Reading fiction is a rewarding and fun activity, but it's also a curious one. On the surface, consuming an imagined story is done primarily for the purposes of entertainment. Spending time with made-up people in invented situations is mostly an activity driven by the need to escape the relatively mundane nature of real life. But there are other things we get from reading, too, like experiencing points of view different than our own and being introduced to thought-provoking ideas. What's interesting here is that it's these secondary benefits of reading that, in my experience, have been the things that cause a book to stay with us long after we've finished reading it. This is not necessarily an indicator of high literature—though sometimes it is—but nevertheless, the books that remain floating in my memory after I've finished reading are not usually there just because of their entertainment value.
The Children of Men by P.D. James is one of these. This pre-apocalyptic story takes place in the near future, a quarter-century after “Omega,” an event of mysterious origin that left all men infertile. Think about the implications here. There are no more children left in the world and this is the last generation of mankind. The stark reality to be faced is that the human population is doomed to extinction. Society itself is crumbling as the end approaches, even going as far as to legally sanction euthanasia. It's a dark, harrowing depiction of our decline, both at a societal level and a personal one—so much so that years after reading it I am still haunted by the hopeless scenario it portrayed.
The recollection of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro also makes me somber. It's the story of three friends who grew up at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school in the English countryside. Hailsham students were openly treated as special, yet always kept apart from the outside world and looked after and educated by guardians. The children themselves are too young to understand what is really going on, and at first, looking through their eyes, the reader doesn't quite understand either. The true nature of the students' destiny, slowly-revealed as the story progresses, makes this beautiful novel hauntingly memorable.
The reason The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin is memorable has less to do with the mood invoked than it does the power of possibilities. Nobody's life is perfect and we all wonder what life would be like if we had the ability to control it. In The Lathe of Heaven, George Orr has the power to shape reality just by dreaming it. Of course, we cannot control our dreams and therein lies the drama of the story. The book is notable for both its eloquent prose and compelling “what if?” scenario, making it another one that I keep thinking about years later.
Two other books I still think about are ones that I undervalued at the time of their reading. Having the perspective of distance, and realizing that they still linger in my memory, only makes me more confident that I shortchanged them when I originally assessed them. One of them is Space Vulture by Gary K. Wolf and Archbishop John J. Myers. It's a throwback to the days of derring-do pulp science fiction, an era I fondly adore even though I wasn't yet born. Space Vulture was intentionally written as homage to the pulpy sci-fi days of yesteryear and perfectly captures its style, flavor and, yes, even its flaws. But that's exactly the point. The book succeeded in doing precisely what it set out to do and did it so well, that I still think about it.
Another book I didn't appreciate enough at the time of its reading is The Accord by Keith Brooke. Here's a book so jam-packed with cool ideas it could have easily been the basis for multiple novels. In the story, The Accord is a realistic virtual reality Heaven inhabited by the uploaded consciousnesses of people who have died in our real world. The world is governed by a set of rules, however a select few have learned how to rewrite those rules, giving them godlike powers. The setup of this virtual world turns out to be a fountain of weighty issues about, among other things, the value of life and accountability for crime. It's one of best treatments of posthumanism I’ve ever seen and its ideas are still bouncing around my head years later. I would love to see more in this universe.
Do you have books that have stayed with you long after reading them? What makes them linger?