Neutering Humanity: Atrocity and The Giver

→ This isn’t a book review; it’s me musing on a book. That means there’ll be spoilers up, down, and sideways. So if you haven’t read Lois Lowry’s classic YA dystopia, The Giver, now’s the time to navigate away! (But I don’t discuss the sequels.) ←

In my past life as a literature professor, I had a number of opportunities to teach young-adult lit. I always put The Giver on the syllabus. It’s a marvelous novel, far richer and more subtle than I realized on my first reading. Take, for instance, the pivotal scene where The Giver, an old man, passes a memory to the book’s young protagonist, Jonas, for the first time. The boy must take off his shirt and lie face-down on the old man’s bed. He is nervous and has no idea what will happen. The two are alone together. The Giver approaches, places his hand on Jonas’s bare skin, and transmits to him the memory of sledding down a snowy hillside.

For Jonas, the memory is momentous. All of its main features—coldness, snow, hills, exhilaration—are new to him. At some point in the unknown past, his culture embraced “sameness.” The weather is always warm and pleasant. The land is flat. People look the same. They feel no powerful emotions. They don’t remember such things exist. They have no history. They see in black and white—literally. Their lives are without notable suffering. All memories of what people used to be resides with The Giver, and it is Jonas’s job to take them on.

The scene of Jonas’s first memory has tones of the Christian fall, but in The Giver, the transgressive acquisition of knowledge is figured as powerfully good, potentially salvific. And yet, there are hints of danger. Readers may feel a little uncomfortable as the Giver approaches the half-naked, anxious boy lying on his bed. What happens when man touches boy is a loss of innocence, but of the mind instead of the body. The slightly creepy tension preceding the memory is picked up later, when The Giver gives Jonas his first memory of pain—again a sledding scene, but this time the memory culminates in a fall and a broken arm. Lowry doesn’t shy away from suffering.

As  Jonas takes more and more of the memories his culture has left solely in The Giver’s keeping, he comes to understand that his people have been neutered. Every possible source of conflict and tension has been removed from their lives. Their sexuality is chemically suppressed. They have been genetically engineered to look the same. They are not permitted imprecise language. They are not permitted choices or emotions. Everyone must fit the mold—the old and the difficult and the uncanny are euthanized. Eventually, Jonas realizes this stripped-down version of humanity is unacceptable. People are so much less than they once were, and in their ignorance, they commit evil. He flees, releasing his powerful memories back to the community. One assumes the knowledge they convey will change his people forever, just as it changed him.

Jonas’s choice is portrayed as essential. If he had not fled when he did, his baby brother, Gabriel, would’ve been euthanized. (The biblical resonances of the brothers’ names are hard to ignore.) And, of course, his people had to be freed from their shadow-lives of sameness.

Or did they?

Was the state of Jonas’s people truly a wrong crying out to be righted? Presumably, in the book’s unexplored past, people like us sat down and decided to neuter themselves. They decided that “sameness” was the way to go. Why?  I’d ask my class. Why would people like us decide to become people like them?

There’s a Wikipedia page I’d visit at this point in our discussion: “List of wars and anthropogenic disasters by death toll.” The page is just what it sounds like—a list of the times our species has managed to kill the most of itself. It offers a quick, harsh look at the kind of things that might motivate a species to neuter itself. The Mongol conquests: 30 million dead (possibly as much as 7.5% of the planet’s human population at that time). World War II: at least 41 million dead. Famine during China’s Great Leap Forward: at least 15 million dead. Native American deaths during European colonization of the Western Hemisphere: at least 2 million.

What shocks me most about the list is that most of the events’ death tolls are only estimates. Ranges. Did World War II kill 41 million or 70 million? The famine of the Great Leap Forward: 15 million or 55 million? Native American deaths: 2 million or 100 million? Obviously, some scholars’ estimates must be wildly wrong. That’s not the point. The point is that we killed so many of each other during these events that counts can be off by tens of millions.

At what point do you decide, as Jonas’s ancestors apparently did, that your species is too murderous to continue in its current state? At what point do you decide that a life of reduced vibrancy and feeling for all is better than one of profound suffering for many?

But they kill old folks and babies! my students would say.

Yeah, they do. But they kill because Lowry built that into them. They’re literary creations, not real people. So the question becomes, Why is euthanasia such a prominent part of Lowry’s dystopia?

Maybe she put that in there because if she hadn’t, it’d be a lot harder to believe Jonas is making the right choice. Maybe readers would look at Jonas’s people and think, Slavery, the Holocaust, the Gulags, the Belgian Congo … maybe we need neutering. Maybe we deserve to lose the memory of snow.

For me, The Giver asks the same question Kurt Vonnegut does in Galapagos: Would we be better if we were less? Lowry says no. Vonnegut doesn’t.

I might be with Vonnegut on this one.

The Best Blog I’ve Ever Read

Speculative fiction tends to ask impossible what-ifs? “What if zombies showed up?” “What if SETI got an answer?” “What if your neighborhood was plagued by the serial-killing ghost of a golden retriever?” Test cases for the extreme, right?

But there are plenty of everyday what-ifs, too, because every person’s experience is different. You can always look with curious empathy toward another and ask, “What if I were more like you?” “What is your experience of being human?” Reading helps us ask these questions. These questions are the place where fiction and nonfiction come together into the seamless empathy-engine known as writing. In this sense, all writing is speculative.

There are a lot of blogs out there. The best one I’ve ever read makes me ask what-ifs like these: “What if I had an intellectually disabled adult child?” “What if that child were terminally ill?” “What is it like, as a parent, to accept that you will care for your child from birth to death?” “What is it like to do that as a single parent?”

Check out Catherine Lea’s Happiness: Optional to see how one person does these things. (With love. With exhaustion and perseverance. With humor. And with sharp-eye perception that goes right to the center of herself and others.) Start at the beginning and read to the present. You won’t be disappointed.

Then come back and tell me about the best blog you’ve ever read.

Genre Fiction and the Speculative

I’ve been turning over in my mind the question of why and how speculative fiction fits into “genre fiction” box.

I chose the metaphor of a “box” quite intentionally. Being “boxed in” is a defining feature of genre fiction. Mysteries are mysteries because they adhere to the rules of that genre. The same goes for romances. And for techno-thrillers. These rules aren’t always stated, and they’re certainly stretchy and, over time, mutable. But they have some  firmness to them; their elasticity is limited. Stretch them too far, and they’ll break. While what results might be a good story, it will no longer easily fit the expectations of a genre’s readers. Marketing that story as fitting into a genre whose rules it breaks can be risky. It must pay off sometimes, but I bet it often doesn’t.

definition and etymology of "speculate"
screen-capture from Google:

But speculative genres … are they “boxed”?

To “speculate” is to wonder or hypothesize outside the constraints of evidence. You can speculate about anything and arrive at any conclusion you like because you never have to back your ideas up with facts, images, data, or a quotations. Sounds pretty unboxed to me.

Why are genres such as science-fiction, fantasy, horror, slipstream, superhero, dystopian, apocalyptic, and alternative-history considered “speculative”? Well, part of it has to do with impossibility: we don’t have fast-than-light travel, there are no monsters, and history went down the way it did. I think of this as the nuts-and-bolts approach to defining the genre—speculative books depend on settings or plot points that can’t exist or happen in the real world of the present day.

But another way to think of the speculative genres is more philosophical: they ask, “What if?” You can imagine an author leaning back in her chair, rubbing her chin, and thinking, “What if Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated?” Or, “What if we met some aliens, but we couldn’t understand them?” Or, “What if that guy working at the 7-11 turned out to be a faerie prince?” “What then?” she says to herself. And she writes a book about it.

Maybe parts of her story are formulaic because some of these questions have been asked quite a few times. But the larger agenda that prompts them is impressive—it’s to free humanity from the constraints we know it operates under and see what happens when something that can seem tired and old, reality, is replaced by the new. Under impossible circumstances, do we become more human? Less?  Or are we fundamentally unchanged? Perhaps our circumstances don’t make us. Perhaps we always are as we are.

These philosophical underpinnings, oriented as they are toward a freeing from constraint, seem to me fundamentally non-boxy. But perhaps there are currents of generic constraint within speculative fiction that counter these loosing impulses.

I think I’ll have to leave the pot simmering on the stove a bit longer; I don’t have a clear answer to this one, as of yet.

Staging a Comeback

My blog, The Active Voice, has been dormant for the better part of a year. Mostly, I ran out of time.  Cross-country moves, a new job, little kids … devoting time to blogging seemed impossible. Plus, I was struggling to finish my second book. What writing time I had needed to go to that project.

But now we’re settled. It’s time to make time for the things I really want to do. Blogging is one of them. And Solatium is finally nearing completion. I’m holding out hope that Spring Break (in March) will give me the uninterrupted time I need to wrap it up.

So here goes. I’m aiming for a post a week. Welcome aboard all over again.