Monica Byrne is a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. Her ambitious new work of speculative fiction, The Actual Star, follows three reincarnated characters across two millennia, from the collapse of the ancient Mayan civilization to a far-future utopia.
God Is Not One by Stephen Prothero (2010).
I couldn't put this book down. It's a lucid comparison of the world's eight major religions — and it shows you how religions form in the first place. This book was incredibly useful to me in creating the far-future religion, called Laviaja, that's featured in The Actual Star. Buy it here.
The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson (2013).
There are relatively few science-fiction books that draw on ancient Meso- and South American cultures, but this is one, and one of the best. Johnson paints a far-future society built around an ancient tradition: the selection — and execution — of one beautiful youth. Buy it here.
The Gift by Lewis Hyde (1983).
This book, subtitled Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, is legendary among artists for a reason. By examining gift economies among Indigenous peoples, it challenges us to reimagine all of our assumptions about money and commodities. In the far future in The Actual Star, the world runs on a perpetual gift economy. Buy it here.
Pleasure Activism by Adrienne Maree Brown (2019).
In this book, Brown gathers wisdom from a community of visionaries to reimagine what activism can look like: not a draining slog, but a celebration of pleasure. It helped me to understand how pleasurable activities — such as reading and writing fiction — can do just as much good in the world as anything else we do in the name of social justice. Buy it here.
Blind Descent by James M. Tabor (2010).
This is a nonfiction book that reads like a thriller. Two teams — one in humid Oaxaca, one in frigid Caucasia — race against each other to find the deepest cave on earth. Tabor not only illuminates all the personalities involved but also makes you feel as if you're right in the caves with them. Buy it here.
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (2013).
I've read few other novels that manage to conjure up an entire other world with such clarity, depth, and beauty as this one. And yet the themes it explores are all too familiar: how a power-obsessed elite leave the vulnerable behind, and how they finally find a voice, corporeal or not. Buy it here.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.