Ethical Sci-fi in YA Lit
I can still remember the way I felt reading the last sentence of Ender’s Game by 2008 Edwards Award winner Orson Scott Card some twenty years ago. Indeed, each subsequent reading has left me with a similar sense of profound sadness, self-reflection, and an inexpressible ache to make the world a better place. I’ve since read other novels that have inspired equally, if not more complex emotions but, at the age of twelve, Ender’s Game was the first time I can recall being so deeply affected by the underlying message of a book. The story made me think not only about the ways in which human beings willfully harm others but also about my own complicity within that. It was an exercise in compassion—a mirror in which I could see myself, others, and society itself more clearly. As an avid sci-fi fan, I strongly believe that the best sci-fi, the kind that stays with you, succeeds in doing just that. It makes you think both about yourself and about the world you inhabit. It entreats you to reconsider the status quo and challenges you to question where we are headed as a species. And like Ender’s Game, the very best sci-fi manages to both entertain and raise ethical issues.
As Ender’s Game finds itself in the limelight again due to the recent movie adaptation, I thought that this would be a good time to celebrate other ethical sci-fi titles. Books, whose main purpose, more than to entertain, are to explore issues that plague society today and to push us to ponder their future impact. Think 1984 versus Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Let’s start then with a sci-fi classic in the making, M.T. Anderson’s excellent book Feed (a 2003 Best Books for Young Adults and Ultimate Teen Bookshelf selection). On the surface, the book appears to be a simple love story gone wrong. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, he can’t handle the complications of her life, they break up. However, Feed is also a masterful study of the negative effects of consumerism, our dependency on technology, and our inability to “unplug.” The love story allows us to feel more deeply the ramifications of this dependency on both consumerism and technology, as does Anderson’s remarkable narrative voice. Indeed, it’s impossible to read the final chapters without experiencing a dawning horror of what could await us. When recommending this book to others, I often say that of all the sci-fi I’ve read, it most accurately portrays the future that looms ahead. Interestingly, Feed has also been in the news recently in conjunction with Google Glass, an invention that arguably is bringing us closer to that very future. As sci-fi becomes reality, read Feed to better understand the implications of our current relationship with technology.
Orleans by Sherri L. Smith received strong reviews when it came out earlier this year but I find that many have not yet read it. More’s the pity, as the book deftly examines issues of race, class, and privilege in America. Set in a ravaged New Orleans in 2025, the book reads as a commentary on Hurricane Katrina and our collective responsibility in how the US government responded to it. The book begins with timeline of past and future hurricanes that ravage the Gulf Coast resulting in an outbreak of Delta Fever that decimates the population. The government’s response is to “quarantine” the area, a euphemism for essentially abandoning an entire population to its death. The strength of the book lies in its examination of the human will to survive at all costs… and the costs are disturbingly high. From an ethical standpoint, Orleans calls into question inherent assumptions about race and privilege and forces us to consider whom America considers worth saving and whom it is willing to sacrifice. Not for the faint-hearted, this is definitely a book for older teens and adults and is well worth reading, particularly as it hits so close to home.
Having mentioned 1984 at the start of this post, I would be remiss in not discussing Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. The most didactic of the novels discussed so far, Little Brother devotes itself whole-heartedly to the ethics of power—how it’s used, who uses it, and how to take it back. The book centers on a group of techno-savvy teenagers grappling with the increasing infringements on their civil liberties after a terrorist attack. Doctorow’s unflinching portrayal of interrogation, torture, and the psychological aftermath of both will inspire a great deal of reflection and discussion about the rights of citizens and the responsibility of governments. If you’ve ever had the good fortune to hear Cory Doctorow speak, this novel captures the passion he brings to the stage—part primer, part adventure, part unabashed tirade, Little Brother is Doctorow at his best.
Given the recent uproar over the newly released Ender’s Game movie due to Orson Scott Card’s controversial political views, it is perhaps ironic that I wrote this post on the topic of ethical sci-fi (for commentary on the Card controversy, try Steven Lloyd Wilson’s Salon.com article). And yet, whether or not readers agree with the author’s personal views, Ender’s Game continues to change the minds and worlds of the young people who read it. Its dual themes of empathy and the ethicality of war remain as relevant today as they were when it was written almost twenty years ago.
And maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here: as a young teen, Ender’s Game made me question the world around me and my place in it. In opening that door, it led me to many other ethical sci-fi books from The Handmaid’s Tale to The Dispossessed to 2312. I don’t know if I can claim to be a better person for having read these books (although I hope so) but I can certainly say that I am a more critically engaged one. That critical engagement allows me to continue to embrace the message of Ender’s Game while also acknowledging the complex nature of the author/audience relationship and the ambiguity of authorial intent. Here’s hoping that some of the books above will be similarly thought-provoking for you!
-Alegria Barclay, currently reading The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson