What makes a good comfort read?
Murderbot has Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon and I have Murderbot
While recovering from Covid last summer I re-read The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells while crocheting a huge hexagonal blanket. And when I say read, I mostly mean I put it on text to speech on my Kindle. I was really tired all the time and could barely think. Not only that, even having strong emotions exhausted me, so I didn’t want to read anything new and potentially upsetting. I certainly didn’t want to read any news or current events, either.
“I hate having emotions about reality; I’d much rather have them about Sanctuary Moon.” (All Systems Red)
I’m reading The Murderbot Diaries again, just because. I’ve got critical theory and unread Nebula winners piling up, just to start, but instead, I’m re-reading. There’s something deeply indulgent about re-reading when there are more books to read than you’ll ever be able to read in your lifetime. It’s like taking a bath instead of going out.
Comforting books (and other media) are a little mysterious to me. I had a roommate who liked to re-read The Secret Garden, and lots of people my age read the Harry Potter books that way, before the vast disappointment of the author’s bigotry sucked all the fun out of them. My partner re-reads Ian Banks Culture novels, including the (in my opinion) grueling Use of Weapons as his comfort reads. Clearly, which books exactly are a comfort read varies by person. But perhaps they share some unifying qualities.
n.b. I’m going to say “comfort read” throughout this post even though I’m going to talk about other media, too, because “comfort media” sounds weird and too much like some kind of particularly nice bacterial growth medium.
Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon #
When we meet it, Murderbot, a human-robot construct designed to be a killing machine, has hacked its governor module and is no longer under the control of the corporation who owns it. But they don’t know that so Murderbot continues to do its job as a security unit, and spends all its free time (and all the time it can steal) watching soap operas:
“It’s downloaded seven hundred hours of entertainment programming since we landed. Mostly serials. Mostly something called Sanctuary Moon.” (All Systems Red)
Even after Murderbot gets free of the corporation, it still obsessively consumes entertainment media, returning, over and over, to its favorite, Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon.
It watches Sanctuary Moon to calm itself when it’s in a scary situation–whether that situation is physical danger or extreme social awkwardness. And it watches it as part of its literal recharge cycle to also metaphorically recharge itself emotionally after dealing with a difficult social situation:
“I was also planning to use the time to watch some Sanctuary Moon and recharge my ability to cope with humans at close quarters without losing my mind.” (All Systems Red)
Whomst amongst us hasn’t and so on, right?
As I was (once again) re-reading Murderbot and reading about Murderbot re-watching Sanctuary Moon, I realized that Murderbot has a good theory of what makes for comforting media.
A comfort read is familiar #
A comfort read need not be a re-read, but often, it is. The familiarity helps.
It could also be familiar because you recognize the tropes and know what will happen. I’m pretty sure that’s what makes romances such good comfort reads (assuming certain romance tropes don’t squick you out). It’s probably what made the Witcher TV show comforting to me. Despite being rather violent, gory, pessimistic, and kind of misogynistic, it hit the sword and sorcery plus Polish fairy tale beats that made sense to me.
A really good comfort read doesn’t get worn out on re-reading. Spoilers are not a thing. Because it’s familiar, you can read it again even if you’re too stressed out or tired to try something new. Like Murderbot does:
“If it was going to destroy me, at least I could get some media in before that happened. I started the new show again, but I was still too upset to enjoy it, so I stopped it and started watching an old episode of Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon” (Artificial Condition)
But not too familiar #
You don’t want a comfort read to remind you too much of the boring or upsetting parts of your life. It shouldn’t feel like work if you don’t like your work. But if you really like your work, the way ART the transport ship bot does, then it might be OK:
“I found it odd that the transport was less interested in _Sanctuary Moon, _which took place on a colony, than Worldhoppers, which was about the crew of a large exploration ship. You’d think it would be too much like work–I avoided serials about survey teams and mining installations–but maybe familiar things were easier for it.” (Artificial Condition)
When I was sick, I wasn’t about to read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, even if bored convalescents might be extremely relatable. (I also wouldn’t read it as a comfort read while sick because it’s too difficult a novel to read when I’m not at full mental capacity)
The right kind of unrealistic #
“It looked very unrealistic and inaccurate, which was exactly what I liked.” (Artificial Condition)
This might be one criterion where Murderbot and I agree, but not everyone else does. I prefer science fiction and fantasy in general, but even more so as comfort reads. However, even set in an imaginary future or world, SFF might still be too real to be a comfort read. I loved The Chronicles of Tornor but the realistic emotional intensity makes it a bad choice for a comfort read.
On the other hand, something might be unrealistic in the wrong way. The constant, horrible murderiness and misogynistic misery of A Song of Ice and Fire is unrealistic in the wrong way for me. So are any number of rapey fantasy stories. Or those stupid romances where the hero is clearly abusive to the heroine but then she falls in love with him and he gets better. No thanks. As Murderbot says:
“There’s unrealistic that takes you away from reality and unrealistic that reminds you that everybody’s afraid of you.” (Artificial Condition)
Except unlike Murderbot my problem in reality isn’t that everyone is afraid of me. But you get the idea.
A specific kind of unrealistic that Murderbot and I both like is stories about competent characters saving themselves. Murderbot itself is such a character, first freeing itself from robot slavery, and then constantly getting into terrible danger and getting out again. The Vorkosigan Saga, which I also re-read last summer, is also about hypercompetent people getting things done. Weirdly, I think that’s why some of Charles Stross’ _Laundry Files _novels are comforting, too. There might be horrible eldrich horrors and and unspeakable bureaucracies, but the characters just fucking deal with it.
Like a warm bath for your fretful porpentine #
“Some part of my organic systems remembered what had happened there. In the feed, ART started to play the soundtrack to Sanctuary Moon, and weirdly, that helped.” (Artificial Condition)
Ultimately, I think a comfort read isn’t so much about what’s happening in the story, but about the effect it has on you. Even with Murderbot’s abstracted criteria, I wonder if these are too specific. I didn’t even mention a bunch of other things that seem to be important for me, like sardonic humor, fast-paced action, and emotional distance, because I can think of plenty of books that have those qualities and aren’t comforting. It’s still a bit mysterious. All I know is that when I pick up my comfort read, it makes me feel a bit more OK about everything. And if everything is already pretty good, it’s still a nice way to relax.
You can buy The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, starting with All Systems Red from a number of sellers, or check your local library.