Quick Pick: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel: Absurdist Sci-Fi That Inspires Readers to Ask Why? What? and Huh?!

By Hannah Carmack, Creative Content Coordinator

Welcome to Night Vale book cover

At STEM Read we often have students ask if we can turn their favorite books into field trip experiences. We’ve gotten requests for HatchetThe Hunger Games, and even To Kill a Mockingbird, which would be a downer of a field trip if we’re real about it. But, recently we’ve for a long, weird novel based on the popular podcast “Welcome to Night Vale.”

Welcome to Night Vale: a Novel isn’t necessarily STEM in the traditional sense. It’s an oddball-blend of Lovecraftian horror, Kafkaesque absurdity, and Douglas Adams-y humor. It would likely be more at home with Terry Pratchett’s work than on any STEM-fiction shelves. There are no high-tech gizmos, no scientific notations, and no obvious space travel. In fact, the science in this book is nonsensical but it’s through this nonsense that we can get students thinking about the real science that goes on around them every day.

Logline: Night Vale is a strange town where time doesn’t work quiet right. One day, a mysterious man in a tan jacket rolls into town. He hands out slips of paper to anyone who’ll take them. The slips say, “King City” and nothing else. Once someone takes the paper, it is impossible to put down, tear apart, or get rid of. Jackie, who has been 19 , teams up with local PTA member, Diane, to solve the mystery of the man in the tan jacket and free herself from the piece of paper she hasn’t put down since she picked it up weeks ago.

The writing is  campy, punchlines are set up and knocked down, sentient clouds are running for PTA, and aliens are just a fact of life. There’s no getting around the fact that this isn’t a book for everyone, but it’s a book that garnered a lot of attention at the time of its release and will likely be seeing a resurgence in popularity as its sequel, It Devours!, comes out  later this year. But, it’s not just a goofy novel to brush to the wayside. Fink and Cranor are using some clever moves to get readers thinking about science in new and weird ways.

One of the book’s characters, Carlos, is a scientist who constantly conducts experiments and explains common-knowledge theories. In one section, he explains the water cycle. In the context of the story it makes complete sense that we’d read about the re-uptake of water for two or three paragraphs. In another section, he even pokes fun at the scientific method, explaining that to perform an experiment one simply hooks an object up to some machines and takes some notes. In a rudimentary way, he’s right. That’s the humor of it. And it’s humor a reader wouldn’t get unless they were thinking about the actual scientific method.

There are also a slew of mysterious and unexplained moments in the story that tap into a reader’s curiosity. At one point, Diane and Jackie are trying desperately to leave Night Vale to go to King City, but can’t. It’s never explained why they can’t leave Night Vale. Hints are dropped, theories are explored, but nothing concrete is ever reached. At another point, sentient lawn flamingos are sending anyone who touches them back in time. Scientist Carlos even preforms a few experiments on them in an attempt to figure out how they work. He concludes that they are just another unexplained thing in “a town mostly made of the unexplained.” The characters never get 100% of the answers, and when they do think they’ve solved the mystery, it reinvents itself in to a completely new mystery.

Students who read Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel aren’t going to learn about marine biology or discover how to escape from Mars if they’re ever in an interplanetary pickle, but they may see that science is beautiful; science is mysterious; and, most importantly, that scientific knowledge is always changing and expanding. That mindset contributes just as much to innovative thinking as anything else. So, take a trip to Night Vale this fall. It may be difficult to get to, but it’s worth the ride.

Retro Reads for Night Vale Fans

  • H.P. Lovecraft’s stories often involve people who are searching for something. Usually they only manage to find madness, death, and mind-melting horrors perpetrated by ancient god monsters that want to rip apart the very fabric of reality. Check out The Call of Cthulhu or Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft.
  • Franz Kafka’s stories blend reality and fantasy and explore ideas of alienation, guilt, and bureaucracy. His stories are perfect for anyone who has ever wondered what it would be like to wake up as a giant bug. Check out The Metamorphosis and Other Stories.
  • Douglas Adams is best known for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which started out as a BBC radio comedy series (aka proto-podcasts). His silly space adventure stories skewer the absurdity of life on Earth and other planets.
  • Terry Pratchett is known for his Discworld series, satirical books that take place in a magical world that sits on the backs of four elephants that stand on the shell of a giant turtle that is swimming through space. The books are filled with wordplay and winky references to famous historical and mythological figures and works of fantasy and science fiction. There are 41 Discworld books to dig into, so readers might as well start at the beginning with The Colour of Magic.