How Reading Good Fiction Can Help Your Career
“Serious DC people only read nonfiction.”
One of my friends and colleagues came to believe this during his first internship in Washington. He would eventually change his mind, but I often wonder how many people in DC, especially young professionals focused on their careers, might believe it. Granted, no one has to like fiction, but it would be shortsighted to dismiss such books out-of-hand as frivolous. Fiction — and especially speculative and historical fiction — is good for your career and a healthy use of time.
Fiction makes you examine deep philosophical and political problems by stirring the mind and presenting new possibilities. Anyone who has read classics like George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World knows this.
In your job, you can get siloed and miss useful information or alternative points of view, but speculative and historical fiction can help correct that. Take my field of foreign policy, for example. If you assume American missile defenses would keep us safe from North Korea, Jeffrey Lewis’ The 2020 Commission Report puts an end to that idea. Lewis sketches the build-up and aftermath of a fictional nuclear war in the format of a Congressional report, painting a mostly-realistic reminder of how misperception and escalation could get out of hand.
Alternatively, if you think a rival power would never dare to quickly seize disputed territory and use nuclear blackmail to try and keep it, then you should read Ghost Fleet. P.W. Singer and August Cole layout a World War III scenario that is fast, high-tech, and clandestine. They also explain why Russia or China might start such a war and think they could get away with it. Admittedly, while Ghost Fleet’s characters are not the best written, the novel’s ideas are worth pondering.
Perhaps near-term musings aren’t enough, and you want to stretch your mind about what the future might hold. If so, George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years will lead to lively arguments. On the one hand, he convincingly asserts that Russia and China are not as stable as thought and will not challenge US global dominance successfully. On the other, he strangely holds to the far-fetched idea that Japan will eventually return as a significant threat. Although his book is only part fiction, it reads well and is thought-provoking.
Let’s say you want something more concrete, and you like to travel and know about other cultures. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is an epic work of historical fiction and follows a Korean family’s saga from Japanese colonialism in 1910 to their descendants in 1989. Although it is like a soap-opera, it does an excellent job of exploring gender and ethnic dynamics within different historical periods. It also portrays the mistreatment of Koreans who lived in Japan but how Koreans survived and rarely saw themselves as victims. The family’s stories—and the plight of the woman protagonists—are compelling, and you will care what happens to them and their dreams.
Another example is The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, the first Chinese novel to win the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Part one of a trilogy, it is a grand tale of humanity’s struggle against aliens undergirded by fascinating physics problems and philosophical dilemmas. These books’ themes are very deep, although some characters are very flat. For a Chinese series, it offers a surprising critique of the Cultural Revolution, but you quickly see a different value system too. The survival of the collective (humanity) is up to the (not-surprising) leadership of brilliant Chinese individuals. Also, the series’ assumption that collapsing gender norms would hamper the ability to make hard sacrifices serves as fodder for intense conversations.
Finally, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is another fine piece of historical fiction, although with many run-on sentences. This novel gives a sweeping tour of the Soviet Union’s attempt at achieving utopia and beating America economically. Its characters include fictional representations of real-life people, including Nikita Khrushchev. With many literary flourishes, the characters are revealed as ultimately human in their hopes, failures, dreams, and evils. You can feel their struggle toward utopia but also understand how it was bound to fail. Additionally, just like Lee’s Pachinko, it is incredibly well researched.
With all of these books, the point is not whether you agree or disagree with them. They are entertaining stories that serve as portals to other worldviews and other times and places. This kind of fiction helps you to think more critically as you examine what the authors are saying and consider your reactions. It is an excellent way to learn something and unwind in a healthy, fun way.