Thursday, March 26, 2015

YA Sci-Fi/Dystopias & StarTalk

So, I've been meaning to visit blogs and return the comments y'all have generously left me, but as of late, I've been real tired. In the winter, I stopped walking to the gym because it was coooold. Now that it's spring I have no excuse. But, unfortunately, whenever I try to do significant amounts of work, I seem to fall asleep anyway.

The cool thing, though, is that I've been listening to this awesome podcast on my walks to and from the train station, and to the gym, and while I'm exercising. It's called StarTalk, and it's hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and part of the motto song goes something like 'science for any occasion.' Dr. Tyson encourages you to keep looking up (because he's an astrophysicist). So, anyway, I figured that I'd make a post on:
  • why StarTalk is an awesome podcast that you should listen to
  • as couched in a discussion on how some of the recent episodes I've listened to have gotten me thinking about YA novels and their portrayal of science and the future
In a recent episode, the one thing that Dr. Tyson said that really stuck with me was the idea that War drives science. It was unfortunate, he said, but it was how so many of the world's worst weapons have been created. A lot of the cruelty that has come about because of technological and scientific advancement has been because of war. Not because of the science itself; but because humans seem to have a fundamental sense of entitlement rooted in their survival instincts. We make weapons to better survive; we're creative at killing one another.

This really struck me. Of course not all science is driven by war; but I've never thought of science in this way, and then later on yesterday night, I got to thinking about science fiction novels that I've read. One popular young adult trilogy involves the mutation of the human genome to selectively express certain highly valued virtues in abundance. This leads to a war with regards to genetic purity, which leads to another branch of the government to conduct an experiment on the people with mutated genes. Are they as good as their genetically pure peers or can nature sort out the deficiency that arose from the arrogance of scientists?

In these novels we have the opposite of reality: science makes war. This is what I mean when I say I'm concerned about the anti-science message in books - what other message could you take from a society couched in the evils that it's science forefathers have made? In a podcast with Richard Dawkins, Dr. Tyson and Dr. Dawkins discuss how selectively enhancing our genome by mutations is not impossible for the future but it's impossible with the technology we currently have. So a book that would include such mutations would probably also need a lot of futuristic technology to indicate how far we've come. Forget all that for a second, and just ask this: how is it that the government policies and bureaucracies that guide scientists today disappeared? Because there is no possible way for such experiments to take place. The Institutional Review Board (IRB) would reject any such proposal because of the harm that would come to others. It's true that people have not always been moral about scientific experiments; this is one of the first things you learn in ethics training, about Nazi human experimentation and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Both have the overlap of terrible events, the Great Depression and World War II. This reminds me of 'war drives science.' Of course that's not an excuse for either, but what I will say is that the Tuskegee experiment led to the Belmont Report and the establishment of the Office for Human Research Protections. It's harder to repeat the mistakes of the past, and anyway, both are such exceptions to the legacy of science, you'd really have to make sure this other mutation study was occurring on a small scale compared to the vast number of research studies happening daily. Making the government in charge of a study mutating people is essentially, to me, comparing the atmosphere of WWII to what we have today. Which is ridiculous.

It's how these dystopian / science fiction novels handle government regulation that strikes me as so weird. Some try to say that such unethical science was happening on the side, because of a corrupt company, which is possible I guess, but that also strikes me as lazy, like the loose ends have not been tied, so why not just make an excuse that will cover everything without thinking on how to tie the ends. The rest that blame things on the government...

Another thing that Neil deGrasse Tyson mentioned was the idea that people would be grateful for increased governmental control in the face of climate change (if it turned worse). He pointed out how Americans were very glad for increased government during WWII. In fact, given the prevalence of WWII in literature, I'm surprised that we haven't seen something like this in YA. (If you have, feel free to chime in; I personally can't think of any examples myself).

This is my central dissatisfaction with most YA dystopias. I am an idealist; I am optimistic and believe deeply in helping others reach their full potential, and yet many YA dystopias read to me as being too idealistic. If this novel is meant to read as warning teenagers about climate change, how is it that the people have become that dissatisfied with the government? How is it that we as a society have not voted out the representatives who didn't increase protection measures? How could a government in the face of a disaster not be voted out or introduce measures to combat their very extinction? Because even if we presume "marshal law," you have to have a very Handmaid's Tale like situation for that government to stay in place. Why would teenagers growing up in a harsh climate change affected world have the notion that the government is bad when history suggests that they might want *more* of their government, more regulation, and that is all? So many premises seem to hinge on the idea that the teenager main character is the only one to realize how awful the world is and the government's terrible secret role in propagating such horror - or, well, maybe not the only one, but certainly the focus is on that character's realization. But is that a realistic expectation?

The reason why a dystopia like The Handmaid's Tale reads to me as so frightening and compelling is because there is a concrete explanation for how this came about (and also so much of it is layered in current reality). Several times I have read explanations for how a YA dystopia has come about and thought... No. Just no. I don't understand. I honestly would rather prefer The Hunger Games route where we know little about the apocalyptic event that led to Panem and the near enslavement / death of children was led about by war. As Dr. Tyson says in yet another episode, evil is on the other side of the gate. People are only human if you're not fighting them. The idea that war could lead to the THG cruelty was not unreasonable to me. The idea that scientists would abandon all sense of morality in the pursuit of having their questions answered is. Science doesn't drive war; war drives science. There are so many regulation measures already in place for science, it's ridiculous to assume that something else doesn't happen first that would then change how people perceive and allow for science.

Anyway, so go my early morning ramblings. If there's anything to be gotten from this post, it's that you should listen to StarTalk. It's free and it's awesome and it inspires plentiful thoughts about the world. And if you read the rest of the post, that's great too ;). Let me know what you think.


  1. This is really interesting, and something I never considered. I definitely see though how technology and science advance in a time of war, because in peace we're all feeling pretty fine. Have you seen Interstellar by chance? It doesn't exactly address this, but I guess in a small way it indirectly does. It was interesting to me because it's set in a future that's basically like the Dust Bowl days and everyone is farming to survive, and in schools they're teaching that we never even landed on the moon, meanwhile there is this whole undercover NASA thing going on. You should check it out if you haven't!

  2. I did see Interstellar. (The future like Dust Bowl days, according to my friend, is actually really plausible because crop diversity and what's the word... their ability to survive in different conditions is going down a lot.). The undercover NASA thing also seemed really plausible to me. In the event of something going wrong and if technology couldn't "save" us, I think that there would still be some initiatives on the side. The thing about the moon is also really plausible to me with the passage of laws that prohibit global warming from being mentioned.


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