Have you heard “You are what you eat?”
Well, since books are brain food that feed our inner selves, “you are what you read” should make perfect sense.
Humans are amazing creatures, you know? We not only are very adaptable, but we can learn from other’s experiences.
There are historians and anthropologists who think that the reason Indo Europeans conquered the limits of their possible world was because they told really good stories. Mostly long sagas, describing the great deeds of their ancestors and their tribe. Even if it wasn’t their tribe, and they were just aggregating to it.
But culture was transmitted through those stories (like a virus) and everyone wanted to be indo-European. And convinced themselves they were.
And this is the point: You are what you read.
I know very few, hard-core devotees of horror who are happy people. And most devotees of post-apocalyptic are steering a course for something like that.
Think about it. No, seriously. Think about it a moment.
You live through the experiences of the characters. Fiction is a brain hack that gives you the benefit of lived experiences you never had.
Sure, it’s also fun, but don’t be mistaken about what else it is.
I’m now at that age where memory becomes unreliable. Not just in the sense of “where did I put my keys” (I can and have lost things in a completely empty room, while doing remodeling. Which is why I own something like 10 hammers.) More in the sense of “did this happen, or did I see it/read it somewhere.”
It’s usually trivial stuff, since I try to be awake for my own life, having decided to do so when I was 18. But for instance, I can’t remember if the marching cadence “I don’t know but it’s been said, Navy wings are made of lead; I don’t know but I’ve been told, Air Force wings are made of gold” is something I heard when I was teaching at the air force base, OR if I read it in a book. Stuff like that is slippery.
Because when you read things, and you’re really in it? You’re living it. It goes in your brain as part of your lived experience.
People have found in studies that humans frequently confuse books and movies for things they lived.
The problem, of course, is that books and movies aren’t. They’re not even — by and large — someone’s lived experience. They’re an intellectual construct, sometimes coming from someone’s experience, sometimes merely from the exigencies of the “puzzle” that informs the book.
What do I mean by that? Well, for a post apocalyptic story, danger and scarcity are going to be there, even if the author never experienced them. It’s part of the setting and in setting up the ‘puzzle’ you have to put them in. (Puzzle because all good books have something that has to be solved.)
So what happens when you absorb a lot of horror, or a lot of post apocalyptic, or whatever?
You start to think within the parameters of what is, to your back brain, “lived experience” and not just that but your most common lived experience.
Most horror fans I know (by which I mean people that read almost exclusively and obsessively horror) become paranoid, convinced that everyone is out to get them, and also absolutely sure that whatever they do will end up in disaster.
I’d almost call John Ringo’s Black Tide books anti-post apoc, because while it is post apoc, not only the characters survive, but society gets rebuilt. So it’s very uplifting in a tight place, which is where we were when we read it.
But still, how many people who are fans of that series reacted to the covidiocy with more alarm than warranted, because they had “killer plague” in the back of their minds. In fact, how much of the overreaction was the result of people liking post-apoc so much in the last few years?
Humans can survive almost everything, because they adapt. But what happens when they’re adapting to something that’s not true?
What about politically correct fiction who makes it a point of having all the right victims, and demonizing people in flyover country?
Remember the guy who used to comment here, but instead of asking us about Liberty Con went and asked the left — the people who read the same fiction with the same flaws; heck, the people who write it — if it was safe for him to attend, given that he’s gay and in an interracial same sex marriage.
Those of us who are habitues of LC would have said, “oh, you’ll be fine, provided you don’t start screaming insults at anyone. But you might have trouble getting tickets now. Here, let me see if they’ll take you as panelists.”
And he’d have been fine, and have a great time, because…. well, because there are interracial couples and gay couples at that con on the regular. In fact when I had my renewal of vows at the con, a gay, Jewish friend came to the con to “support” me, and he loved it. He left with a reading list and a bunch of new friends.
BUT asking people who’d never been there, this poor idiot ducky was assured that he’d be lynched/tortured/killed.
And it never occurred to him these people not only didn’t know any more than he did, but were prejudiced in the exact same say he was: because they’d read the same books, where all of the South is mired circa the fifties, when it was still a democrat and therefore racist (sorry, but the record speaks for itself) stronghold, instead of the laid back, cosmopolite place it now is.
Instead he piously believed them, because of course, it accorded with his “read” experience which fits in with what his back brain thinks he lived.
So, you are what you read. Part of the reason the post apocalyptic trend worried me is that I’d already seen my generation trying to bring “rusty future” about.
Oh, sure, as a writing trend, the idea that the future would be a rusty, scarcity-riddled place was exciting and different in the 70s. At least if you want to read really depressing crap.
Because before that, we’d been going onward to an ever brighter future. So depressing futures was NEW.
The problem is a whole generation grew up with it. And the modes of thinking it instilled are taking us there, in a way. If you think everything is dangerous, you’ll ration gas, you’ll be afraid of nuclear, you’ll think it’s best if humans go extinct.
In the same way if everyone in the books you read is evil or even (just) a weasel and dingy, you’re not going to trust anyone in real life. Everything, including your closest relationships, is going to spiral to hell. Because you internalize that way of thinking.
So, what am I saying? Shouldn’t you read fiction?
Oh, hell no. And no, I’m not saying you have to read “realistic” fiction, because that one isn’t either, and tends to be way more insidious, since it pretends to be “real world”. (It’s also, usually, grey goo where everyone is dingy.)
I’m not saying not to read all polyannish, sunny fiction either.
I’m saying to think instead of what modes of thinking and being in the world you’re getting from your fiction, and the ways it’s making its way into your thinking.
I’m saying to be aware that books are highly simplified and compressed. Yes, wheels come off societies, but I’ve yet to see a book that portrays that realistically. Be aware, for instance, that as bad as Venezuela is, some of my relatives (though opposed to the regime) have CHOSEN to go back in. Because they have lives and careers there.
Yes, people are starving, but they are the vulnerable people, the lowest in savings and ability to survive. My family is finding it at WORST “inconvenient” and “uncomfortable and while they’re angry, it’s still easier to live there than in a place where they’re total strangers and don’t know how to survive. Even if that place is in better shape.
Which means even when the wheels come off, some people are still relatively okay, in their little pockets. But you’d never know that from post-apoc fiction. Which is why a lot of people are both shocked that we haven’t collapsed yet, and convinced we’ll never fight back because we haven’t so far. Both of which are on the stupid/insane axis. Because societies don’t work that way. They’re slow to turn. But in post apoc books and movies, they turn on a dime.
(In post apoc books/movies the mob also takes to the street and changes the world. Which is what the left keeps trying to jump start, poor bunnies. They have no idea what they’re ACTUALLY doing or what comes next. Sigh.)
Be aware of what’s fiction and what’s reality. Leavening your reading with a dose of history or economics written before, oh, 1980, might not be a bad idea either.
And try — try really hard — not to read just one genre or one sub-genre. Because you are what you read.
Becoming a regency female would be very weird, and yet it might still be more functional than becoming a post-apocalyptic “hero.”
The same way you must be aware of what you put in your body, be aware of what you put in your back brain.
The life you save might be your own.