Time for Dystopian Science Fiction?

Reader’s Alley, a nifty site for bargain eBook lovers, divides their science fiction offerings into sub-genres: sci-fi romance, sci-fi thriller, and science fiction, dystopian. While those first two descriptors would seem self-evident, the dystopian flavor is considered by some (mostly jaded members of academia) as the only serious science fiction. Typically, I avoid reading dystopias because they tend to be so darned depressing. But, with all that is happening in the news, which I also try to avoid, perhaps it is time to take a look at the genre.

One of the finest books about the history of science fiction is Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree, which covers science fiction literature from its beginnings to the early 1980s. Aldiss does discuss many sub-genres, but the thread of dystopia runs strongly throughout his encyclopedia of science fiction in printed form. The term, dystopia, is applicable to “a world in which everything is imperfect, and everything goes terribly wrong. Dystopian literature shows us a nightmarish image about what might happen to the world in the near future. Usually the main themes of dystopian works are rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters. On the other hand, Utopia is a perfect world – exactly opposite of dystopia.”

Science has, until recently, been viewed as a two edged sword; while it can make life much better, mis-use of science has been the root of all sorts of evils. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is often considered to be the first science fiction novel, and the dark side of science is clearly the central theme of the novel. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment and Rappacini’s Daughter, short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also feature mis-use of science as their main themes. When teaching those stories, which used to be in many American Lit anthologies, one way to make it simple for students is to say, “Hawthorne is basically telling his readers, ‘don’t mess around with Mother Nature’.”

Later novelists fine tuned dystopian themes, with societies becoming more and more restrictive upon the populace. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 share these themes, “including the consequences of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of persons and behaviours within society.” Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Burgeron is one of the most widely read dystopian stories, due to its inclusion in anthologies for students, and I recently read a news story liking our current government policies to Vonnegut’s didactic work. Y’all, it is scary when dystopia becomes reality.

Of course, many fans of science fiction today seldom, if ever, read it. Instead, what they know of utopia and dystopia is presented via video. Early episodes of Star Trek explored both sides of the scientific divide. The Ultimate Computer, rather dated today, explored the man vs. machine conflict, using future war games as a setting for its rather disturbing premise. Various dystopian novels have been adapted to long form (movies) video, including everything from 1984 to Planet of the Apes. There are literally dozens of dystopian sci fi films. Some are rather laughable now (Mad Max?) but others are quite troubling.

My own fiction, which has many conflicts for characters to attempt to resolve, certainly isn’t “happily ever after, ” but it isn’t as dark as some of these works, and that’s because my outlook on life is more pragmatic. Hopefully, there will be some gravitation away from the totalitarian policies of modern politicians and administrators. But, when I consider what I am seeing when I do go out and about, I wonder. I really do. Remember this: In each fictional dystopia, the goal was to make things better for certain segments of the population, and bad outcomes are unhappy accidents. Be careful what you wish for—

The Crown— review and commentary

Which is which?

Netflix has some amazing original content, and one of its best efforts thus far has been The Crown, a somewhat fictional series based on the reign of Elizabeth II. Written and produced by Peter Morgan, this series begins while Elizabeth is still a youngster, but when her father takes over for his brother (who abdicated the throne so he could be with his “commoner/divorcé” lover) Elizabeth becomes the heir to the throne. From that time period, her father grooms her to serve the people and the royal family, a/k/a The Crown. Seasons 1 and 2 feature Claire Foy as Elizabeth, and former “Dr. Who” Matt Smith is Prince Philip. Perhaps the best performance in this award winning season goes to John Lithgow as an aging Winston Churchill, who guides and yet admires the young monarch as she works to live up to the responsibility thrust upon her when her father dies at a fairly young age.

The Crown does a fantastic job of intertwining history and some suppostion, thus educating a new generation about some of the most important (or at least entertaining) events in United Kingdom in the past few decades. Each season spans several years, so the cast changes in order to better show the aging of the characters. For instance, while Claire Foy is Elizabeth in the first two seasons, the queen is portrayed by Olivia Coleman in seasons three and four. The latter dropped onto Netflix November 15, and Coleman does a really good job as the middle aged sovereign, as does Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher. Another season four cast addition is Emma Corrin, who bears more than a passing resemblance to young Princess Diana. The series has been mostly been praised, but season four is a bit more controversial. Since this season portrays the “fairy tale romance” between Prince Charles and Diana, then quickly lays out the conflicted marital mess that ensued, because apparently Charles didn’t love Diana at all, but maintained his relationship with his former lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles, during most of the marriage, some viewers (and those close to the real people) have been a bit riled.

Of course, Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated then divorced, but younger fans apparently didn’t realize the “why” in the divorce until The Crown brought this back in a big way on the small screen. Recently, the social media accounts of Prince Charles and (now wife) Camilla have been inundated with snarky posts. Furthermore, officials in the U.K. have asked producers of The Crown to assure the public that the show is fictional.

History only works after the fact. Peter Morgan (series creator and chief writer) benefits from the many publications about the British royals, and is able to pick and choose what he presents to the audience in The Crown. Mostly the characterizations and storylines seem spot on, but those close to the royal family point to discrepancies, and no doubt some “fiction” does come in. Regardless of these points, The Crown has extraordinarily high production values. The cast is first rate, the scripts mostly entertaining; and the sets, costumes, and locations all contribute to the feeling of being an eyewitness to history. If you haven’t seen it yet, this series is one of the very best shows on Netflix.

Semi/Human by Erik Hanberg—review and commentary

A Y/A science fiction yarn

As the pandemic has continued to plague businesses, many of them are accelerating their transition to robots and artificial intelligence, thus replacing or supplementing their all too frail human employees. Semi/Human is set in the near future, and in this novel Silicon Valley has finally written an adaptable code that makes most human employees obsolete. Vehicles drive themselves, dealers in Vegas are all robots, police have been replaced by armed drones, and so forth.

Main character Pen(ney) Davis is more than depressed, because like most other human jobs, her intern job at a Silicon Valley computer firm has been eliminated. However, Pen has come up with a less than practical scheme to steal a ridiculously expensive treasure from her former employer and get rich enough to care a lot less about being unemployed.

As Alexander Pope once observed, “A little bit of learning is a dangerous thing,” and recent intern Pen re-writes the code of a self-driving truck, intending to hijack it for a trip across the country, but ends up making the aforementioned truck autonomous instead. Fortunately for Pen, the truck, Lara B, is both friendly and grateful.

Lest I ruin this tale for readers, let me just say that this yarn is cogent, examining the societal damage which would ensue if gainful employment ceased, as well as the ethics of dealing with a self-aware, nearly omniscient super computer. There’s a dash of economic reality sprinkled in as well, because with no work, there’s no money coming in for the vast majority of the populace, so they end up fighting over whatever is left behind in the technological revolution.

There’s also more than a little suspense, as Pen and Lara B join forces to accomplish the original mission, wherein Pen hopes to acquire both riches and revenge in one fell swoop. Semi/Human is one of those rare books that blends a cautionary theme with an entertaining plot. Most of the characters are well drawn, and there is sufficient description of settings to keep the reader entertained but the plot never bogs down.

As a frequent reader of science fiction, it is rare for me to call a novel memorable, but for me Semi/Human is such a book. Perhaps I simply read it a the right time, or perhaps the book is really that good. If you like youthful, sassy heroines, self-aware computers (and trucks) along with a suspense filled story line, you really should try Semi/Human.

The editors are children

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The other day, I wondered aloud why writing is so bad these days. My young adult son scoffed and informed me that he went to school with some of the staff at the news outlet that posted the story above. He didn’t view these fellow students as the best or brightest, obviously.

My sister, a media professional, informed me that these days, editors (and program directors) are more interested in how many hits an item gets on YouTube or Twitter than how well written or researched an item might be.

Considering the power our nation gives the media, it is scary how low the bar is set for those who write, edit, and direct what the rest of us consume.

Oh, and look out for the back Nissan.


Here’s another one:

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That’s from a site with a big budget, but again, there’s not much editing going on.

The Future of Learning for K-12

ChromebookNews organizations have truly embraced the old adage, “never let a crisis go to waste.” With every new pronouncement regarding the COVID-19 virus, the sky gets a bit closer to falling. Many of the public schools in my area have closed, but most of them are posting assignments online. Indeed, one of them has offered Chromebooks for check out if the family lacks a computer. This strikes me as a leap into the future of K-12 education.

Having taught both web enhanced and hybrid classes for the Technical College System of Georgia, I fully understand how to teach from my couch. In those classes, students had access to an online learning suite (either Blackboard or Angel, depending on the flavor of the year) wherein I listed assignments or offered online assessments. For those readers who are not chronologically gifted, the idea of closing schools seems unthinkable, but for anyone who has attended a post secondary school in the past decade, these fortnight long closures are no big deal. Indeed, I used to make jokes (during face-to-face class sessions at school) about teaching in my pajamas!

For younger students, such as those in K-12, however, quite a few of them have little experience with online learning, and some of their parents may not have experienced it at all. With a bit of coaching, both students and parents will come to see that much of what happens in a classroom can happen at home. In fact, in some cases, it is better to have online content. Forgot what happened to that important handout? Just print another one. Want to check the due date for an assignment? Just look at the online lesson plan. Need extra help? Email the teacher with your questions and concerns and you should get a prompt, personalized answer. Missed a class? Watch a recorded video session. In my experience, most college students eventually came to appreciate online resources, even if they didn’t embrace them. There is a learning curve, of course, as anything new requires some learning. Parents around here are about to embark on a new way of helping their kids with homework.

Who knows if the COVID-19 will actually be a serious threat to public health? Only the perspective of time will let us know that. However, this unprecedented interruption of business as usual in public education will demonstrate the power of online instruction. No doubt there will be some kinks in it, as this is new for some folks. But, the future of K-12 will be online, and this is just a preview of how it will work.

Resources for Readers

DaVinciWhat to read? When I was young (a very long time ago) my mother took my sisters and me to visit the public library every week. This was “free” entertainment, and as we were fairly poor, it was a great deal. However, there was that day when I’d read everything of interest to me in the children’s and young readers category. Again, this was a long time ago, when “young adult” publications were not a big category. I remember her guiding me over to the adult fiction section (meaning not for kids, but nothing racy—it was a public library) and she suggested some titles. My first reads from that section were what mom would term “mysteries” although romantic suspense would be closer to the genre of that time. The authors were Phyllis A. Whitney and Mary Stewart, although I can’t remember the titles. So began my transition into reading for pleasure, an activity that is still a big part of my life.

Mom has been gone for a long time, as she had cancer and died before she should have, but there are plenty of other places to find recommendations for reading. I do belong to way too many Facebook Groups, and most of those have advertising that I largely ignore. For a time, Amazon was my favorite place to find books, and while it is a source for content, the weirdo reviews have made it less and less reliable for recommendations. Also, big A encourages authors to buy ads, making it even less relevant. If you are lonely and want to be inundated by promotional emails, there are lots of sites that promote books via that route, but by and large that content comes from paid ads, so it’s not reliable either. I read a lot of eBooks these days, and my public library has a few thousand titles, but I’ve noticed that far too many of them are “reprints” wherein established authors are giving their backlist titles new life, and I have either read those books are wasn’t interested the first time. So, what to do?

There are some solutions. First, check out Goodreads. It’s now owned by Amazon, but it seems to work quasi-independently from big A, so the reviews are more often by serious readers. Authors can have a “page” on Goodreads, too, which can be helpful. If you like a certain genre, typically there are blogs that feature books of interest. As a lover of science fiction romance, I like this blog: SFR Brigade. Some authors maintain a blog or a Facebook group, so check on a favorite writer’s web presence. Often writers will mention fellow writers or their own favorite reads. I’ve really enjoyed Susan Grant’s books and her blog, Come Fly with Me (now found via her website).

In addition to big A, readers sometimes leave reviews on traditional bookstore sites such as Barnes and Noble and Books a Million. As these sites primarily serve readers, the reviews tend to be written more literate customers. There may be fewer reviews, but I believe they are more reliable.

Also, if you know others who like to read, try forming a book club. My sister belongs to such a club, and members propose which books to read. She’s given me some suggestions of books that were well-received by her group, such as my current read: DaVinci, by Walter Issacs. It’s fascinating, and I would never have chosen it without the recommendation of that group over in Richmond, Virginia.