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Science and Tech in Young Adult Literature

How do things fall apart? What so often determines who has the upper hand? Who has the ability to change things? With great power comes great responsibility, and time and time again, we see technology as creating a divide between the haves and the have nots. Scientific endeavor can lead to catastrophe.

Consider the technological terrors of the arena in The Hunger Games. Tracker jackers are genetically modified wasps whose venom can cause delirium and death. The Gamemakers can place muttations in the path of the tributes at will. The elements are controlled from a series of consoles for the entertainment of the masses. And before the rebellion was put down, jabberjays repeated the plans of the Resistance to Capitol ears.

Yet, we must also acknowledge that, when the rebels learned what the Capitol was doing, they started to feed the jabberjays lies. When the genetically engineered birds were abandoned, they bred with mockingbirds, creating mockingjays, which had the attributes of both jabberjays and mockingbirds. The rebels made use of the new breed, and while they were initially defeated, they still triumphed in an important way. The Capitol’s own technology was used against them. Technology can be used to gain the advantage, but it can also work against those it initially empowers.

The Hunger Games provides good examples of the element of science and its role in dystopia, but there are a multitude of other such works. In James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, a group of teens find themselves in the Glade, tasked with navigating a maze whose walls change every day. Memories slowly return to the main character Thomas, and they hint at his role in the dire experiment that landed the group there in the first place. The Maze Runner is succeeded by two more novels, and it quickly becomes clear that the experiment was meant to be a last-ditch effort at saving the world. Who is right? Does the end justify the means? It’s a valid question.

One also questions science in Ian MacDonald’s Planesrunner. Everett watches his father, a known quantum physicist, disappear into a dark car. After discovering a secret message his father left for him, he goes through a gate into another world. His pursuit of his father leads him into an alternate version of London, one where oil was never discovered and steam-powered airships fill every inch of the sky. He carries with him the Infundibulum, the map of the different parallel universes theorized to exist. It’s a major complication to the crew of the Everness, who offer Everett refuge. The information Everett carries endangers the people he comes to care for. Just when the highly unlikely happy reunion seems imminent, one of the devious agents who kidnapped Everett’s father shoots the scientist with a gun that sends him into any of an infinite number of alternate worlds. Technology seems to accomplish nothing but heartache. The novel ends with Everett investigating the strange weapon, which he has come to possess. He admits to suspecting that it serves some other function, and the reader is left wondering if it has the potential to grant some kind of technological advantage.

Are we really so uncertain about the role of technology? Would we rather fear it than embrace it? Do these works warn about dependence on it or development beyond a certain threshold? What is that threshold?

I think we can all agree that science can be dangerous in the wrong hands, but what might it accomplish in the right ones? If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then will technology always lead down a dark road, one we’d prefer not to travel too far down?

STEM and its role in dystopia provides a great jumping-off point for discussion. When we really think about it, we wind up talking about who we are, what we want for the world, and what means are acceptable to achieve that end.

— Amanda Worthington is a member of the Stem Resources Coordinating Task Force and is currently reading Changeling by Philippa Gregory

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