The popcorn/brussels sprouts scale

General: The popcorn/brussels sprouts scale

I love science fiction because it ranges from the easy and light to the challenging and heavy. I think of this spectrum as the popcorn/brussel sprouts scale.

Popcorn stories are fun, tasty, easy. You can eat a whole barrel and still want more, but let’s not pretend they’re good for you. Brussel sprouts stories challenge you, change how you think, and take effort and concentration to deal with. Such ideas are hard work to engage with, and often they are literally work – a lot of jobs involved dealing with brussel sprouts of one kind or another.

If you only read popcorn books you’ll be happy, for a while at least, but ultimately it will leave you unfulfilled. There will be explosives, which are fun, but no insight into your own life. They’ll leave you thinking that yes, the power of friendship really is the most powerful force in the universe (this will soon fade when you remember your friend still owes you $20 from last week).  These books won’t challenge you, and they certainly won’t change you. And we love them for it.  I feel most comic books fall into this category, as does most pulp sci-fi. My guilty pleasure here is GameLit such as the Divine Dungeon series by Dakota Krout. I read about 500,000 words in the course of a month, and I would have read more if there was time. Did it make me smarter? No. Happier? Yes.

Brussel sprout books, in comparison, are more of a challenge. Once we cross into this half of the spectrum, we are dealing with speculative fiction rather than science fiction. Here we find A Handmaiden’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Both are great books, but neither is particularly easy to read. They are complex, subtle, disturbing. And beautiful, of course. But keep going along the scale, if you dare, until your reach the section where the challenge is the point and any kind of storytelling is purely secondary. Here we find Atlas Shrugged, a book that’s inspired thousands but reads like getting struck repeatedly in the head with a capitalist shovel. Go even further and you’ll leave speculative fiction and enter the realm of literature that wins far more prizes than readers. I think the ultimate brussel sprout book is the Ulysses by James Joyce, a book considered to be a work of e genius by all five of the people who’ve managed to read it all the way to the end. Go further and you’ll reach a science textbook; useful, but not entertaining.

Brussel sprout books are good for you, but reading nothing but brussel sprouts will make you unpopular at parties and everywhere else as well. Yes, reading these books will leave you with a smug feeling of moral superiority over lesser readers, but they aren’t fun, and (*spoiler alert*) people like fun.

And here’s the thing: most of us get our serve of intellectual and emotional sprouts at work. We won’t want them in our free time as well. We want escape, to have fun. We want popcorn, at least for a while, and escaping from our daily grind is what storytelling is all about. I think a lot of critics forget this. Surrounded by popcorn, they crave the challenge of Brussel sprouts. That’s why they look down on the popcorn – they don’t see the challenge in it.

So what can we do? I like to read both, mix it up a bit. Something heavy followed by something light. What I like best is science fiction that sits in the middle of the popcorn-sprouts scale. For me this is Iain Banks, whose work is brussel sprouts wrapped in bacon. You’ll love what’s on the surface and after a few bites, you’ll be filled with the deep themes and ideas as well. Beautiful. If you haven’t read any Banks, I suggest you start with The Player Of Games, reviewed Here.

What are you reading, and where does it sit on the popcorn-sprouts scale? Is it time for something more challenging, or should you reward yourself with a treat for a change?

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