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
The Perfect Discussion Starter for Public Policy 101
AN EXCESS MALE showcases governmental abuse of big data, but also, the one child policy…perhaps the most disastrous public policy of the modern era.
Warning: this book contains sexual content. I do not recommend it for the Middle Grade Reader<
Do your students know the term public policy?
A societal problem presents itself and a governmental entity decides on laws, regulations or funding priorities to solve the problem…you know, make a policy, for the public. You can find a number of sites that attempt to give a definition of public policy. I appreciated this Audiopedia presentation:
Even with the above intro, public policy is still a complicated concept for the average youth who has not paid great attention to politics.
Shen King’s, AN EXCESS MALE tells the story that will enable a reader to study public policy through a microscope, by getting to know a fictional family and the impact a few particular policies have had and will have on them.
For background and history, have your student read one or two articles on China’s One Child Policy. This piece from National Geographic is a good one.
The summary: China feared overpopulation. China had historically been unable to grow enough food to feed their entire population. Their solution to this immediate societal problem was to institute a public policy (a law that went into effect in 1979) that rewarded those who limited their families to one child. Public pressure kept some couples from giving birth more than once, but there were also incentives given, like tax breaks for those who chose to abide by the law. Unfortunately, those who did not conform were sometimes forced to have abortions or to hide their second or third child. Some women were forcibly sterilized. Families, when forced to choose between a girl or a boy child, wanted boys. Boys were prized more highly for their earning potential and for other cultural reasons. Girl babies were given up for adoption, abandoned or hidden away. Unborn girls were also aborted at a higher rate…all because of a public policy. The current problem facing China now (as written about in the article above) is that by 2030, more than 25 percent of men in their late thirties will not have a family of their own. There are not enough brides in China to match up with these excess males.
Starting points for discussion around the novel…
Read chapter 1 most carefully, then continue through the book to the end. The public policy instigated by the Chinese government to solve the problem resulting from the One Child Policy (too many men, not enough women) is presented most concisely in the early scenes of the novel.
- How are the various characters related to Wei-guo? Go down the list and describe the relationships in short sentences or if you prefer draw a family/relationship diagram using Wei-guo as the center. In your diagram and/or description include Big Dad, Dad, May-Ling, Hero, Husband One, Husband Two, MaMa.
- Based on your diagram, what constitutes a family?
- If you were to summarize this first scene, how would you describe what is taking place?
- There is a point of discussion early on around Advanced Families and China First along with a reference to patriotism. How would you summarize what it means to be patriotic in the eyes of Wei-guo’s dads?
- “Every man is allowed one child…” Why do you think that is?
- There are rules and expectations that order these unusual families that are forming as a result of public policy, some rules are dictated by the government, others emerge out of necessity. Begin a list of these rules as you read through the book. Some rules are subtle, not easy to pick up on. Others are more obvious, like “Every man is allowed one child…”
- In chapter one, the term Willfully Sterile is used to describe Hero. What do you think this means?
- Big Dad calls Husband Two a Lost Boy? What do you think that means? How does Hero, the matchmaker defend Husband Two?
- What are the Strategic Games?
- Why might they exist?
- What does Major Jung want from Wei-guo and his band of Strategic Games men?
- He states a statistic. What is the statistic? Doc tries to protest…but clearly, the government official is giving the orders and not allowing for any discussion. Why do you think that is?
- There is a reference in the book periodically to going the max. The meaning is not precisely spelled out. What do you think it means?
- What do you think the government would do to May-ling, Hann and XX if they declared in all honesty who they are and what they want?
- How do you think a government gets this kind of power over individuals…the power to determine what it means to be a man, a woman, a family, a patriot and control those definitions for an entire society?
- The idea of government power through censorship and spying on (keeping track of) their own citizens emerges as a theme and becomes prominent by the final chapters of the book. Do you believe that the government should be able to track you, trace you, know your habits, what you buy and eat and drink? In the name of keeping society safe, is their intrusion into your privacy something you would be okay with?
This is such an important discussion and not just for those living in places like China (where citizens have little say in what their government does)…but in the US and Western Europe and among other “free people”…how much power in the form of data do you want your government to have?
Wired has a great article on the intersection between Big Brother and Big Data This reality is nothing new for the scifi world…but in the past it’s all been make believe. Now science fiction is becoming reality…our reality. What kind of checks on Big Data in the hands of government ought to be put into place now, to avert the kind of situation the reader sees in AN EXCESS MALE?
This ought to be a large public policy debate and a topic discussed by citizens everywhere. How much privacy will we give up for safety and what if our governments turn on us and decide that watching us is a part of creating a better society, more order?
There is much to read and discuss on this topic.
This article from business insider gives another angle and more will be written in the coming years as the technology outruns our ability to debate every new policy.
Enjoy Maggie Shen King’s book. Read it for the love story and the thrilling climax, but pay attention to the under-carriage of this story. A sinister government maintains tremendous power over how society defines everything from sexuality, family and mental illness to patriotism…now that is a scary story…something dreamed up by writer…or something at our doorstep.
To buy AN EXCESS MALE, click here.
“Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head, but doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again.”
The Short Review
Three Reasons I Recommend you read AN EXCESS MALE…
- Learn about China, a rising power with imperial roots and aspirations. Let this novel wake us up to the reality of Big Data meeting Big Brother
- Fall in love with the characters put forward by Maggie Shen King
- Enjoy a good old fashioned love story/thriller. Actually….NO…the love story is unlike anything you have probably read, but the tale will thrill. Love, loyalty, duty are on display, nearly every page.
To buy AN EXCESS MALE, click here.
The Long Review, Also Without Spoilers
I recommend this novel with a few reservations. AN EXCESS MALE falls into the category of speculative fiction, though it bleeds into the scifi genre and would likely be enjoyed by anyone who loves “surveillance stories”, like Minority Report and The Net. This novel has a few PG-13 scenes, and some adult themes that might bore a young adult reader, but many young adults and those older who read speculative fiction will love the book. I would not recommend it for Middle Grade or younger.
Shen King’s story belongs in the future, and yet the reality she portrays is around the bend…How many years away? Maybe ten.
The premise of the novel addresses the terrible truth China is now grappling with…that their one-child policy has resulted in 40 million unmarriageable men. By the year 2030, more than 25% of men in their late thirties will have no family of their own. What are the options for Chinese society? Here are three possibilities…
- Import wives from neighboring Asian nations or elsewhere. The problem…the Chinese, especially the government values a pure and loyal race. They elevate the Han Chinese culture and importing wives will dilute Han Chinese blood.
- Send those extra men to battle. Society does not need them for child-bearing, so let them win honor in fighting to extend China’s influence around Asia and the globe. The problem…many of these men are the only children, the beloved one child of their parents. Who will take care of the parents, those elderly loyal citizens of China who have lived and suffered under this oppressive law to bear only one child. What does it mean if the government plucks away and sacrifices their one and only on the battle field?
- Require that women in China take more than one husband. Most will take two…some will even take three husbands. A new family system will evolve around this patriotic duty. The problems that may result…READ THE NOVEL TO FIND OUT.
Maggie Shen King writes a story that assumes the third possibility. Women marry more than one spouse, all for the good of China. In a spirit and tone that celebrates her Taiwanese/Chinese heritage, Shen King imagines a world where men pay dowries, women of child-bearing age are precious and coveted, and single men bear a painful stigma. Shen King tells the story in the third person, changing the close narrator’s viewpoint chapter by chapter. She signals the shift by titling her chapters with the character’s first name. Two husbands, one wife and one potential husband…these are the characters the reader follows into a labyrinth of love, politics, corruption and societal rules that do not bend for individual freedoms.
I have only one complaint about the novel, that the ending felt rushed and a bit predictable, somewhat contrived. Pacing did not match the earlier portion of the story. It’s an issue that can happen when writing from multiple characters’ perspectives. In this case, the main character and to some extent the heart of the story got somewhat lost in the milieu. However, even with a few flaws, I found the book fascinating and worthwhile. It’s a fun quick read and will immediately get you thinking and feeling.