Hey, y’all *waves* nice to be back in quirky booklist mode. I promise no more information literacy for now. And I thought I’d change things up by talking about speculative fiction because it seemed pretty much as far as I could get from information literacy. In speculative fiction we don’t care about facts… in fact, we can come up with whole alternate histories à la The Man in the High Castle! We don’t need to think about graphs, charts, or statistics… we can make entire AI characters to crunch our numbers for us, even though they might be a little evil like Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey! We don’t need to worry about specific political debates; we can read about other worlds who are having similar political debates and see where their decisions take them… à la The Handmaid’s Tale. Speculative fiction can open our brains up by giving us enough distance from the situation to understand the world a little bit differently because the distance depersonalizes it for us. 

I love stories like this… I think the first time I really noticed how these types of stories could open up my brain and get me thinking was watching a specific episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I do not know how old I was, though the youngest I could have been was twenty. When the episode Darmok first aired in 1991 it was fascinating… and I was able to identify that I was experiencing a big “aha” about language and how it is used through fiction. In this episode, the universal translation available in the Star Trek universe can only get the two cultures so close to being able to comprehend each other. As the episode evolves, Captain Picard realizes that this is because the epic stories of the Tamarian culture are so baked into the language that you need to know the story to understand the meaning of their language. Of course, it’s Star Trek, and Picard ultimately cracks the code. This particular episode is one of those that you see referred to on Twitter from time to time. In a way that requires you to understand the reference for it to make sense, so in the jumbled language of Twitter you may have seen a reference and not known it. Statements like “Shaka, when the wall fell” is an example of a Twitter response that refers to the episode and has meaning, but only if you get the allegorical nature of the language of the Tamarians… so this episode has since been used to discuss how memes have become a part of our common language, by referring to it. I tried to figure out how many levels of “meta” that kind of reference is and got stuck in my own head, suffice to say it’s A LOT… a lot of metas. Also, fun! You can watch this classic episode in Season 5 of The Next Generation, which you will find in the list that accompanies this post. 

I started thinking about Darmok again recently when I read a book called The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers, which is a charming non-space opera sci-fi title featuring five non-humanoid characters. During a short exchange of dialogue, the characters gasp in horror as one of them deconstructs a human food source that all of them have heard rumors of, but only one has actually seen: cheese. Of particular horror to them is the fact that cheese is not made from human breast milk, but milk from other creatures. It is hilarious to read as a human cheese-lover. Of course, there are vegans and folks from cultures that don’t rely heavily on dairy with whom this passage will land differently. But as the human I am, I can read and laugh and acknowledge the truth of it, while still unabashedly loving cheese. And I can then recognize that this has implications beyond this one passage and may well be a way to recognize that foods that do not sound good to me at all can be comfort foods in cultures where eating such things is normalized… which makes me recognize that maybe we all are pretty similar—just with different definitions of what “normal” is. Exploring that idea around something as basic to existence as food makes it easier to expand that thinking out to more complicated concepts, like ethics.

Also, the stories are entertaining and fun. And they might make you think differently about the world around you… but I will continue to believe that cheese is delicious no matter how gross it sounds when you break down what it is! So, have some fun this week… think a little bit about cheese… or about artificial intelligence and possible worlds… read one of the books on this list.