speech, and Eight Essays, will be released by Aqueduct in April.

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