Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bread, Circuses and the Danger of Reading Science Fiction

The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be
like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty
-first century will be like. I don't recommend that you turn to
thewriters of fiction for such information. It's none of their
business. All they're trying to do is tell you what they're
like, and what you are like -- what's going on --
what the

weather is now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight,
look! Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists
say. But they don't tell you what what you will see and hear.
All they can tell you is what they have seen and
heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent

in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent telling lies.
--Ursula K. LeGuin, Introduction to
The Left Hand of Darkness

I have been engaging in the dangerous and subversive activity of reading science fiction.
As Ursula K. LeGuin tells us above, Science Fiction is never about the future, and it makes no predictions. Science Fiction is, she says--though far more poetically--always about us, now.
This is why when reading a particularly good Sci-Fi novel, one is apt to see truth within the lies so convincingly spun by a master in genre. And this is why one walks away from reading a well-crafted Sci-Fi story or novel with new insight into who we are at this moment in time.

An awareness of this can a little scary--when it's not downright terrifying.

I have been reading the Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. The story, for young adults, is the tale of Katniss Everdeen, a young woman who grows up in the country of Panem, which exist(s)(ed) in what used to be North America. In this alternate future/world-- the people of12 districts are enslaved by a city known only as the Capitol, and in order to maintain their slave status of crafty obedience, the Capitol forces them each to send a boy and a girl to compete in the "Hunger Games", a fight to the death on national television. The people are told that these Games--and the need to send their children to almost certain death--is in punishment for a rebellion that took place almost a century before, so that the children are sacrifices--called "Tributes"--and their deaths are punishment for a crime that happened before any of them had ever been born.

There are many realities about us, now, that are reflected in these books: the sacrafice of innocent lives to sustain political power and the cynical use of the real aspirations of individuals for life and freedom to consolidate that power; the blurring of television and reality to the point where the misery of others becomes entertainment for the some and a cruel reminder of servility to others; the acquiescence of many to servitude for the sake, not of great riches and power, but merely for enough to (barely) survive another day; the spark of freedom and rebellion that dwells within the hearts of even the meekest of slaves.

In this story there is also the theme of the disconnect between the privileged Capitol Dwellers--one can certainly not call them free!-- and those born to the Districts, whose lot in life is to toil and to starve; and the work of their hands is taken from them, tribute to a class of political royalty who party and play in the Capitol, while the people of the Districts learn subtle disobedience to their masters in order to survive. Thus, while the people in the Districts understand that they are slaves, that the government owns everything, the support staff of that government do not. Rather, they primp and party and bet on the deaths of children in the Hunger Games each year, and within them there is no thought, only the constant distraction.

Katniss sees this stark contrast after she has won the Hunger Games through an act of rebellion. As she is being dressed and fussed over by her "prep" team for a televised appearance, she thinks:

"It's funny, because even though they are rattling on about the Games, it's all about where they were or what they were doing or how they felt when a specific event occurred. "I was in bed!" "I had just had my eyebrows dyed!" "I swear I nearly fainted!" Everything is about them, not the dying boys and girls in the arena." (The Hunger Games, p. 354).

For the people of the Capitol, the Games are a gruesome reality show through which they live a life and death adventure vicariously, and without thought, whereas for the people of the districts it is a grim reality to be endured, like all of the other privations forced upon them because of their status as the children and grandchildren of traitors:

"We don't wallow around the Games this way in District 12. We grit our teeth and watch because we must, and try to get back to business as soon as possible when they're over." (ibid.)

Thus, any child of the Districts of Panem learns that he or she is a slave, whose life and work belong to the government in the Capitol, whereas the people who do the mundane work of the government are adults in name only, acting like thoughtless children, their lives governed by the latest fashion, their heads full of the latest gossip about others. Not the power brokers, these people live silly, second hand lives.

The children who are forced into the arena each year come to understand that they are pawns, pampered and fed for a little while before their almost certain deaths in the arena; they are game pieces for the entertainment of the Capitol citizens, used to distract the privileged from the reality of serfdom. For the children, 'winning' means surviving by killing other innocent children, and their pampered future back in their districts is a life of nightmares and deceit, a damaged life sustained only by finding ways to evade the terrible knowledge that their lives are not their own, ever. Those "winners" who do not have a talent for that evasion live out their lives in madness. As another "winner", Peeta, says in a televised interview to a glittering talk-show host called Ceasar:

" 'Once you're in the arena,the rest of the world becomes very distant,' he continues. 'All of the people, the things you really cared about almost cease to exist. The pink sky and the monsters in the jungle and the tributes who want your blood become your final reality, the only one that ever mattered. As bad as it makes you feel, you know you're going to have to do some killing because in the arena you only get one wish. And it's very costly.'
'It costs your life,' says Ceasar.
'Oh, no. It costs a lot more than your life. To murder innocent people?' says Peeta. 'It costs everything you are.' " (Mockinjay , p. 23).

And so, within such a reality, there are those like the heroine, Katniss, who survive the Games through an irrepressible act of rebellion, a free act that may indeed cost her life, an act that demonstrates to those in power that physical chains cannot entirely supress the memory of freedom. Such an act is not consciously contemplated but arises out of the knowledge of the nature of human freedom that burns, unquenchable in the soul. And once such an action is taken, the person is changed, and one such act leads to another and another, until the reality of freedom bubbles into consciousness thought:

"As I drift off, I try to imagine that world, somewhere in the future, with no Games, no Capitol. A place like the meadow in the song I sang to Rue as she died. Where Peeta's child could be safe." (Catching Fire, p. 354).

Thus, reading a good Sci-Fi novel is dangerous. For as Ursula K. LeGuin says:

"In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we're done with it, we may find -- if it's a good novel -- that we're a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it's very hard to _say_ just what we learned, how we were changed. " (Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness).

Oh, yes, reading Sci-Fi can be a subversive act. Sometimes, if it is good Sci-Fi, we see a truth that the author is telling us about our world, about our selves. And we cannot unsee it . Good Sci-Fi it is not about geeking out on the future or vegging out on technology. Good Sci-Fi is about us. Now. And once we have seen the particular truth about our condition, we cannot unsee it.

Reading science fiction is a dangerous thing. For a good science fiction novel strips away the evasions and the confusions, making stark the reality of our own lives within the text. In our real lives we often go about like Katniss's prep team, wrapped in the mundane and necessary routines that make up daily life. But in the dialogue between the reader and the text, the reader's reality is stripped of the little things, and the meaning of it, illuminated. We are made uncomfortable. Are we really like the citizens of the Capitol, living vicariously through others? Do we see revolution as a Google-made game, created for our entertainment, returning to our own fleshpots, making a pun of the crack-down that we ignore afterwards? Are we more like the people of the Districts, afraid to step out of line for fear of losing what little they have? Is there perhaps, something of Katniss hidden deep within us, something that drives us to act--albeit uncounsciously--in defiance of our own slavery?

No wonder, then, that unfree societies take up the time of the individuals that they enslave with bread and circuses, in order to distract. But even in the real world, bread and circuses are in themselves dangerous to the regime that uses them. For while they lull the "citizens" who are fed bread they did not earn into somnolence, they eventually remind the circus "performers" that their lives are not their own, that they are living for the purposes of others. But in real life, this may take generations. In the story of the Israelites in Egypt, it took 400 years for the Israelites to realize that they had allowed themselves to become enslaved, the lives of their children at stake to prop up the power of Pharaoh.

But in Sci-Fi novels like the Hunger Games Trilogy, the story begins at the place where the reality of the consequences of second-hand lives, and of enslavement is no longer obscured; in the stripped down version of a story about us, now, we the truth of who we are now, and what we are doing now. And what it means. Really.

Oh, reading Sci-Fi can be a dangerous, dangerous act. For by paring down what is, and placing it in another place and time, it can cut through the bread and circuses, and bring the reader into an uncomfortable confrontation with reality.

And that changes a person, until with that internal dialogue, and then another and another, the unconscious understanding of what human freedom entails bubbles dangerously up, irrepressible, and the undercurrent becomes a mighty stream that wakes us up and forces us to confront the reality that all is not as we thought it was. And that understanding leads us into a confrontation with those who wish to keep us asleep and compliant to the thousands of little slaveries that keep us in bondage to their wills.

And so the subversive act of reading Sci-Fi can enventually provoke us to recognize who we are, to break our bonds, and lead us out of our second hand lives into the liberty of who knows where?


jan_shaw said...

March 2012 cannot come soon enough!! Dying to see The Hunger Games movie already. The whole series was amazing to read I can't wait to see who's cast in the movie! http://on.fb.me/gXrImz

Brianna said...

Did I recommend these books to you, or did they come to you from elsewhere? Either way, I'm glad you enjoyed them.

HaynesBE said...

Just finished the first book. I definitely enjoyed it. I had to quit reading your post part way through b/c I don't want any spoilers.