All literature is open to interpretation; that’s one of the main attractions of reading—that ability to take someone’s words and make of them a mental picture of your choosing. Still, reality requires that we all agree on a few fundamentals: the Sun rises in the East, lager has been ruined forever by Coors Lite, Hair Metal was a terrible idea—you know, inarguable truths. We’d all like to think the books we love are similarly transparent in their meaning, but some sci-fi and fantasy novels fool us by offering a shiny, easy interpretation that hides the real truth. Here are six often misinterpreted SF/F novels. (Equivocating sidebar: you are, of course, free to interpret these novels any way you want, and perhaps there can never be a 100 percent “correct” interpretation of a work of literature—but we think we’re pretty close.)
Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein
This one is usually mentioned as either an ode to military brotherhood, a critique of militarism, a satire of fascism, or a combination of the three (or the last time Casper Van Dien was a star, if you’re only familiar with the movie). But Heinlein’s writing is more complex than that. Drill down, and you’ll find the book is really about critiquing democracy, specifically, who deserves a vote. Heinlein argues pretty forcibly that in order to have a say in what goes on in society (especially, but not limited to, the decision to wage war), you should first serve that society yourself, and gain essential personal experience. In other words, the idea that simply by being born in a country or conferred citizenship through a legal mechanism means you have the right to vote or hold office is crazy. His thesis angles pretty sharply with some of America’s core beliefs, making it an even more controversial book than you ever imagined.
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Any novel about state-sponsored book-burning is about censorship, except when it isn’t. The key to fully grasping this one lies in understanding what censorship is; like your First Amendment right to free speech, it’s easy to misunderstand. Censorship is when a government passes a law preventing you from saying something or expressing ideas. When your neighbors tell you to shut up about something, that’s not censorship. The true horror of Fahrenheit 451 isn’t that some awful government is burning books, but rather the much more terrible idea that society as a whole—your friends and neighbors—are allowing books to be burned because they find the ideas in them disturbing.
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Two centuries after its composition, and through countless adaptations, reinventions, and revisions, people think they know the point of Frankenstein, usually offering up a variation of a “man shouldn’t mess with the laws of nature” approach. But Frankenstein is, rather, a strenuously pro-science novel that indicts man for his callousness toward non-human life. The “monster” of Shelley’s novel is smart and tragic—the true fiend is Dr. Frankenstein himself, not because he pursues knowledge and scientific breakthroughs, but because he holds the results of his work in contempt and refuses to accept the consequences of his actions.
Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
The capsule view of Leckie’s award-winning novel tends to focus on her genderless approach, which assigns every character a feminine pronoun. That’s an easy thing to grab onto when discussing it, but the real point Leckie is making has to do with personhood—as in, what does it mean to be an individual, with free will and the ability to affect the course of events around you? It’s a much deeper contemplation, and thus, often overlooked in favor of a more ready discussion about gender, or a simple appreciation of a great story told by a great writer. I’d argue Leckie’s ultimate point has more to do with your responsibility towards the universe as a sentient being, than a the proclivities of a culture that refers to everyone as “she.”
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
It’s not so much that this incredible novel is incorrectly interpreted—it’s feminist themes and exploration of a truly misogynistic society are crystal clear—so much as most readers don’t dig deep enough into it. The secret is that Atwood doesn’t paint a simplistic men-are-evil picture with her dystopian society, in which women are more or less breeding property; she explores how both sexes support and contribute to a horrifying vision of a future American society. Yes, it is clearly men who have reshaped the world in order to strip women of all political, economic, and legal power, but the women of the Republic of Gilead are often willing, cruel participants in the Handmaids’ oppression. This sort of shading is what makes this book orders of magnitude better than dystopian writing that relies on a simplistic “us vs. them” scenario.
World War Z, by Max Brooks
Easy, this one is about zombies, right? It is—except zombies are really just the (slowly rotting) agents of chaos in this story. The real point is how society reacts to epic-scale destabilization. Zombies are ideal monsters for absorbing metaphor and symbolism, but Brooks smartly focuses instead on the reaction of the non-zombie world to this scourge, exploring how people try to cope, how governments break down and fail their citizens, and how society’s worst aspects are exacerbated when the comfort zone is squeezed to almost nothing. Yes, there are zombies, and battles, and horror set pieces, but really, this is a book about how good we have it, and how lucky we are, because society might not survive the pressure of an extinction-level event.
What do you think—are we off the mark?