Monday, October 4, 2010

Aliens are SO last year

Last night I was thinking about the book Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. I never read it as a child, but I did pick it up in my early years of teaching, and I loved it. It's exciting, action-packed, suspenseful, with an admirable main character and a crazy twist ending. I recommend this book at my school countless times each year, every time thinking that I'll get a bunch of boys hooked on this intergalactic story of military training and combat. I stand at the front of the classes, gesticulating wildly, jumping around to illustrate the excitement of each moment of Ender's ruthless training for battle with the aliens. My eyes widen when I describe how completely mind-blowing the ending is, that even I, Ms. Murphy, veteran reader, did not fully see it coming.

There have been, like, 2 kids who have read this book in the last five years.

Aliens are just out. I have to face facts. No one cares. No one cares about robots, rocket ships, spaceships (although they like NONfiction about UFOs), intergalactic voyages. Even time travel is a hard sell. These have been replaced by the supernatural or paranormal stories that pervade popular TV and film culture as well. Vampires, werewolves, faeries, ghosts, hauntings, psychics, even long dormant mythological beasts - these are the characters that populate kids' fantasies today.

So, why?

The obvious explanation is just that tastes change. A fad is a fad is a fad. This too shall pass. But here's the thing about that. Vampires were in when I was in middle school too, more than 20 years ago. They weren't just in; they were HOT! Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys! He was scary AND sexy (a combo that these modern-day "nice" vampires don't pull off, I might add). That movie was huge. Along with Once Bitten (comedy), Vampire's Kiss (Nicholas Cage's finest film), My Best Friend is a Vampire, and Salem's Lot (SO scary). These were not all books first, so I digress. It's interesting though that what they WERE was either funny or scary. They weren't, for the most part, about romance at all.

Ok, so now I want to know both why kids don't like sci fi AND why the new vampire oeuvre is all about love. But back to the sci fi for now....

Is Sci Fi out among this age group because science itself is out? These kids aren't talking about NASA or Mars or the moon. They don't want to be astronauts, probably because they've never even heard of a single individual contemporary astronaut (and really, have you?). US students rank below about 20 or 30 other countries in terms of their knowledge of science, so it follows that science fiction, which takes real scientific principles and speculates, wouldn't be too engaging. If you don't know the science, why would it be fun to speculate? One exception seems to be end-of-the-world Sci Fi, usually about a drastic global warming scenario, but sometimes about meteors hitting the moon, nuclear catastrophe, or plague. Of course, this is more about doom and apocalypse than real science, which brings me to my next question.

Is this about religion?

Years ago, Harry Potter was demonized by the religious extremists in this country, and kids all around the nation weren't allowed (by their parents, not their librarians!) to read it. Now we have a Mormon writer of a semi-erotic vampire series totally dominating the minds of our teens. I don't want to be anti-religion in saying this, because I AM NOT. I think religion can bring great happiness and purpose to a person's life and that is good. (I myself am not religious, but I know a lot of nice religious people.) However, the question has been begged:

While science fiction is speculation usually based on scientific principle or even fact, and therefore in some sense it can be argued that the things that happen in science fiction COULD actually happen, you know, scientifically....

supernatural fiction is based in the faith that beings outside the normal realm of science and experience, but of this earth in some way (and therefore not an undiscovered alien race) really do exist and can impact our lives in profound ways, including romance/love/marriage....

and doesn't that sound a little religious? Hmmmmm.....

So is the slow, decades-long transformation of American culture from scientific world dominator to religious world dominator evident in this trend in books for young people? And if the answer is yes then, again...why? For what reason do we look for (and find) such enthralled satisfaction in stories of completely unlikely creatures meeting and falling in love with us? Or protecting us? Or, in the case of Bella in Twilight, allowing us to transform into that same unreal form (metaphor for religious conversion very evident here)?

(Huh, on a side note, are there many human-alien romance books?)

And why do teens today enjoy that concept so much more than the one in Ender's Game - that humans are strong and capable, that we can and will go out and kick some butt if anyone threatens our humanity, that our intelligence is our most powerful weapon, that being smart is the best thing one can be, that being human is note necessarily a weakness, that we live in a human community that must be united to survive. Those are some really great messages, if you ask me. In the face of global warming, for example. We could use some of that! Of course, Orson Scott Card is known for being a bigot and homophobe, as well as discrediting global, well, yeah. I guess we might not want to lean too heavily on his messages either.

Ok then, how about A Wrinkle In Time! That's a goodie. Same messages there, really, without the military annihilation. Intelligence, united humanity, individualism, strong female characters, tight family bonds, loyalty. Lots of good stuff there.

Again, I am getting off point. Although, I think I may have lost my point altogether because I am completely fascinated by everything I am saying!

In sum:

Has SciFi been replaced by the paranormal/supernatural because of:
  1. a passing trend?
  2. a lack of interest in science?
  3. a growing semi-religious faith in that which cannot be seen?
And from those questions arise these:

  • Why does the paranormal/supernatural fiction now focus on human love for that supernatural being, compared to twenty years ago when the focus was fear of the being or humor at the expense of the being? Is this social commentary on the mainstream feelings toward certain religious faith in this country?
  • Are there human-alien love stories for young people, and if so, what are they?
  • Why is Orson Scott Card able to write such great books when he is actually not that great?
  • What does this all mean? and/or Am I just blowing a lot of smoke?
That last one is a doozie. I'll have to think on that some more....


Shayana said...

Point the girls towards Stephenie Meyer's _The Host_. It's sci-fi AND romance. And, relating to a previous post of yours, the girl/alien is self-sacrificing to an extreme that could very well set your teeth to grinding for days.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes a post is so thought-provoking, and the reader is so exhausted, that said reader can only say "whoa."

On Ender's Game: You recommended it to me. LOVED IT. Why don't students? Could it be that the voice is a little more mature than a lot of young adult fiction our students are used to reading? Or maybe it's because the protagonist is so detached (which made him so good at the game). BTW, I read a horrible yet delicious rumor on the internet that Card may not have even written Ender's Game and that's why the sequels don't begin to come close to the original. I'd hesitate to spread that rumor if he weren't such a homophobe.

I didn't read much sci-fi in middle school either. I loved Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. Haunting and lovely. I need to re-read it, but I seem to remember it being much more about humans losing sight of their humanity than about the martians.

And I think Feed should be required reading in middle school. You turned me on to that one too. What an awesome librarian.