Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why The Popularity of Utopias and Dystopias?

The latest YA novel craze is dystopian fiction. This sub-genre of science fiction has knocked vampire-relationship fiction off it's pedestal, which had pushed to the ground boy-wizard-goes-to-school-and-fights-enemies fiction. I find this trend interesting because it's really a turn from fluffy style fiction (sorry Twilight fans) to a fiction with ideas.

I may get in trouble for saying this, but vampire fiction to me was always about sex and abstinence. The cravings of the vampire were a metaphor for, well, you know. I understood the popularity of these books for that reason but never related to them. Dystopias come from a more universal place. I can't imagine anybody with some sort of political bent hasn't heard a news item and felt a cold chill about the direction the country is heading. Who hasn't worried about what would happen to our countries of one's political foes seized power? Hence the popularity of dystopias.

The best dystopic fiction takes a trend happening currently and projects it as guiding principle for an invented society. Some examples of this are Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale which is about elements of the religious right taking over an America, depleted after nuclear war. Margaret Atwood speculated what would happen if the religious right took control of what remained of America, giving it a plausible premise of post-nuclear chaos, and the repression that would occur.

From another point of view is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World which is about a world taken over by industrialization yet people are controlled not by the repression and secret police of The Handmaid's Tale but by their own pleasure principle. People are genetically engineered for certain jobs, with their abilities and especially intelligence modified for menial work or more advanced tasks. Yet everyone is somewhat satisfied by the ready and legal availability of drugs as well as a tradition of easy recreational sex.

Interestingly, I think Brave New World has been quite prophetic in the sense that it portrayed a society willing to give up much in exchange for pleasure. I consider how our society has given up communal life to a large degree in exchange for the pleasure of the virtual world. This began with television (or maybe radio), but western society has done a remarkable shift in its willingness to participate in public life. The “front porch” where we used to participate in neighborhood life is no longer our actual front porch, it's the internet and especially websites like Facebook.

In this vein, M.T. Anderson's YA book Feed is about a world where corporate advertising, especially internet advertising, has become a dominating factor of life. Approximately three quarters of young people have a “feed chip” surgically implanted in their skulls which enable them to receive advertising at all times based on their location and what they're actually thinking. As well, the young people in the book have developed a jaded attitude towards life in general; the book begins with a complaint about how a visit to the moon “sucked”.

Feed is a creepy vision, made much more frightening when one considers that this is actually happening with the location-based applications on most smartphones. Even in the last couple of days it has been revealed that Apple Computer stores the location of every iPhone user on a file which in turn is backed up to your local computer with iTunes. Does Apple actually read this file and learn exactly where every user of an iPhone has been? The company is mum about this so far, but suffice to say, this is a troubling corporate trend. (Disclaimer: I was an IT technician specializing in Apple computers in the 1990s.)

The Hunger Games novels are another YA dystopia based on control because of the scarcity of natural resources. The remnants of the United States are broken into twelve districts (there was a thirteenth, but it's fate after a rebellion is a mystery). The population is controlled with laws, police, and especially a years event called the Hunger Games. This is a government sponsored battle to the death between randomly chosen young people (although the poor tend to have a greater chance of being chosen, of course). The fight is the media event of the year with the explicit point that if the government can take any young person in the flower of their youth, they can doing anything to the captive districts. The story in itself is quite reminiscent of the myth of Theseus, who went to Crete with the tribute of fourteen Athenians in order to kill the cruel Minotaur that was to devour the young people. In this story, young Katniss can't defeat the evil government itself, but she can come to a surprising and self-sacrificing personal triumph.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Politics in Science Fiction

Is it possible for a science fiction author to write a political novel without espousing a political point of view? Is that even a reasonable question?

Ursula LeGuin's book The Dispossessed poses a situation that seems to come out of the left/right debate of the middle twentieth century. It poses a situation where you have a planet named Urras with a moon named Anarres which is large enough to have its own atmosphere. Anarres can support life, although it is desert-like and resource-poor when compared to Urras. Approximately two hundred years before the events in the book take place, an anarchic worker's revolution took place on Urras, which has a culture and economic structures similar to modern earth, although the technology includes space travel, including travel to other planets, aided by an alien race called the Hain.

The story is about a physicist Shevek who grew up on Anarres, which had developed an anarchic/communist culture similar to that idealized by the twentieth century socialists and communists. He has developed a grand unifying theory of physics, which is radical enough that it threatens the bureaucratic systems that have grown on Annares. LeGuin makes quite clear that as Anarres matures, it's moving further and further away from the idealistic revolution that spawned the colony, and while in the early days of Anarres's history someone like Shevek would have been warmly embraced, now he is a problem.

Shevek eventually makes the short trip to Urras, an act nobody from Anarres has done for over one hundred years, in order to promote his theory. There he encounters a society much like modern America: exciting, creative, competitive, and at times decadent. Much of the difficulty Shevek encounters is in dealing with an individualistic, property-owning culture, quite different from the communal one he grew up in.

Clearly LeGuin's sympathies are with the revolutionaries on Anarres (as are mine).  She poses a flawed paradise on a barren planet where people live in as best an egalitarian paradise as one might imagine, a place where people are not values by how much property the own but by their contributions to society. Yet she also describes Anarres as clearly a culture in decline, retreating from its original revolutionary fervor to the creation of the very bureaucracies it rebelled against, albeit with a different flavor than what might be found on Urras.

The question then becomes: Does LeGuin's political bias become an obstacle to the creation of a good novel? I would argue not. She makes a good case for the anarchic society on Anarres without turning the book into a polemic. One can disagree with LeGuin's sympathies, but one cannot say she poses a black/white situation in her novel. Anarres is clearly flawed, while Urras has a level of dynamism and creativity that Annares seem to lack.

Robert Heinlein's book Starship Troopers is another novel that discusses politics overtly. While Heinlein is personally associated with a more libertarian philosophy (whether this is his actual philosophy I'm not sure about), his novel about the military of the future has been popular and controversial. While the plot of the novel revolves around an interstellar conflict with a species of intelligent insects, the controversial section is about how society has changed because of the war. Heinlein poses a different view if citizenship than the current one. Since the war is so critical world society as a whole, what Heinlein proposes as full citizenship revolves around service to the government, and specifically military service, although society is required to find a place for anyone to serve, regardless of ability. It's a more limited and exclusive concept of democracy, revolving around implicit criticism of today's democracy where, “… people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted... and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.”

What people mostly react to about the book is whether it, through its specific necessity of military service to gain full citizenship, is a realistic or even morally appropriate requirement. After all, this means the person must risk his/her life in order to gain suffrage. Heinlein makes the point that this new was made after the fall of the western democracies, when veterans were a leading force to forge this new government. Whether this requirement is a moral one is best left to the reader, or course, but it does need to be said that the way Heinlein extolls the necessity of violence and the efficient way it solves problems can be troubling.

Yet these issues make a book interesting. Part of the appeal of Starship Troopers is that it's more than just a book about war; it's also a book about ideas. Whether you agree with Heinlein's point of view or not, it's a fun read, and the book makes you think. That's not a bad thing at all.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Teacher's Job Is To Making Life Difficult

One of the things I believe about science fiction is that it should be challenging. This is why I tend to get down on the Star Wars-type space operas; they're not particularly challenging. The hero fights the villains in spectacular ways, at the end there is a showdown, and then the good guys go have a party. The engagement is in the action, and that's fine for a certain level of entertainment (and I likes me my stupid entertainment every now and then), but what we should be teaching in schools is something high-level than that.

This is why I believe in science fiction and fantasy works as something to be taught in the classroom. These works should challenge students to think. They should engage the intellect and make you consider that which you haven't considered before. They should be hard.

During the last couple of months I've been teaching the Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing to my eighth-graders. After we learn the play, we perform it in the original language to the community. To be clear, this is hard. Students need to memorize many, difficult lines of Shakespeare. Students will need to speak these lines in a convincing manner. They will need to act on stage, speaking lines completely artificial in a way which must convince the audience that it's natural.

What's the goal of this? In the end, it's to show students what the literate life is about. It's about making much-loved classics alive. It's about cultivating a love for great works by showing young people that they are certainly not dead. Not only are they relevant, but these great works can be translated into modern settings easily, and they work. Now the goal of the teacher is to makes great works relevant and not approach them in a boring fashion (a mistake too often done). Yet once that hurdle is overcome, then miracles can happen.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Great Poster for “Much Ado About Nothing”

Two amazing women have helped to make a gorgeous poster for my upcoming play Much Ado About Nothing. The first is the photographer Lori Adams, who generously donated her time to photograph my students. The second person is my lovely wife Kirsten who designed the poster for the play.

Here is the poster. You may click to make it bigger.

Gorgeous, isn't it! The characters are, from right to left, Benedick, Beatrice, Don Pedro, Claudio and Don John (Dame Joanna).

Sunday, April 3, 2011

An Excellent Article About, Well, Me!

The news website just published a very complimentary article about my upcoming play Much Ado About Nothing. It's a great description of the kind of teaching I do and my philosophy about teaching Shakespeare.

Contrary the perceived focus of this blog, I love teaching Shakespeare. It's my second favorite subject to teach. Sometimes I find myself just getting drunk on the language, it's so rich and beautiful.

The performance will be on Friday, April 8th, at 7 PM. Admission is free.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Science Fiction Television

While one could easily complain at the quality of science fiction that might be on television at one moment, it cannot be argued that there has been a lot of good science fiction over the years. As a teacher, short videos that last a period are great tools for instruction and television shows fit that bill pretty well. I wanted to give a quick list of quality science fiction shows that you can pull from. Some are appropriate for middle school ages but others are more edgy and appropriate for high schoolers.

The  Twilight Zone was a series of short shows, each lasting approximately 23 minutes. These shows, each one with a different cast and story, were always a complete more tale told within the confines of a short science fiction or fantastic environment. These shorts are often very well written and highly appropriate for both middle school and high school. You can buy the DVDs, but many of the original episodes are available for free to watch on

The Outer Limits was a series of strong science fiction shows that were on at approximately the same time as The Twilight Zone. The format was similar but the stories were an hour long and the themes were a little more science fiction-based. If you could call The Twilight Zone science fiction lite, The Outer Limits was science fiction full-body. As well, The Outer Limits were less based on morality than The Twilight Zone (which could get a bit tiresome), instead putting the emphasis on the story ideas. There was also a more recent Outer Limits series, filmed in color, which is also available on Hulu. The older episodes are readily available on DVD.

One cannot discuss science fiction on television without mentioning the king of all science fiction franchises, Star Trek. While the original series (ST:TOS if you're a geek) played for only three seasons from 1967–1969, since 1980 there have been four other Star Trek TV series based on the original show, twelve movies, and a little-known animated series from the 1970s. The premise is simple: a star ship travels from solar system to solar system, encountering new civilizations and dealing with moral and science fiction-type problems. The exception to this was Star Trek: Deep Space 9, which took place on a space station. While the show could suffer from bad writing, especially in the later series a certain type of bad writing called technobabble, Star Trek was also remarkable for its ability to express science fiction topics to a mainstream audience. While the movies were more adventures than explorations of concepts, they also could be loads of fun for viewers, except when they were very, very bad. To be safe, stick with showing the popular episodes. A good list can be found here, but for my money, show the episodes “The Doomsday Machine,” “The City on the Edge of Forever” (with Joan Collins!), “The Trouble With Tribbles”, “Balance of Terror”, and “Arena”.

The television show Battlestar Galactica has an odd genesis. It was originally aired in the late 1970s with a promising premise, the remains of mankind fleeing from their enemy on a fleet of ragtag space ships, protected by the last remaining warship, the Galactica, from their enemies the Cylons in a quest for the legendary planet of Earth. Unfortunately the show never lived up to its promise and was more cheesy and silly in the special way only art from the 1970s could be. That said, the special effects were excellent, and the show did develop a cult following. In 2003, Ronald D. Moore and David Eick reimagined the series in what has become one of the most successful reboots of a series ever. This new series took the sad premise of genocide seriously, making the series one of the most effective television dramas ever filmed. The Cylons became, instead of an alien species, an artificial intelligence made by the humans, a sort of Frankenstein's Monster returned to destroy its creator.

One of the things that made Battlestar Galactica successful was the fact that it posed a dark scenario for the survivors and did its best to portray how humans would react to it. They make bad decisions, people get killed (including major characters), difficult compromises must be made, and through all this the people must survive. While this show is mature and suitable for high school students, it's a fabulous example of ambitious science fiction. As a recommendation, watch the series opener, the first episode (33), and the beginning of season three. The season three episodes were ambitious in that they posed a situation like the Iraq War making the humans the “Iraqis”. Most of them were living on a planet and were captured by the Cylons, putting the humans in the position where they're becoming urban rebels, suicide bombers, and terrorists. This turn of events was even more powerful because it was broadcast while the actual war was at its height, making it a powerful editorial on the conflict.

There are other science fiction series which can be discussed, but these are a good jumping point. Other suggestions are Babylon 5, Stargate SGU, and some of the later Star Treks, especially the best of the Star Trek, the Next Generation episodes.

I find television to be an effective way to explain science fiction concepts in a short package before I introduce the class to the actual novel we'll be teaching. That way they can get comfortable with the fact that the plot is about an “idea”, instead of being just a storyline.

Incidentally, the original Star Trek episodes were recently remastered with an update of the special effects. While remastering of classic shows can lead to some disasters, for a good example of that check out the “Han Shot First” controversy from the remastered movie Star Wars: A New Hope, this remastering just improved the low-budget 60s-era special effects. Episodes are available for individual purchase on iTunes for $2.00 each.