random book reviews: psychology and phenomenology in science fiction and fantasy

I’m giving myself between fifteen minutes and forty minutes to do this, so it’s going to be shitty. I want to describe what I like, and what you might like, about a few written works. The goal is to do that in a way that doesn’t mischaracterize them and also doesn’t give anything away.

So, sweeping generalization time. Science fiction, speculative fiction, and even fantasy explore human potential in ways that both reflect upon the current times and also point towards future possibilities. This is by far not always true, but this tends to be at the expense of psychological sophistication. More awesome, less psychological sophistication.

More literary stuff is more likely to be perspectival, internal, psychologically complex, but again this is by far not always true.

Ideally, I like my awesome and my psychological sophistication at the same time.

I don’t know how I made this connection or whether it influenced my choice of books, but I’m aware of two psychologists-turned-fantasy-and science-fiction authors who are pretty great. I guess it’s not an accident that their works contain both psychological sophistication and awesome.

I claim that reading these works will exercise your perspective-taking skills more than the average science fiction or fantasy book, at least slightly increasing your range of what you can see and experience within yourself as well as potentially grasp within other people. And it will be fun.

The first work I want to mention is actually a series, specifically the Night Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko. Lukyanenko is a Russian psychologist-turned-science-fiction-and-fantasy author (child psychiatry and psychotherapy in his distant past?). The english translations or this particular series are excellent, by some dude who’s known for his Russian-to-English translations. You’ve got this trope I love, of a low-level analyst, generally intelligent, competent, and mature, who also has no idea what he’s doing, thrown into the field with minimal training. Think urban fantasy, vampires, romance, magic, secret, world-scale societies, locked in battle for millennia, light versus dark, with reasonable use of modern technology, and fairly evenly matched unimaginable power, with everyone trying to inherit the earth and reshape it with their values.

The world-building is dribbled out with deft strokes, you’re never beaten over the head with it, and along with the protagonist, you slowly come to understand the coherent, consistent rules that hold everything together and explain the current state of affairs (or do you?). The style reminds me a little bit of Diana Wynne Jones, where little details, throwaway lines, a couple sentences of description every once in a while, add up to extraordinarily vivid imagery, character implications, and a sense finely-graded, satisfyingly titrated, majestic scale, seen through one person’s eyes, who’s also trying to grasp the whole picture in the back of his head with every ounce of his brain.

And it’s just funny, and not in a campy way, in a psychologically realistic way. Most of the humor is psychological. This guy, this adult, amidst distinctly Russian bureaucracy, dealing with his “manager,” his colleagues, other “managers,” trying to not look like an idiot, trying to make executive decisions out in the field, when human lives are at stake and you’re walking amongst creatures, coworkers, superiors, and nonaligned operatives, who aren’t especially psychologically stable or unstable, who could turn you to ash.

And people have to deal with loss, and existential revelations, and relationships, and the realistic possibility of realistically [sic] becoming completely psychologically unhinged and dead after doing lots of damage to good people and maybe realizing you did it before you die. And spy-vs-spy action. I might even be talking it up too much. Anyway, the protagonist: the gears are whirring all the time in his head, he does realistic, in-character, psychological reasoning on himself and others,  and you feel like you could have a lots of long, really interesting, and funny conversations with the guy.

Ok, next!

Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh. McIntosh has a Ph.D. in social psychology and has some research and teaching under his belt. The themes here are relationships and technology, the costs of post-scarcity, wealth, cryonics, sexploitation, power, body horror, and romance. The tone here is some genuinely unsettling horror, combined with characters struggling to understand the permutations and gradations of relationships and love. It’s terrifying, warm, funny, and over-the-top, bold strokes without being toooooo cartoonish, and story elements turn on tacit and explicit psychological struggles, sexism, classism, morality, powerlessness, and agency as characters wrestle with existential and emotional threats and try to figure each other out amidst lots of shiny surfaces.

Boom. Done. Perhaps more to follow with fiction that wrestles with phenomenology and identity in science-fictional and fantastical settings. Let me know if interested.

See also for non-fiction:




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