The best ideological adventure books

Who am I?

Growing up in a household with a fantasy author dad and a philosophy professor mom, I learned to appreciate stories that expressed big ideas. I realized the books and movies I liked weren’t just vehicles for ideology, but that ideas are the hooks that draw me into a story. I’ve also always loved animals and monsters. Like Miyazaki and C.S. Lewis, I was attempting to create a narrative that brought my beliefs and interests together. Now I live in Southern California with my husband, son, and cat, surrounded by rattlesnakes, tarantulas, hawks, and coyotes. It’s an imperfect, beautiful world! 

I wrote...

City in the Desert

By Moro Rogers,

Book cover of City in the Desert

What is my book about?

In the isolated desert kingdom of Kevala, Irro, a carefree monster hunter, and Hari, his not-quite-human assistant, are doing a roaring business. Then a mysterious cult leader arrives, promising to rid Kevala of monsters once and for all. What does a monster hunter do when all the monsters are gone? And can we live without monsters? 

The books I picked & why

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Boxers & Saints

By Gene Luen Yang,

Book cover of Boxers & Saints

Why this book?

I’ve always loved Hong Kong New Wave movies, but they often emphasize action and flashy melodrama over historical context. For someone wanting to dig a little deeper, the graphic novel Boxers & Saints is a look into the parallel lives of two Chinese teenagers during the Boxer Rebellion—One is a red-blooded patriot eager to fight Western invaders. The other is a troubled girl who finds liberation in Christianity. Both characters are carried along, motivated, and then betrayed by fanaticism. When their paths cross, they are forced to learn the difference between religious faith and religious mania. The simple artwork isn’t meant to be lingered over…I read all 512 pages at breakneck speed.

Homage to Catalonia

By George Orwell,

Book cover of Homage to Catalonia

Why this book?

Poor Orwell, he just wants to go fight in the Spanish Civil War and kill some fascists. When he gets there he finds that the Republican “side” is wracked by infighting, manipulated by shady overseas actors, and misrepresented by the Anglophone press. Loyal friends are betrayed, thrown in jail, and executed. Also, everyone’s clothes are falling apart, the guns misfire, the passwords are hard to remember, and it’s cold. And Mrs. Orwell is along for the ride, although we don’t hear her side of it. While there is no obvious moral, as there is in Animal Farm, (“Don’t do it again,” maybe?) it’s an incredibly entertaining book. Orwell’s prose is so clear and crisp that I forgot I was reading. 

Asterios Polyp

By David Mazzucchelli,

Book cover of Asterios Polyp

Why this book?

If the other books on my list are about disillusionment, Asterios Polyp provides a good counterpoint as its message runs in the opposite direction. Sometimes people are better than you think. Asterios is an obnoxious architect whose worldview starts with the assumption that everyone else is wrong. After a series of crises (thrown out by wife, apartment fire) he has to flee the city and rent a room in the home of a rightwing redneck married to a hippie, just the sort of people he would never associate with by choice. He learns humility and goes about fixing his life. It’s all pretty predictable but the mix of elegantly cartoonish art and funny storytelling kept me engaged (even when I wanted to smack the hero.)

The Doomed City

By Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky,

Book cover of The Doomed City

Why this book?

Written in Soviet Russia in 1972, but only published in 1989, this is the story of a bizarre experimental city populated by strangers from all over the last century. All have made a deal with mysterious mentors who are trying to find out…something, by subjecting the city’s inhabitants to apparently arbitrary torments like plagues of baboons. Our hero, Andrei, tries to take it in stride like a good Soviet boy, but finds himself increasingly doubtful as the conditions of the experiment just get weirder and weirder. The humor and situations are very Russian while the emotions will be familiar to anyone dealing with seemingly incoherent orders from above. Reading it at the height of the pandemic was certainly a trip.

A Voyage to Arcturus

By David Lindsay,

Book cover of A Voyage to Arcturus

Why this book?

In the first half of the 20th Century, before Fantasy was taken over by Tolkien imitators, some very crazy novels were written. My favorite is David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, about a man exploring a world where people’s bodies reflect their worldviews—one’s philosophy might require one to grow new eyes, new arms, or even a few tentacles. The characters inhabit a constantly shifting landscape of wild space creatures. The overtly Gnostic message is presented with such clarity and color (several colors unknown on Earth!) that I find it an exhilarating read, even if I disagree with it. The book undermines its own Manichaeanism by showing us an amazing world that I guess we’re supposed to recoil from, but much of the time I find myself thinking “Isn’t that cool!”

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