This morning, I finished reading the classic science fiction novel, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ. I rate this novel PG for violence.
First, the short review…
To purchase the novel, click A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ.
5 Reasons I Recommend A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ
- If you are a science fiction fan and want to be fluent in the genre’s history, Leibowitz is on many lists of must read sci-fi.
- The novel’s world is depicted plainly and purposefully, capturing the tragedy of a post nuclear holocaust world without sentimentality. The prose is often lovely and the story becomes more and more gripping as it unfolds.
- Especially for the philosopher and the theologian, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ puts forward some of the most profound ideas around human evil and our propensity for self-destruction.
- Even if you’re not a philosopher, the characters and ideas come together in a way that does not allow the reader to ignore our society’s seeming dance toward self-destruction.
- In a similar vein as On The Beach, by Nevil Shute, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ is a story that has the capacity to change our minds about nuclear arms and warfare.
A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ was originally published in three parts.
Fiat Homo…Let there be man
Fiat Lux…Let there be light
Fiat Voluntas Tua…Let thy will be done
The first two section titles refer to the Biblical account of creation, when God spoke the earth and humankind into being. The third section’s title refers to the Christian New Testament. Not that the idea lacks foundation in the Hebrew Bible, but the phrase itself is taken from The Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane before his death. “And he went forward a little, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass away from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
A fair amount of Latin is spoken in this novel and I did not understand all of it, but most phrases are translated within the story or the context makes the meaning clear. All of the main characters and narrators are associated with a religious order, the monks of The Leibowitzian Order, that was established following what the novel calls The Flame Deluge.
The monks, much like Irish monks during the Dark Ages, copy, preserve and make available ancient knowledge to those who will have it. For the most part, the barbarians who dwell around the monastic fortress, whose setting is the old American West, hate this knowledge and see it as the reason destruction came to the planet.
An excerpt from the novel:
“After the bombs and the Fallout came the plagues and the madness. Then, in the bloodletting known as the Age of Simplification, the people – those few who remained – rose up against their teachers, their scientists and their rulers, those they held responsible for turning the world into a barren desert…”
A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, published in 1959, channels the zeitgeist of an era when people were genuinely terrified of and preparing for nuclear war. For many readers, especially, younger readers, that period of history can feel like a long time ago in a galaxy far far away…but given Covid19, the economic shock that has hit the globe through the shutdown as well as the rise of a belligerent Communist China and a perpetually divided United States, war and/or chaotic one-upsmanship between two superpowers seems less far distant than it has since 1989, when the Soviet Empire collapsed. If World War III were to happen today, what would be the fallout?
Many of the questions posed by Miller in A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, are relevant today. There is wisdom and a degree of sobriety that can be gained by our society paying closer attention to stories like this one.
I recently finished viewing all 4 seasons of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE and loved it. Also…I know I’m a little late to the game, but it’s hard to keep up, especially if you’re trying to read and watch scifi! There’s a lot of good content out there in the multiverse. I give this story a PG 13 rating, so be warned, parents.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is not a new story, but it was imagined anew by creator Frank Spotnitz for our era. It is based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name (which I have not yet read, but will soon because I enjoyed the series so much). Dick’s daughter was involved in the production of the tv version, overseeing her father’s vision.
This story is less science fiction in the traditional sense and more alternative history. Dick wrote THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE after being inspired by the novel Bring the Jubilee, by Ward Moore, whose novel is an alternative history of the US where the Confederate States win the Civil War. In Dick’s novel, the Axis powers win World War II. First, the short review:
5 Reasons I Recommend THE MAN IN HIGH CASTLE
- Superb storytelling…I was surprised at how well the writer(s) kept me engaged, including the pacing over 4 seasons. Bravo!
- Spot-on performances. A brilliant portrayal of John Smith, an American/Nazi leader, by Rufus Sewell. Also, a powerful female hero in Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos)
- A satisfying enough ending (will say no more lest I spoil)
- Pushing characters to their limits and not turning away from human dilemmas like: How far would you go to protect your family? Would you kill a person in cold blood if you know they will be responsible for death and mayhem in the future?
- Finally, if you find history a bore, consider jump-starting your learning via consuming smart fiction, like THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. World War II was a fascinating and dark time in world history with reverberations reaching into our current era, more than we might think. THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE gives the audience an intimate view into the characters of the day, many of whom are real historical people, but if not real, the fictional characters help the audience understand the zeitgeist of the time.
I appreciated and enjoyed all four seasons of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, but my favorite seasons were 3 and 4. Seasons 3 and 4 put forward the more complex moral and philosophical questions around Nazism, occupation and the kind of determination that it takes to defeat evil. I still appreciated season 1 and 2. The moral framework was being laid, the true heroes were being defined, but by season 3, defeating evil in our midst becomes the clear goal. It will require dedication, resilience and the broader community…something I feel to be true throughout history. Unlikely allies come together to defeat evil.
In that sense, I found the series remarkably relevant. Dick is playing with alternative histories in this story and Spotnitz (credit for the screenplay/creator goes alone to Frank Spotnitz on the show’s Wikipedia page) was able to put forward a world that in many respects, felt as real as the news I see on my screen on any given day. Before Covid19 and George Floyd protests…in this series (in the book, I assume as well) memorials, monuments and statues are blown up, taken down, destroyed. That was interesting for me to ponder.
In THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, those taking down the monuments are Nazis, determined to wipe out American history and recreate their own version of history that will be imposed on Americans. One character spells out the reason, “Once we wipe out their narrative, it will help them accept our narrative, the Nazi narrative.” The Nazis empower the young people in the US to riot and do violence to any who try to protect the monuments.
I would hesitate to make a moral statement about those who have defaced monuments in our cities in these last months, but I did find it fascinating to see this portrayal, non political, I assume because the screenplay was written long before our recent protests. How would those scenes be written today? I wonder…
To counter that narrative that “good ‘ol America just needs to be reclaimed”, the Black Communist Rebellion becomes an important power in the final season. Those characters are drawn in a way that is multi-faceted and dignifying. The series touches on Civil Rights era injustices while highlighting the Nazi take on black skin, which is horrifying and includes the sterilization of young black women. The audience sees the “graded” evil of racism.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE does not justify white supremacy. It tries, I think, to highlight its evil and does not let white America off the hook. Like I said…this is a complex narrative and, to give Dick credit, it was written in the early 1960s.
In the series, the Axis powers have split the US into three zones. The Japanese rule that which is West of Rockies. The East is ruled by the Nazis and in an attempt to keep these powers from eating each other, the middle of the US is neutral. Juliana Crain is a San Francisco native, so plenty of Northern California sites on screen, including the supremely gorgeous Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.
I was gratified to get a view into the Japanese Imperial rulership over the Western US in a way that capitalized on few or no stereotypes. One sees and feels the brutal nature of the Japanese occupiers, but also the complex politics between Japan and Germany (both superpowers in this universe) and the grace and gentleness of some aspects of Japanese culture. There are Japanese who brutally murder and there are Japanese who feel deep compassion to the point of aiding the rebellion. That is a helpful juxtaposition and I believe a true one when it comes to human dynamics during a time of war. Building an empire leads to big messes and horrible violence. It also drives human beings to act with sacrifice and heroism. THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE does not shy away from the complexities of warfare and empire building and for that reason, it deepened my understanding of a complex historical time.
Grit, hope, despair and horrible evil are all captured in this story, but what emerges most prominently in narrative are deep truths about what is right, just and good. This story is one for our time. I encourage you to start watching today.
I love science fiction, dreaming about the future, imagining what our life in outer space might look like someday, but my passion for the genre has as much to do with the past as it does with the future. Science fiction shows us the future but also has the ability to teach us about our past and often does so without the baggage of politics and biases. The stories below are launch pads. Their portrayals of history through story are not by any means comprehensive, but rather snapshots into the lives of people encountering challenges that may be imagined by the author, but mirror history.
Here are a handful of scifi stories that bring the reader face to face with the past:
- Superman Smashes the Klan
- The Man in the High Castle
- An Excess Male
History Lesson #1. SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN. Launch a discussion about the Ku Klux Klan (it’s inception and impact on US race relations).
In this three-issue Superman Comic, Gene Luen Yang gives historic tidbits at the end of each issue. You can read my review of the series here.
In issue 1,Yang highlights the 13th amendment to the constitution (abolition of slavery) and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act
Following issue 2, Yang discusses the Jewish immigrants who created Superman.
Following issue 3, Yang discusses the challenges of his own parents, both of whom were immigrants from Taiwan
History Lesson #2. Watch or read, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (book by Philip K. Dick. The Amazon Prime TV series was produced by Dick’s daughter, Isa Dick Hackett). Discuss and learn about World War II.
This series is a great way to understand the Axis powers and that tentative alliance that almost took over the globe. You’ll find yourself or your student understanding the world that was inhabited by those who lived under occupation during that war. The French, The Koreans, and many others were forced to survive under Nazi or Japanese rule. Some made compromises, others rebelled. Can you imagine who you would have become to survive an occupation? That question is a great way for students to enter into and understand history.
History Lesson #3. Watch COLONY on Netflix to begin to grapple with the reality of living under occupation.
In the case of COLONY, the true enemy is an alien race that has invaded Earth, but some of the darkest villains are the human beings who have allied themselves with this conquering force.
Living under occupation, whether under the Greeks, Romans, The Islamic Caliphate, the Brits, the USSR, it requires turncoats, or those who will help to subdue the masses for the sake of the little bits of power and privilege that are doled out by the occupying power. The tv series COLONY does an amazing job of capturing this reality. A longer review can be found here.
History Lesson #4. Read AN EXCESS MALE, by Maggie Shen Chen, to begin to understand 20th century Chinese history.
Although this book imagines a future China, this story highlights what is perhaps the most disastrous public policy mandate of all time, THE ONE CHILD POLICY. For my review of this novel, click here. To read my guide for educators, click here.
History Lesson #5. KINDRED, by Octavia Butler. Read this book (fictional) and one of the other historic slave narratives like, MY LIFE AS A SLAVE, by Frederick Douglass. Discuss the ways slavery dehumanizes all those who participate in its reality.
KINDRED, by the late and great Octavia Butler, gives the reader a taste of the slave-inhabited South of yore. The brutality is evident and palpable. Lessons are brought so close…it’s hard to read this book, yet it is valuable for those trying to understand slavery in 18th and 19th century US. Here is my longer review of Kindred
Read All Three Issues of SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN You Won’t Be Sorry
- Comic book action and a great story
- Relatable kid characters who make poor or good choices and learn from them
- Even Superman grows and changes
- History lesson combined with Gene Luen Yang memoir tidbits in the final pages of each issue are perfect for spurring deeper conversations about racism in the US
- I can’t get enough of Gurihiru’s lovely art
It’s a sad season for many of us on planet Earth who are living under the threat of COVID19 spread. Schools have been shuttered, so many activities cancelled and parents are left trying to figure out how to keep their kids off screens and at least somewhat engaged in their education. Great books, ones your kids will be motivated to read without any of your coaxing, are the home-school parent’s best friend.
On my website, you can use the menu bar for educators to see what science fiction books might appeal to your student. It’s not an exhaustive list, but there are more than a few gems you’ll want to check out. When I review a book, I give the story a movie type rating…G, PG, PG-13, etc.
If you want to read a review of issue 1 of this series, click SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN, A No Spoiler Review
If you want to read a review of issue 2, click here
In the case of issue 3, I have no reservations in recommending this book to all kids and adults, though you might give it a PG rating for the serious topic it tackles, racism and violence.
The story (as portrayed in all three issues) is accessible to a child. He/she might need to be old enough to engage in a basic conversation about race, justice and belonging, but my experience in having two kids who attended public schools in California, they were ripe for the beginning of that conversation by kindergarten. I would recommend you don’t shield your young ones from starting this conversation early.
In this third issue of SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN, the story climaxes with a confrontation between Superman and the Klan of the Fiery Cross. Superman has befriended the Lees, an Asian American family that has moved out of Chinatown and into the suburbs. They are the focus of the Klan’s animosity and Superman is defending them against the Klan’s violence. Author, Gene Luen Yang does not pull punches. There is a real portrayal of race hatred in this comic series, but that is what makes this story all the more powerful…it delivers truth.
Roberta, the young sister in the Lee family plays a crucial role in helping Superman beat back injustice. She will appeal to both girls and boys with her quirks (in the opening sequence of the first issue, she gets car sick and has to throw up while her family is driving out of Chinatown) and her bravery (she confronts evil and injustice head on, even though she can’t always defend herself). In this issue, Lois Lane takes Roberta under her wing and encourages her to research a mystery for the Daily Planet as a cub reporter. Roberta is a wonderful hero.
Given the talented writer that he is, Yang draws out a number of characters on both sides of the conflict who have depth. The bad guys are more than just foils. Likewise, the good guys are not always perfect. Even Superman is grappling with flashbacks around his own childhood, trying to make sense of his alien nature. It’s one of a number of great storylines that will please the Superman fanatic and add much to the themes that emerge in SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN.
A bonus delight in all the issues are the final pages where Gene Luen Yang puts forward a bit more history of his own immigrant story and that of the Klan…In a vulnerable and testimonial way, he reflects on both the challenges and the beauty of our mixed cultural nation.
SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN is a story in three issues. One issue every other month released since October. This is something comic book readers understand. You buy one issue, read about your favorite hero and wait in anticipation for the next issue to come out. Comic book adventures are serial-styled stories. Each comic book usually contains one story arc and always ends with a cliffhanger. That is one reason why readers buy the next issue. There is delight in this way of consuming a story, but it requires more patience than most of us are used to.
In case that style does not appeal to you or your child, buy all three. All three SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN issues contained in one book, a story that will grab your child and keep him or her reading. The three will be released together on May 12. To preorder the story in one paperback instead of 3 separate issues, click here.
My advice in case you plan to discuss race with your child, make sure you read the story too. The education that will come out of the reading will benefit parent and child.
To buy SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN, ISSUE 3, click here.
To buy the previous issues, click
SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN Part 2 hit comic book stores in December. It’s over a month old and I have been delinquent in reviewing it, until today. This story is appropriate for just about all readers. Rated PG.
For a review of Part 1, see this no spoiler review
Warning: This review will have spoilers if you have not read the first installment.
Inspired by the 1940s radio series Clan of the Fiery Cross, Gene Yang picks up the cliff-hanger from part 1. In part 1, Tommy Lee, a Chinese-American boy has been abducted by a white supremacist group, Klan of the Fiery Kross.
The aim of the Klan is to tar and feather Tommy, therefore teaching his parents a lesson. They resent the Lees moving out of Chinatown and into their white neighborhood. The Lee family has made this move because Dr. Lee, Tommy’s father, has been offered a job in a nearby lab.
All the storylines ratchet up a notch in Part 2.
- Superman backstory: Superman continues to have flashbacks of his parents, aliens who look very different than humans. He is grappling with his own “alien” identity. His journey parallels the journey of the immigrants and their children in the story
- A little bit of romance: Yes, it’s a bit comedic and fun to see the budding affection between Superman and Lois and a little flare between Jimmy and Roberta, the main character in the story, the Lee’s spunky daughter.
- A community undergoing change: Yang captures an aspect of American life that rings true…especially, second generation immigrants moving out of the inner cities, out of enclaves and integrating into white America, changes that have historically led to tension. As in Part 1, Yang treats the “bad guys” fairly, always grappling with their feelings and their perspective. Not excusing their views or actions, but giving all his characters humanity.
- Another history lesson/bio on race relations in the US: At the end of the comic, a memoir section called Superman and Me describes Gene Yang’s childhood relationship with Superman and other comic heroes. Underneath Yang’s love affair with comics is the power of story and how they provided a sense of identity and empowerment for the author. In case you’re enamored by the history lesson, consider Yang’s early graphic novel masterpiece, American Born Chinese Definitely worth owning and passing around to friends, especially young teens.
Overall, this is a great middle to the story. I look forward to reading the finale, Part 3 when it is released on February 19, 2020.
A note on the art: The art in the series, created by Gurihiru, is colorful, capturing a blend of retro and anime. It seems apropos that this Japanese female duo would create the artwork for a comic grappling with some of the first Asian-American characters portrayed in a sympathetic way in the American Comics Universe.
To buy Part 1, click here
To buy Part 2, click here
SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN, written by Gene Luen Yang and drawn by Gurihiru was released exactly one week ago, Wednesday the 16th of October and understandably, it is moving off the shelves fast. I highly recommend this first installment in the three part series. I rate this series PG and would encourage parents to read it with children and discuss the many aspects of the story that are rooted in history.
Short Review: Five Reasons to Own and Read SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN:
- Be a collector! Only 3 installments to buy. Keep this historic series forever while using only an inch of space on your bookshelf!
- The drawings and colors are beautiful and stylized to deepen the reading experience.
- Learn history. There are historic truths woven into the story. Yang also adds autobiography relaying the story of how he has experienced racism and historical facts about the Ku Klux Klan at the end of the comic.
- The characters are well-drawn (literally and figuratively), avoiding cliches that sometimes populate comic book fiction
- The story is full of action, suspense, but doesn’t paint an overly simplified view of good vs. evil. This is one Gene Luen Yang’s strengths…the empathy he feels for all his characters, even the very broken ones.
To buy this book, Part 1 of 3, you’ll need to visit your local comic book store or click here. Also, if it’s been a while since you entered a well-stocked comics store, you owe yourself the treat. Go now and browse the shelves!
Most science fiction fans love comics, but not all. I know a few who have avoided them in favor of novels, television and film, but the comic format has proven its heft in recent years with literary stories like American Born Chinese. Gene Luen Yang, the author of American Born Chinese, also wrote the much-acclaimed New Super-Man, in which an Asian American young man emerges as the Superman in the story. It is no surprise Yang was DC’s choice to bring SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN to life. The story is an adaptation of a 1946 smaller story arc within a radio series called The Adventures of Superman. In it, an Asian-American family is threatened by the Ku Klux Klan and Superman is inspired to protect the children of this family from racist terror.
It’s August, which means we’re almost done with summer, but it is not too late to steer your teen away from screens and toward reading. I have a soft heart for parents of teens. I have two kids and know well the battle parents wage relentlessly to engage their teens with anything other than their devices. (Truth…we parents have an addiction as well…which is why tackling this issue is so tricky!).
But why even fight? Why fight the powerful riptide that sucks our kids into the digital universe?
I interviewed reading specialist, Dr. Marnie Ginsberg, who focuses on training teachers of early readers and has two teenagers of her own. Even she is familiar with the struggle! This is what she says about teen reading…
“Good teen readers read hundreds of hours more each year than average readers. As a result of this reading practice, they keep developing their reading achievement. And reading achievement is strongly correlated with so many positive outcomes for teens and their future selves that one can hardly count them all…”
Dr. Ginsberg’s list included these: “Higher reading achievement leads to…
- better school achievement–in all subject areas, including math
- stronger oral and written language knowledge and skills
- better job prospects
- higher wage earnings
- better health; and even better life expectancy!
- Besides these long-term benefits, time spent reading helps in immediate ways, too, such as mood regulation and stress reduction.”
Yet, Dr. Ginsberg said that most teens today are not reading enough to enjoy these varied benefits of high reading achievement. Multimedia usage instead, soaks up most of the typical teen’s day–upwards of 8 hours a day.
If you are an educator and want to learn more about how to better teach young readers the skills that will help them succeed at reading, check out her website. ReadingSimplified
Discovering Great Stories Your Teens Will Love…
The challenge for parents and teachers is to help the teens in their life discover great stories. Our kids still love stories, but they tend to take them in via the screen. Stranger Things, the Netflix hit, is one example, which became a must see event each season for most of our teenagers. Another must-see event, the latest Avengers’ blockbuster. Who will stand in line for a ticket and a seat? Those who want to engage the current story and amazingly, our teens want to do that in community. Great stories bring communities together.
Stories still matter us and they matter to our kids. Let this be your best ammunition as a parent. If you work hard at finding good stories in the books you are putting in front of them, your kids have a much better chance of actually reading.
Compelling stories are waiting to be uncovered by you/your teen, but how do you find them? Try going to Goodreads (book review site) or googling something like The Top 10 New Novels for Teens. Also, follow the lead of your teen who might have a favorite author or genre. I would advise heading to a library over a bookstore when looking for the right story because librarians are golden when it comes to know what is the latest great story for teens.
A goot librarian is like a matchmaker. Librarians read enough to know the answer to a question like this…What is the best Middle Grade book with a female protagonist who isn’t an orphan that is under 300 pages. A great librarian will be able to give your teen one or two books that fit that description.
However, if you’re in a hurry and a little stuck, check out reviews on my website (not all are teen appropriate), but here are a few I would put forward that are…
All these books except for AMERICAN BORN CHINESE are speculative fiction or sci-fi. To find out if the book is right for your teen, all of these books (with the exception of DOGSBODY) are reviewed on my site. You can find them via the search function.
- FEED, by MT Anderson. To buy the audiobook, click here.
- THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, by Nancy Farmer. To buy this audiobook, click here.
- DOGSBODY, By Dianna Wynne Jones. Click here to buy.
- DESCENDER SERIES (graphic novel series), by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen (See below for links to purchase)
- AMERICAN BORN CHINESE (graphic novel), by Gene Luen Yang. Click here to purchase.
In addition to finding the right stories. Here are a few strategies that will encourage teen reading
- Take a road trip where screens are forbidden in the car and listen to an audiobook that everyone has agreed on. Bonus…if you pick the first book in a series (and there are many of those out there), your teen might pick up the subsequent books on his/her own.
- Make it a summer tradition (or an all-year tradition) to read aloud together as a family before bed each night. I know a few families that practice this habit and their kids cherish the time. Think of it in a similar category as watching television together…
- Don’t despise the graphic novel. There are sophisticated stories, characters and lengthy dialogue to be had in the modern graphic novel.
- Go on a phone-free, screen-free vacation where every member of the family gets to take his/her own book of choice This NY Times article gives tips on how to best unplug in case one phone must come along.
The List…Quick and Clean.
- FEED, by MT Anderson. This is still one of my favorite YA books. Anderson writes what I think is one of the best first lines in YA literature. We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck. Click here to read my review of the novel. It might be a book worth reading with your teens if you are a parent or teacher. (It’s not a long novel). If you are a teen reading my website…read this book, hand it to a friend and have a discussion afterward. The story raises great questions around how connection to our devices might be more problematic than we comprehend. Read this if you want to have that discussion.
- HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, by Nancy Farmer. For my no spoiler review, read here. Superb story and if you and/or your kids like this book, there is a sequel in the same world called, the OPIUM KING. This book raises interesting questions about cloning. I have written about that here. This book is not exactly scifi, but deals with futuristic ideas about science. It falls under the speculative fiction category.
- BINTI, by Nnedi Okorafor. This book is a novella, the first of a trilogy of novellas, so if you or your teen are reticent to tackle a thick novel, take this in hand. It’s an easy read in one sitting and flows as a story. The protagonist is also dark-skinned and female. (The above two books feature great female characters, but the protagonists are male) To read my review of BINTI click here. I have only read the first book and deem it PG-13. Okorafor indicates that she did not intend the novellas to be for the YA audience, but I found the first to be a compelling tale for teens…a coming of age story. I cannot yet speak for the final two.
To purchase these books, click:
To purchase all three novella’s at once, click
Caution: A few spoilers in this post…
Complex portrayals of the non-humanoid alien are a writing challenge for many sci-fi writers…this I tried to establish in my previous post on writing dynamic non-humanoid aliens
- If the alien doesn’t look or act like a human, it will be difficult for the audience to comprehend its character and motivation
- If it doesn’t speak in plain human lingo, along with not looking like a human being…it will be nearly impossible to draw in the typical audience. The alien will remain “the other” and may never transcend its designation of foreigner/alien.
The honest sci-fi writer knows that if a first contact event were ever to take place in the real world, the likelihood of an alien looking like a human being and/or speaking or thinking like a human being is slim to none.
Therefore, the imagination must soar and novels like Embassytown (China Miéville) and short stories like Arrival (Ted Chiang) come into the canon. These are stories that give the audience an alien we might never have imagined. It’s worth looking at both examples. In this post, I will focus on ARRIVAL, the short story and the film. Both were excellent and if you haven’t already consumed these stories, do so and do so before you read on. Here is my non-spoiler review of the film, ARRIVAL Otherwise, I forge ahead with analysis and spoilers. You’ve been warned.
How did Ted Chiang and Eric Heisserer (screenplay writer) pull off portraying an alien that was both non-humanoid, with no human language and still give it/them so much character that went beyond “the monster” designation?
- They reveal the alien through the eyes of Louise Banks, the main character and the linguist who is trying to communicate with the creatures/entities. The story is told from Louise’s point of view. That makes a big difference in how the audience sees all that transpires in the narrative because Louise comes to the aliens as a learner, as curious and though the creatures are powerful and instill fear in most of the humans who encounter them, Louise is not overcome by fear. (Note: Louise is a fantastic hero, but she is no Ripley, of the Alien franchise. It’s likely she would have been an early snack for the buggers on that vessel. Louise is fierce in her dedication to her academic discipline, but unlike Ripley, my guess is she would not be as ready to use a gun to blow their brains out if they had revealed themselves to be monsters).
- The writers give the aliens agency, first by showing their power. These entities that have arrived on Earth are powerful, there’s no doubt about that and showing their power is not a difficult writing task. It is accomplished in a variety of well thought-out details. For starters, the vessels they have traveled in are massive. Also, these entities have traveled through space to find another sentient species, which reveals how their technology is superior to human tech. In addition, the mystery of where they have come from, their beautiful language, their form…all create an aura of their power, and I would add, their dignity. The fact that humanity is freaking out (especially the military) is another clue about these aliens and their power. We learn about them by watching how others react to them. This is a classic writing tool, especially when a mysterious character presents itself. The audience takes its cues from the group surrounding the mystery.
- The writers reveal alien character by showing us how those aliens use their power. They show us by showing us the alien actions As ARRIVAL progresses, the audience begins to form an opinion about the motives of these characters. They are characters with personality. First, the audience recognizes what the aliens have not done. They have not blasted the planet to shreds, started a war or abducted any humans. In terms of what they have done, the aliens are trying (trying hard) to communicate. They readily engage when Louise begins to learn their language. The most important scene in the narrative that reveals their goodness is the moment the entities warn Louise about danger, then save the lives of Louise and her counterpart when a bomb, planted by one of the freaked-out military men, explodes in the cave-like room where they have been making slow progress on communicating. The contrast becomes clear. We see humans who are fearful and violent. We see aliens who are steadily revealing themselves and using their power to save lives.
To close this second of four posts, I’ll nerd out a little on words.
The Etymology of Our Other-Worldly Friends/Enemies
In English, the word alien is derived from the Latin, alius, meaning other, and alienus, meaning belonging to another. The al in these words comes from the Proto-European root (it precedes Sanskrit), meaning beyond. Its root is different from the English word, foreigner, whose Proto-European root is the word dhwer, meaning door. The senses of the two words are different based on the roots. The foreigner lives outside one’s door, the alien is from somewhere beyond. I key into the fact that the word precedes Sanskrit. The labeling of the other is incredibly old. Human psychology is fundamentally tribal. Those outside our door or from beyond are automatically suspect. The film ARRIVAL is about this tribal fear and our inability…not just to communicate with strangers/aliens, but to communicate with one another. In the film, this becomes a large issue and almost leads to disaster.
One other term for the sci-fi consumer…E.T.
The term extra-terrestrial was coined in the modern era. It was first documented in 1953 or 1956 depending on who you believe. The initials, E.T., was made famous by Spielberg’s 1982 film.
Rating: PG-13 or thereabouts. This series was made for television by USA Network. There are a couple of steamy sex scenes in season 1, but no explicit nudity. In the photo you see here, the nudity is not explicit and is also relevant to the story.
COLONY, particularly the first season, is a methodical and painful study of society fracturing under the strain of a foreign occupation. The occupiers happen to be a technologically advanced alien invasion force, but for whatever reason (this is not fully explained in the first season of COLONY), those aliens have decided to rule through human governors.
The first season of this series portrays how human survivors figure out ways to continue life following a traumatic takeover of the globe. Writers, Carlton Cuse and Ryan J. Condal, draw in the audience and give their viewers a window into the psychology of the various groups of people as they cope. (Note: regarding the writers, I have tried to give credit to writers who are on the team. It’s important for students, in particular, to know that television often utilizes teams of writers to keep the story going and flowing. Those writers will get credit for their episodes. They are named below, episode by episode.)
For youths studying the Holocaust and other historic occupations, like the Belgians in The Congo, The USSR across Russia and Eastern Europe and the Roman Empire across much of the ancient world, just to name a few, the opportunities for discussion come with each episode.
To order the first season dvds, click here.
Cuse, Condal and the rest of their writing team don’t shy away from giving a few more obvious discussion starters, like the gas chamber scene in episode 2. It’s horrific and frightening as it should be, but what should be just as frightening is seeing weak and fearful human beings turn so quickly against one another. Watching COLONY has the potential to draw out more reflection in those who might be bored by a history they think they understand in full. Most youth (and to be fair, most adults) do not comprehend what it was really like to live in Nazi occupied Holland for example, where some courageous citizens hid Jews and/or helped them escape. Everyday people performed heroically even though their actions endangered their lives. Their families also assumed huge costs. I know of one family that sent their youngest children away, out of the city, to protect them from any retribution that might come if they were discovered. Those children were raised by relatives, their family life shattered not just by the occupiers, but because of the choices their parents had made to do what they understood as right and just. This family also had to kill a neighbor who was about to turn them into the authorities.
We all like to think we would be heroes, but what would it really feel like to pay the costs and resist an occupying power? COLONY gets under the skin and forces the viewer to think about these questions.
Here are a few potent questions that emerge out of COLONY…episode by episode…to get the discussion juices flowing. (Warning: spoilers written in this next section)
Episode 1…Pilot written by Carlton Cuse and Ryan J. Condal. This episode juxtaposes Katie with Will. Will Bowman, after a failed attempt to find his son, decides to collaborate with The Transitional Authority. What convinces Will to work alongside the collaborators? What lengths would you go to in terms of collaborating with the occupiers, if you or your family were directly threatened? Katie decides to go a different route, which will involve her spying on her husband. What do you think of her choice?
Episode 2…Written by Wes Tooke. Being sent to The Factory has been mentioned a few times. This episode culminates with the gas chamber scene. How do the occupiers use fear to ensure order? How does fear impact normal citizens in the LA bloc? Do you fear people in power in our society? Who? How does that impact you?
Episode 3…Written by Daniel C. Connolly. In this episode, Katie takes part in the hijacking of a supply truck, in which civilian and Resistance lives are sacrificed to determine drone response times. Do you think the Resistance has a right to sacrifice these lives for the greater good? Why or why not?
Episode 4…Written by Anna Fishko & Dre Alvarez. In this episode Broussard, a key friend to Katie and Resistance member, executes Phyllis (one of the heads of Homeland Security) and her bedridden husband. They do this to send a message to Homeland Security and to the Transitional Authority. Strange sacrifices are made by those living under occupation. Why do you think Phyllis pleads for Broussard to shoot her husband when she knows she is about to die? What does that say about the living standards under the occupation, even for those who are most elite?
Episode 5…Written by Carlton Cuse. Watch the interrogation scene that starts around minute 15. Does the Transitional Authority understand who is on its team and who is rebelling? If you were living in this world, would you resist and if so, how?
Episode 6…Written by Ryan J. Condal. More and more, Will is disillusioned with the Transitional Authority as Katie is with the Resistance. In COLONY, what is portrayed is a broken system on either end of the spectrum. There are good people trying to make sense of the world who are collaborators. There are bad people, trying to overturn the system within the Resistance. The world is complex and it forces choices on human actors at every turn. What do you think would be the most difficult choice for you if an occupier took over your city/state/country and why would that be the most difficult choice?
Episode 7…Written by Sal Calleros. An insidious character, introduced a few episodes before, is the Bowman’s personal tutor, Lindsey. Lindsey is a true believer in the occupation. She understands the coming of the aliens as an answer to a prophesy, associated with a religion promulgated by the alien invaders and the collaborators. Why do you think Lindsey believes and why does she try to convert the Bowman’s daughter, Gracie, into this belief system?
Episode 8…Written by Wes Tooke. Betrayal at the top of the Resistance. The episode drives home the truth that in an occupation, even the rebels have a messy house. Those who collaborate with the occupiers and those who resist must watch their backs. Information becomes a commodity for both sides. How do you respond to the betrayal of trust by Quayle? If you were to have a conversation with him before his betrayal, how would you try to convince him to remain true to the Resistance?
Episode 9…Written by Ryan J. Condal. Loyalty is a confusing maze in the case of the occupation What do you value? Who is most important to you and what would it take for you to betray that person? At the first anniversary of the alien invasion, those who remember it are persecuted, those who rebel are at risk by one of their own and those who collaborate understand that their positions of power are always in question. In a situation such as this, who does one trust? Who would you trust?
Episode 10…Written by Carlton Cuse & Ryan J. Condal & Wes Tooke. One might get lucky…friendship and loyalty might make a difference…In the case of Will Bowman and his relationship with the collaborator, Snyder, this might be the case. In the case of Will and his relationship with Jennifer (the Homeland head) will friendship make a difference? In the case of Katie and Broussard, how will it all shake out? There are many questions emerging in this season finale. Katie and Will epitomize the conflict regarding loyalty. Both want the same thing…the recovery of their son, Charlie, but they take different tacts. Does their loyalty hold when everything is on the line? What does loyalty mean to you? Is there someone in your life you would be loyal to even if it meant you might die for that loyalty?