Thoughts about hope and dystopian novels

20140622-135238-49958014.jpg When I was in high school I read a lot of science fiction. I stopped reading science fiction after college and didn’t take it up again until a few years ago when I bought an e-reader and had easy access to a new crop of science fiction writers. As I have read several of the now popular science fiction books I have been struck with the change in tone in the almost thirty years between my first and most recent encounters with science fiction writing.

When I was in high school I belonged to the Science Fiction Book Club. One of the books I received was a collection of short stories titled “Dystopian Visions.” It stuck in my mind because I had to look up the word “dystopian” in order to figure out what the collection was about. A dystopian take on the future was unusual and noteworthy when the book was published in 1975. Today, however, almost every new science fiction book has a dystopian outlook. As i read such popular series as “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent” it makes me reflect on our current younger generation’s preoccupation with social catastrophe.

Recently I began reading a collection of the best science fiction short stories of 2013 edited by Jonathan Staham (The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, volume seven). In the introduction Staham writes, “I do think science fiction – at least at the experimental/development end of the spectrum – is in a period of self-examination. Some of this is just our field’s constant navel gazing, but some is a deliberate attempt to find a way to imagine any kind of science fictional future at all. It is certainly imaginatively less innovative to revisit 1940s-style SF adventures, with those bright futures that now seem to have failed us, than to try to envision another kind of future from our own less optimistic age. And yet that is the challenge, surely. Not to imagine the way the future was, but the way the future might be. While I don’t think answers to this exist yet, I do think you can see the beginnings of attempts to find them.”

The popular novelist, Margaret Atwood, recently published an article titled “Why Readers and Writers Are Fixated With Dystopian Visions.” She begins the article by saying, “There seems to be a tidal wave of bleak futures hitting us right now.”

I am disturbed by Staham’s observation that the bright futures of my youth have failed us. Being a part of the generation that watched the first moon walk live on television and experienced the optimism that permeated that time period, I am saddened to think that my generation is perceived as having failed the generation to follow. Is there a way to rediscover the naiveté of the 1960s or is it more desirable to find a realistic future that is not utopian, but certainly more optimistic than my experience of current science fiction narratives? Have we excluded futures that provide the optimistic possibility or is this generation preoccupied with the negative factors present in our world today?

The good news is that in most of the novels I have read in this genre in the past year, there is a commitment to the indomitable spirit of humankind. Although there is often an apocalyptic event in these narratives there is also often someone who transcends social and/or technical disaster to help establish a new and better reality. What I am encouraged by is the thread of perseverance and victory in the midst of future difficulties. While most writers seem to be projecting significant social difficulties in the future of our time on this planet, there is also a nearly uniform commitment to humanities’ ultimate ability to set things right. Maybe this dystopian optimism is the best definition of hope for this generation after all. It is more pessimistic than the dreams of the 1960s but heroic in its own way.

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Thoughts about some faults in “The Fault in Our Stars”

A little over a week ago I was at a conference and a friend of mine was telling me that she was amused by my reading habits on Goodreads now that I was finished with doctoral work which had dominated my reading habits for several years. I have read more novels in the past eleven months than I had in the preceding few years. In the context of the conversation she suggested I read “The Fault in Our Stars” by Indianapolis writer John Green. “Young people in your congregation are reading it,” she advised, “You should be current with what they are reading.” Then she paused, and said, “Maybe not. It’s got a lot of sadness in it.” She said that knowing that I had experienced the deaths of two of my children and thinking that this novel about two teens battling cancer and trying to figure out life might be too intense for my reality laden life.

However, having my curiosity piqued, I decided to spend most of a Saturday reading the book. Here are some of my thoughts. I will tell you that if you have not read the book and you do not want to spoil the plot you might not want to read further.

“The Fault in Our Stars” is primarily a teen romance novel although it tries to transcend that genre by dealing with some more mature life and death issues dealing with cancer and mortality. The novel is very popular with young adult readers but has garnered a significant amount of criticism for the teen characters, who many believe are more mature in their thinking than most teenagers. I really was not struck by that one way or the other, never having been a teenage girl, which is the perspective of the first person narrative, or having had terminal cancer, an important identifying factor in the ethos of the plot.

However, I have been a bereaved parent twice, and my main complaint with the novel is with the adult characters, who are often one step above the indistinguishable adult voices in a Charlie Brown special. You can attribute some of the way the adults are caricatures of real people by the fact that the novel is written from a sixteen-year-old’s perspective and that is how she experiences them. However, leaving out the two dimensional portrayal of the support group convener or the over-the-top inebriation of the God typology author (Peter Van Houten), there are a couple of items with the parents that seem too significant to really ignore.

Toward the end of the novel the two main characters, Hazel and Augustus, take a trip to Amsterdam with Hazel’s mom. Hazel has had a life threatening episode just before the trip and throughout the novel her mother is rarely out of earshot. However, even though they are thousands of miles away from the doctors with the most knowledge about her condition, Hazel’s mom suddenly abandons all concern for her daughter and heads off on her own while the young couple travel about the city mostly alone. That just seems very improbable – actually unbelievable. It is, of course, necessary to the teen romance part of the plot since the young couple needs this unsupervised time to consummate their romance. I think this is one time when the novel diverges from its mostly realistic portrayal of the end stages of cancer. No parent whose daughter had just had her lungs drained of fluid would go sightseeing alone and leave her daughter to her own devices, or the care of a seventeen-year-old boyfriend, in that circumstance.

The second major area of implausibility to me is the way the two sets of parents are portrayed. And that is that they are consistently portrayed as sets without individual voices. Having walked with many families through the last days of their children’s lives as well as the days after children’s deaths, I can say that it is extremely rare for a couple not to disagree on the treatment and care of a sick child, especially a terminally ill child. And yet, these two couples never argue with one another and consistently speak with one voice. This is not how it works in the real work. Couples wrestle with treatment decisions and rarely have complete agreement on what to do next. This is why the divorce rate among bereaved parents is so high. It is possible, but highly improbably, that two sets of parents would respond in unison like the novel portrays them.

Overall, the novel has been popular for its stark realism in portraying the teenage cancer patients and I have no reason to dispute that assessment. However, I found the adult characters two-dimensional and mostly superficial.