Category Archives: Sociology

The Dangers of Utilitarianism in “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K. Le Guin

[Spoilers: There are gigantic spoilers in every version of reality this post is a part of.]

“What comes is acceptable.”

When Ursula K. Le Guin died earlier this year, I knew that I wanted to read one of her novels this year. Then, I stumbled across the trailer for the documentary, The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, several weeks ago. (This link will take you to the website with the trailer and other information.) Seeing the preview inspired me to go on a search for a book by Le Guin that I hadn’t read before. Every time I’ve read her books, they’ve transformed me in some way. This time, I selected The Lathe of Heaven to read. I tore through it in just a few hours.

The book was highly critical of people, and even institutions, that think they know best for other people. The protagonist, George Orr, has dreams that can alter reality. And he gets paired with a psychiatrist who wants to “help” people—in the aggregate.  It’s a scathing look at utilitarianism. If you have to crush the one in front of you to help the “many,” then maybe you are losing your way.

In fact, the protagonist is feeling particularly lost in one of the realities because his love interest has been “unwritten.” He’s in an antique store and interacts with one of the aliens that he dreamed into existence (or maybe they existed all along?) “‘Is there any way to control iahklu, to make it go the way it…ought to go?’” The alien gives him a gift of a Beatles album, specifically a single of “With a Little Help from my Friends?”He eventually falls asleep listening to the lyrics: “’Do you need anybody? I need somebody to love,’” and “’I get by, with a little help, with a little help, from my friends.’”

When he awakens, the woman he loves is there, although she is different than the previous iteration that he knew. In the end, the therapist tries to hook himself up to the dream machine instead of Orr, thinking that he could change reality better than Orr because he was “superior.” (He critiques Orr repeatedly for not wanting to interfere, for being apathetic.) And he nearly destroys everything. Orr acts at the one point it was entirely necessary to act and stops the machine. As a side note, Orr doesn’t think of the psychiatrist as an evil man. He was a good man whose mistake was thinking that he could fix everything and that he knew the solution.

This novel felt like a love letter to love itself and friendship. The danger lies from grandiosity, from losing sight of the small things, which, in the end, are everything.

 

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Hugo 2018: Socialization and Agency in McGuire’s “Down Among the Sticks and Bones”

[If you don’t want spoilers, this is not your doorway.]

I skipped reviewing Hugo 2017 books because I wasn’t in a science fiction or fantasy mood often last year. This year, however, I’ve felt more like diving in to read both again. I already reviewed New York: 2140 up for best novel. Recently, I read Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanen McGuire, which is the second novella in her Wayward Children series. For a quick background on the series, you can read about it at McGuire’s website.

It’s an urban fantasy story where children and teens get pulled into other realms. From a sociological and psychological perspective, I enjoyed how McGuire tracked identical twins Jacqueline and Jill’s differential socialization despite being from the same family. McGuire is scathing about parents who view their children as mere things that are extensions of themselves. These different experiences, as well as having agency, or choice, lead Jack and Jill into making different choices when they get pulled into an horrific realm with vampires and mad scientists. Also, the story defies stereotypes in some ways like the character of the mad scientist but not in other ways. I particularly liked the idea that a little girl can grow up to be a worse monster than an actual monster.

The book left me thinking about how we force sisters (and brothers) into roles in the family as if they are opposites—like the dichotomy of girls being either a “princess” or “tomboy.”  Siblings can both be smart and bookish for example. One major take-away is that individuals responsible for children should be helping those children on their journey while giving them the tools for self-actualizing as they age. (I’m currently reading Motivation and Personality by Maslow.)

I’d highly recommend this fast-paced read and following it immediately with the third book in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky.  If you want to be creeped out, I’d suggest reading it with a blanket and a flash light. I’ve never read Seanen McGuire’s October Daye series so I think I’m going to check it out soon.

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Supporting LGBTQIA Students in “Every Heart a Doorway” by Seanan McGuire

[Spoilers—this portal world is loaded with spoilers—beware!]

I’m definitely late to the party on the novella, Every Heart a Doorway, that won the 2017 Hugo award. Recently, I was in a bookstore judging books by their covers when I picked up the third novella in the series because I liked its vibrant colors. I’m glad that I found it.

The protagonist, Nancy, is going to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, to live after her return from a portal realm.  All of the teens and children that live there have visited a variety of other portal realms (eġ. Wonderland).  Most are trying to return home.  However, the twist is that home isn’t where their families are. Rather, they believe that home was the realms they left. (Ultimately, I think that the real message by the end of the book is that home is actually living an authentic life—it could be in another realm or not. It’s taking ownership of one’s life.) The narrative of the book is a fast-paced, magical murder mystery set at a boarding school. The book both directly discussed LGBTQIA topics, as well as exploring the topics through metaphor. For purposes of this post, I’m going to reflect on the topic of diversity, specifically the LGBTQIA community.

Before returning to the novella, I’d like to share some statistics and information. You can go to this article from Pew Research Center called 5 Key Findings about LGBT Americans. This article by the Center for Disease Control (CDC)  in the United States looks at outcomes for LGBTQ youth. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, LGB students were at increased risk for bullying and violence. In turn, this may have impacted their likelihood to be absent from school. Since these students are also at a greater risk for depression and suicide, the CDC website has a section on “What Schools Can Do.” Some examples including support groups. Outcomes were better for LGB students who were in schools that “had gay-straight alliances and policies prohibiting expression of homophobia in place for 3 or more years.”  The article includes a bulleted list of policies and practices that schools can enact to help students.

A couple of these practices are modeled in Every Heart a Doorway like “encouraging respect for all students and prohibiting bullying, harassment, and violence against all students” and “facilitating access to community-based providers who have experience providing…psychological services to LGBTQ youth.”  For example, the students in the book have group therapy sessions related to their portal realms and their feelings about returning to our world. This support was important because the teens often didn’t receive help from their families, who wanted them to be the individuals that they remembered before their disappearances. (And often, the families didn’t understand the children even before the disappearance.)

One of the most important aspects of encouraging diversity, tolerance, and acceptance is communication.  Although the action kept moving, the characters spent much time in dialogue, explaining their preferences for their portal realms, as well as their identities. For example, the protagonist, Nancy, is asexual. Through her reflections, as well as conversations with others, the novella explores the associated stereotypes and assumptions. But it’s also about the teens feeling comfortable as who they are: their personalities and their behaviors, including the clothes that they choose. People should embrace others differences while respecting others’ boundaries. The range of acceptable expressions and behaviors is much larger than our world of commercially-based gender tagging allows. However, there are limits to this if other people are harming others, which the book explores.

I’ve picked up the next two books in the series so I’m looking forward to reading Down Among the Sticks and Bones next.

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Capacity in Zeynep Tufekci’s “Twitter and Tear Gas”

I’m feeling a bit rusty at writing blog posts right now. It’s been about six months since I last posted. Hopefully, I’m going to try to keep them shorter and post more frequently on a wider variety of topics.

Recently, I’ve been reading a great sociology book called Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest by Dr. Zeynep Tufekci. She studies social movements and technology. I’ve followed @zeynep, her Twitter handle, for years. While I’ve been exposed to some of her academic ideas before, it was great to read them in the extended format of a book. Twitter and Tear Gas is easy to read, and I think that non-sociologists would find the book highly relatable. In fact, she uses metaphors in a way that is reminiscent of literature. Also, she documents her travels to study social movements in many countries, which I think made the book engaging.

I marked up my copy—always a sign of great content. However, I’m going to focus on Chapter 8 on “Signaling Power and Signaling to Power.” The key hallmark of good sociology is asking the right questions. Tufekci asks important questions in this book like:

If numbers and energy do not tell the whole story, how do we measure a protest’s power? Why do some movements have little impact while others are potent agents for social change (191).

Tufekci outlines three different types of capacity in social movements: narrative capacity, disruptive capacity, and electoral/institutional capacity. While the other two types of capacity are important, I’ve been reflecting on electoral and institutional capacity since I read the book. It’s described as:

a movement’s ability to keep politicians from being elected, reelected, or nominated unless they adopt or pursue policies friendly to the social movement’s agenda, or the ability to force changes in institutions through both insider and outsider strategies (192-193).

One of the best aspects of Tufekci’s writing is how she contrasts worldwide, contemporary and historical social movements to illustrate these types of capacity. Lots of people I know have been becoming more politically active. An understanding of the difference between types of capacity might help them make skillful choices in directing their activities to help the social movements that they care deeply about.

If you want to read the examples related to capacity in Chapter 8, Tufecki’s entire book is available here through Creative Commons.  However, Tufekci makes a compelling case on her website as to why it’d be helpful for people to buy her book, which is what I did. I love the fact that this book is available for people who might not be able to afford it, like many of my students.

Finally, if books aren’t your cup of tea, then you might also find her Ted Talk from September 2017 called  “We’re building a dystopia just to make people click ads” particularly relevant, given how social media, especially Facebook, is in the news right now.  I just showed it to my social diversity and introduction to sociology students in the past few weeks, and they found it quite engaging and relevant. It led to student self-reflection on their social media usage. Soon, I plan to make some posts on what I’ve been reading in the past six months, as well as my thoughts on the Hugo nominees for this year.

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Socialization and Values for Fantasy Writing and Life: Neil Gaiman’s and Charles Vess’ book “Instructions”

[Spoilers the size of fairy tales]

“Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where you are going.”

“Trusts ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn. Trust dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story.”

For my birthday this year, I wanted a copy of Instructions written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess. In the past, I’ve blogged about Gaiman and Vess’ book, The Blueberry Girl, which I adored, and has become my standard gift for baby showers for girls. The first one I gave away was my treasured hardback. It was a gift well given, although I still miss my original copy. (If you want to know more about The Blueberry Girl, you can follow this link to a blogpost by Neil Gaiman that includes a narrated version. It’s lovely.) As Neil Gaiman stated in his blog post, he wrote the poem for his friend Tori Amos at her request for her daughter, one month prior to her birth.

When I first read the book, I think wanted it to be The Blueberry Girl, again. Really, I wanted the same emotional experience that I had the first time I read it. I find this type of comparison is a way to ensure that I’ll never be satisfied with any artist’s next work. I did enjoy my first reading of Instructions, but it was actually the second reading that enchanted me. Now, for me as a writer, I think I prefer Instructions. Or they are both awesome in different ways.

The Blueberry Girl is a prayer, filled with hopes for a child; Instructions is a guidebook on how to actually live a good life, to go on a good journey. Normally, I don’t include dedications in my posts, but I loved these.  Both Vess and Gaiman dedicated this book to well-known writers. Based on this, I feel like the book is a “thank you” to all those who go on adventures into their fantasy worlds, risking danger and failure, to return with something amazing for the rest of us. It’s more than just returning with a lovely tale. Most folklore, fantasy stories, and fairy tales are instructive and have good life lessons: on what we should seek and what we should avoid.  (In fact, I’d argue this is true of most good stories including religious ones.) As I’ve discussed before, books are such an important agent of socialization. They teach us values and norms—and challenge them.

I think that you can read this book in a couple of different ways: as a writer preparing to create something to be shared and as a person trying to live a good life. Be cautious, but also, trust.  Back to the themes I’ve noticed in other works by Gaiman (see my posts here and here), the theme of avoiding greed is woven in. The character enters a house and is instructed: “[w]alk though the house. Take nothing. Eat nothing.” On the next page, “However, if any creature tells you that it hungers, feed it. If it tells you that it is dirty, clean it.  If it cries to you that it hurts, if you can, ease it’s pain.” In this scene, the cat adventurer picks up a small cat that then travels with it. Yet, later on “when you come back, return the way you came.  Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.” You can give help and other times you accept help. Both are important to living a good life.

In terms of the art in this one, my favorite pages include an eagle soaring with the cat adventurer’s arms outstretched, with his cat companion sitting in front of him, looking as if he is enjoying the breeze. I loved the last page: “And then go home. Or make a home. Or rest.” In our efficiency-driven, constantly-streaming, multitasking society, I believe that we need it to be okay to live our lives how we choose. We might be producing something, including art, but sometimes, it’s okay to just be.

I highly recommend getting a cup of tea, or coffee, or whatever you prefer, sitting somewhere cozy with a blanket (mine pictured below), and giving this book a few reads. After that, you might want to check out the narrated version of Instructions that will open on YouTube.

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A Return to U.S. classics: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

This year, as I’ve reduced my participation in social media and blog writing, I’ve increased and changed the focus of my reading. I established this blog to mainly talk about science fiction and fantasy books with a sociological imagination. However, I’ve found that my reading habits have shifted some this year. My interests have always waxed and waned so I’m sure that I’ll return to reading science fiction and fantasy again. (In fact, I did read one piece of fantasy, an incomplete work by J. R. R. Tolkien where he started an epic, Arthurian poem using alliterative verse. It was fascinating. I want to learn more about Old English and a have a desire to reread The Lord of the Rings again.)

First, I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Ernest Hemingway looks at the impacts of World War I without having the characters directly discuss or even think about the war much. Reading this allowed me to think about how when traumatic events happen, they may impact people so much that they no longer talk about the event. They may actively try to avoid thinking about it while still facing the direct and indirect effects of said event. In turn, this attempt at trying to ignore the pain may intensify problems like alcoholism or risk-taking.

Then, I had stumbled across Eudora Welty’s photography at our local art museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art. The ethereal nature of the photography, much set in southern states, spoke to me in a way that made me curious about her writing. I decided to read The Optimist’s Daughter since it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972. The book was psychologically powerful and impacted my thinking about the past, memories, and letting go.

On a recommendation, the next book I read was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It really seems to be an human soul locked in novel form. It took me a month to read it since I was busy at work. But it was worth it.  It truly is a masterpiece. He was writing about the upheaval occurring in the United States around the time of World War I, with a primary focus on the Salinas Valley in California. (This book was helpful for me, as I can relate to themes of rapid social change inspired by changes in technology and globalization.)

The extremely short version of what the book expands on is the idea that human beings have a choice to be good or evil. It isn’t all destiny, biology (nature), or even culture (nurture). The characters debate a section in the Book of Genesis  related to the Cain and Able story, particularly the meaning of the Hebrew word, “Timshel,” in different translations of the Bible. The characters explore meaning of this story and word together across time, deciding that “Timshel” means, “Thou mayest.”  Individuals have a choice. They also discuss how Cain was marked not to be harmed, despite the terrible, murderous act he committed.

Also, some lessons that I found embedded in the book were: (1) humans deserve the truth of things, even when it may hurt them, (2) people should be trying to see the truth of situations, other people, and themselves, even when painful, (3) words have power to transform people, and (4) people (and horses) deserve to get names to live up to. We should hope for the best but be prepared to see what is. Many of the characters do not see themselves or others clearly, and it leads many of them into dire situations or even death. The surviving characters at the end, on the other hand, grapple with the problematic aspects of their personalities and delusions. When thoughtful people get together to discuss their problems, it makes them better. In the middle of the book, Lee says:

But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe.  It is always attacked and never destroyed—because ‘Thou mayest.’ (302).

I particularly really liked one line of dialogue: “‘And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good, is that it?” (583) Finally, as I was reading, I wondered what Steinbeck would make of fake news sites and people intentionally misleading other people and what kind of treatment he’d give it.

Now, I’m reading sociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s new book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest on how new technologies are changing social movements and our lives.

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Social change in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

[Spoilers the size of the First Pulse ahead]

Earlier this year, over spring break, I traveled to San Francisco for a work conference. (What a lovely place!)  I needed a book for the return flight across the country and remembered that I had been looking forward to the new Kim Stanley Robinson novel about future New York. (In a previous post, I discussed why I loved reading his last book, Aurora, as well as Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.) I hiked all over the city to local bookstores, trying to find a copy, which I eventually found at Alexander Book Company.  I had high hopes for New York 2140.

This book was precisely what I needed after the political events of 2016.  One of my concerns about much of popular culture (in movies, tv shows, books, etc.) in recent years has been the focus on dystopia, cruelty, anti-heroes, self-loathing, etc. I’ve been slowly cooling out on many parts of popular culture that I used to enjoy.  As an example. I stopped watching Game of Thrones seasons ago (and am torn as to whether I want to finish the novels.)

In my own writing, and in the stories that I want to read right now, I want stories that focus on real people who are working to make their communities better. We need stories that tell us that we can be good, that we can be better. We need stories about communication and collaboration. We need stories that show that outcomes change through daily actions and diligence. New York 2140 delivers this through its magnificent cast of characters—characters who have ordinary but essential jobs. Characters who actually grow as people over time due to their situations and interactions with other people in their communities.

However, it’d be too easy for a novel to swing too far in the other direction away from dystopia and total despair. It could focus too much on utopia, on “perfect” heroes without flaws, on rosy ideas that could never actually happen because we humans are complex and messy. Apparently, at least in this novel, Kim Stanley Robinson feels similarly.

The future New Yorkers are dealing with uncertainly and adversity relating to the environment and capitalism and have been for more than a century.  Yet, despite the destruction, people are still living their lives. There are people who are swooping in to take advantage of disaster and those who are the “helpers” that Mr. Rogers referenced.

This book made me wish that I had read more American literature. There were many classic American stories embedded in the larger story which is why such a large cast was needed: it included a treasure hunt, a police/detective story, a rags to riches orphan tale, Moby Dick references, “Mutt and Jeff,” a gritty lawyer, the immigrant experience, an internet star, love affairs, and so much more.  I’m sure that I missed some references. There’s also “a citizen” that waxes poetical about the city of New York, that gives historical and educational information about New York through the centuries. In fact, New York City felt like a character in this book.

Many stories play out simultaneously in a city, and Kim Stanley Robinson points this out.  In fact, we often focus on the “few” people, but in reality, there are many people responsible for the events around us, including social change. It reminds me of the differences between micro-level and macro-level approaches in sociology.  Reality construction requires the day-to-day interactions and meaning construction between individuals.  You don’t get large institutions like banking or politics without individuals. Yet the institutions and large scale-conflicts around us shape those individual actions. The characters actions in New York 2140 impacted the society that they live in; however, other people in the city/nation/world who were not a part of the narrative played a role, too. Kim Stanley Robinson puts it like this in a chapter by “a citizen”:

Note that this flurry of social and legal change did not happen because of Representative Charlotte Armstrong of the Twelfth District of the State of New York. . . Nor was it due to any other single individual. Remember: ease of representation.  It’s always more than what you see, bigger than what you know.

That said, people in this era did do it.  Individuals make history, but it’s also a collective thing, a wave that people ride in their time, a wave made of individual actions.  So ultimately history is another particle/wave duality that no one can parse or understand (603).

I loved this idea.  We’re riding a wave that we’re creating together. In some ways, it indicates a lack of control while also recognizing that we are in control of our individual actions. We can work to improve our communities and enact social change.  But there is a limit in scope of what one person can do alone.

A remaining questions that I have: is “a citizen” actually Franklin Garr, the only first person narrative in the novel? He’s smart and knows a ton about New York due to his work in the beginning of the novel as the creator of the Intertidal Property Pricing Index, and extremely complicated formula “used by millions to orient investments that totaled in the trillions“ (19).  It’d be easy to mistake him for “just a stock broker”, but he has to understand finance, as well as the physics of what’s happening.  He obviously had a great education; however, he is young, wealthy, privileged, selfish and immature. Over time, through his exposure to diversity within his building, though his interactions with the other characters, he grows and becomes more empathetic and thoughtful.  This is a great message because people can change. I’d have to go back and do a longer analysis, but small things make me wonder if he’s also “a citizen” like their love of boating, enthusiastic narrative style and way of “speaking.” ( Of course, this could be a coincidence  since the whole book is about New York being submerged.)

I highly recommend this book, and I hope that it gets nominated for awards next year. Although I haven’t mentioned it, New York 2140 would be educational for readers who might not have taken a sociology class.

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