Is real life stranger than science fiction?

CBC book columnists Heather and Arizona O'Neill try to answer that fundamental philosophical question: Is real life stranger than science fiction?

This month, Heather O'Neill picks her favourite non-fiction books, while Arizona O'Neill reviews sci-fi books

Heather O'Neill, who read non-fiction this month, says Midnight in Chernobyl is a 'good detailed primer' on the world's worst man-made nuclear disaster. Arizona O'Neill focused on sci-fi and called The Sea one of the 'strangest graphic novels' she's ever read. (Arizona O'Neill)

This month, we both read very different books. Heather was reading a stack of non-fiction books, while Arizona was deep into science fiction.

We selected favourites from our respective piles in order to answer that fundamental philosophical question: Is real life stranger than science fiction?

The Cost of Living, by Deborah Levy (Non-Fiction)

(Arizona O'Neill)

This is the second instalment in what Deborah Levy is calling her "living autobiography." This is a memoir about being in one's 50s, which means, for a lot of women, being newly divorced with teenaged children.

Levy talks about the radical thanklessness that comes with being a mother and wife and holding a home together for so many years. It saps all of your energy and, let's be honest, nobody cares. Your family only notices your failings and calls you selfish for spending too long brushing your teeth. Here is a quote to illustrate this point:

"When our father does the things he needs to do in the world, we understand it is his due. If our mother does the things she needs to do in the world, we feel she has abandoned us. It is a miracle she survives our mixed messages, written in society's most poisoned ink. It is enough to drive her mad."

What I adored about this book is that it deals with the practicalities of getting on with life without focusing on the grief of divorce etc. So you realize that objectively it can be a wonderful time in a woman's life because she is making choices all on her own. (I mean back in the day, everyone loved being a widow, am I right?)

Levy clearly enjoys being in her 50s and makes it sound messy and glamorous. She rides around on her scooter in the rain, showing up at film meetings with crazy ideas and sitting down in a new apartment to write the books that, honestly, are masterpieces. 

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Science Fiction)

(Arizona O'Neill)

Binti is one of the best science fiction trilogies I have read in a while. A young girl has to choose between staying with her family — thus dedicating her life to her people's culture — or pursuing an education, opening up new vistas and experiences to herself.

She is the first person from her home to ever be accepted into Oomza University, an elite intergalactic university. Her family laughs and says she cannot go, but she chooses to sneak out early in the morning and leave earth to pursue her dreams. While on the train to Oomza Uni, an alien species attacks her spaceship, leaving her as the only survivor.

Throughout the series, she deals with the trauma of this event and understanding her identity outside of anything familiar. The book, even though it takes place in another world, holds a lot of truths grounded in our contemporary reality. Women are constantly faced with the decision to go against the life laid out for them, and they have to live with the repercussions of that choice on their own.

Okorafor manages to capture the effects trauma can have on a person in such a heart-wrenching way. The emotional realism of her works is just one of the aspects of Okorafor's books that makes her one of the finest science fiction writers working today. 

Nobody's Looking at You, by Janet Malcolm (Non-Fiction):

(Arizona O'Neill)

I have always liked Janet Malcolm's writing and have read several of her biographies. This book is a collection of previously published essays on various people and subjects. It's refreshing to read portraits of people other than movie stars and politicians.

Malcolm writes so wonderfully about women. There is a portrait of three sisters who run a used book store in New York City. They possess the middle-aged beauty, humour and wryness of women in Chekov plays. She follows piano prodigy, Yuju Wang, who only wears stiletto heels and dresses that make her look like a sex vixen from a 90s sci-fi film. She has the sullen intuitive fury of the very young.

What I like about the manner in which she documents lives is her inclusion of the seemingly mundane and unglamorous moments, wherein she looks for the clues of who a person actually is. In one essay in Nobody's Looking at You, while describing Eileen Fisher, she keeps returning to the detail that she keeps her cat outside even in the winter. Fisher tells her not to read into this. But everything we do in our lives in a metaphor and has subtext.

I personally like reading people as though they are characters in books, whose subtle actions betray them. (I don't necessarily think my friends appreciate this though!). 

The Power by Naomi Alderman (Science Fiction)

(Arizona O'Neill)

Originally published in 2017, The Power is newly out in paperback. Alderman starts with a very interesting concept for a novel, one that reflects today's political climate.

In her book, young women all over the world develop a power that allows them to release large charges of electricity generated through their hands at will. The book questions what women all over the world would do with this power and it follows many different perspectives.

One of the most interesting plot lines follows a male journalist who is reporting on the women with the power in repressive countries. In this narrative, women who were being trafficked for sex work finally win their freedom by killing all the men who held them captive and the men in government who knew about the human trafficking industry. 

Alderman creates a world where the powerful are always oppressive, despite gender or race. And she leaves us with a controversial, perhaps deliberately provocative moral.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham (Non-Fiction)

(Arizona O'Neill)

This book is a good detailed primer on the events that happened in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986.

The first half is particularly technical, breaking down the technological failures that lead to the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear plant. It also gives a very good picture of Soviet bureaucracy, its chain of command and its relationship to the world at the time.

It is told more from the perspective of the scientists at the plant than from the Ukrainian population who suffered from the fallout. 

Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich (Non-Fiction)

(Arizona O'Neill)

This is one of the most heartbreaking books I've ever read. This was the first book I read by 2015 Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich a few years ago. I was not prepared for her technique and wept through the whole thing. I reread the book again recently to examine what she was doing, a little less emotionally this time.

Alexievich recounts moments in Russian history by spending years interviewing people with wildly different backgrounds and perspectives on the events. She then weaves the voices into a document that is so shockingly intimate and real.

The world's worst man-made nuclear disaster happened in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986, under the direct jurisdiction of the central authorities of the Soviet Union. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

She puts in the mundane details that would never make their way into an ordinary history book. And it is in this way we perceive how a historical event not only unfolded, but what it felt like to experience it first-hand. Also how it changed the psyche of a people, radicalized their mythologies, subverted their metaphors, and created their vocabularies.

It explores how historical events affected love making, weeping, cooking, giving birth. In one passage, Alexievich recounts what the dreams of pregnant women were like after the explosion. In another, a child describes yelling at their cat to run for its life from the car window as his beloved radioactive pet is being chased by soldiers.

The Sea by Rikke Villadsen (Science Fiction)

(Arizona O'Neill)

Rikke Villadsen delivers one of the strangest graphic novels I have ever read. The meaning of her work is very much left up to the reader to decide and interpret.

The story starts off with an old man on a fisherman's boat in the middle of the sea. It is unclear how long he has been there, and it almost feels like an eternity. He keeps insisting to the reader that he is a sailor — not a fisherman — while revealing elements of his past.

I really appreciated that this old man's rambling breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience. We all know a stubborn old man who, if put into a book, would not follow the rules and try to address the reader to inconvenience them. 

He pulls from the ocean a talking fish and newborn baby. They both criticize him for swearing and insist he is a no-good fisherman for plucking them from the depths. A possible interpretation to the story is that the old man is in limbo waiting to be reborn. Whatever the meaning however, this book will take you on a very unexpected journey, and I would love to know what you think.


Heather and Arizona O'Neill

CBC Homerun Book Columnists

Heather O'Neill is an award winning novelist, short story writer, and essayist who lives in Montreal. She is Arizona's Mom. Arizona O'Neill is a filmmaker and avid reader who lives in Montreal. She is Heather's daughter. Follow them on their Instagram @oneillreads