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
High praise for COLONY, Season 2. In case you have not seen the first season, this review will contain a few spoilers for those first episodes, but none for season 2. You can read my review of Colony, Season 1 here
There is a third season of this show that will come to Netflix sometime this year (a few fan blogs predict as early as April 2019), having already aired on USA Network. Beware of going onto the USA Network site. You might stumble upon a few spoilers. USA Network features a number of still shots from season 3 in their promotion of COLONY.
The main reasons I recommend watching Season 2 is for the superb story and the characters. The writing is spot-on, a continuation of Season 1. Let me elaborate…
- The characters, whom the viewer has come to admire, love and/or mistrust in Season 1, develop and continue to feel real and relatable
- The mystery of the invasion is explained a bit more, but the story still holds plenty of tension
- The narrative continues to raise important moral questions around living under occupation…The moral conflict goes deep and is unique for each character. The show highlights this well.
I loved all of season 2, but found the early episodes incredibly fun to watch because they are a goldmine of backstory.
Season 1 of COLONY drops the viewer into an already occupied, alien-invaded planet. The viewer attaches to the characters first and then begins watching for clues to explain what is taking place. Even the characters living through the ordeal don’t know much. Some mysteries are explained, but many remain.
What is wonderful about season 2…Three key backstory events are provided.
- First contact with the aliens
- What took place on the actual day of the invasion
- How the invading aliens strategized with an early group of collaborating humans
Episode 1 of season 2 begins with another day in the life of the Bowman family, but in this case, it is the day of the invasion, hours before the wall comes down, isolating the LA Bloc from the rest of Southern California. (During season 1, the audience slowly learns that similar events have taken place in cities across the globe)
Packed into this episode is a window into how Snyder was chosen to rule over the masses.
Two men in suits, collaborators who know that the invasion is imminent, recruit him. They recruit him because he has embezzled from an educational institute for which he works. They recruit him not in spite of, but because his integrity is compromised.
“Even great men make two or three mistakes in their lives,” Snyder says, when confronted.
The men in suits answer: “It’s the choices you make today that will determine your future. All you have to do is say yes.”
Snyder says yes to this Faustian bargain. We already know he is an important character. The audience has followed his career, his successes and failures and the ways he has and continues to intersect with the Bowmans. His presence is constantly a tension, but always interesting.
Episode 2 is delightful as it gives a few interesting point of view shifts via some clever cinematography
- A view of what the Raptor’s see, those are the robotic drones (if they are truly robotic) that rule the skies on occupied Earth.
- A view of what lies outside the LA Bloc, including Santa Monica, but also beyond, outside of the Urban landscape
- A peek into the alien mindset and culture…I can’t say more without a spoiler
I’m looking forward to season 3, which might come to Netflix as early as April, but sad because USA Network has confirmed its end. Three seasons of COLONY and no more. That’s the bad news…the good new is…
Season 3 of COLONY is being touted as outstanding and possibly better than both the first and second. I look forward to watching it and following my binge watching, I’ll be sure to post a review here.
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?
Short Review: 5 Reasons You Need to Watch COLONY
Watch it for the…
- Superb story-telling
- Compelling characters
- Action-packed scenes
- Subtle historic allusions that drill home how humans fail and struggle during an occupation
- Gripping mystery and tension
To order the first season dvd, click here.
USA Network’s COLONY has been around for a couple of years. The premiere of season 1 aired in January of 2016, the finale of season 3 aired July of 2018. The show first caught my attention as I was viewing CW’s The 100 and Netflix’s algorithm as if sensing my waning interest in the dystopian teen drama, suggested other shows I might be interested in. COLONY was at the top of their list. I decided to watch episode 1 and got hooked. I have watched all of season 1 and part of season 2. Regarding a rating, there are a few steamy sex scenes in the first season, but no HBO-style nudity.
COLONY is an alien invasion story. Aliens, referred to as hosts, occupy some portion of Earth. Writers of the series, Carlton Cuse and Ryan J. Condal, reveal the alien side of the equation incrementally, tauntingly so. Much of why COLONY captivates its audience is because of the tension associated with not knowing.
Not knowing holds true for the Bowmans as well, the family in the center of the story, living in a walled-off part of LA called the Los Angeles bloc. The audience follows them as survivors trying to maintain some semblance of family life post alien invasion. They manage okay, but are tortured by the fact that their middle child, Charlie, was at a baseball game when the aliens invaded. He remains in the Santa Monica bloc, separated from them. Will and Katie Bowman hold no power in the occupation and are struggling to find out how to reach their lost son. Holloway, of Lost and Wayne Callies, of The Walking Dead, give convincing performances as two desperate parents who will do almost anything to get their child back.
Will, former Army Ranger and FBI agent, joins the collaborators. He only does so after a his attempt to illegally enter the Santa Monica bloc goes wrong. Katie, without telling Will, joins the resistance and proceeds to spy on her own husband. The scene is now set for misunderstanding, deception and conflict at every turn. Episode by episode, the audience’s knowledge about the invasion grows.
Regarding the larger themes in COLONY, I am impressed by the way the writers handle the human side of surviving an occupation. A scarcity of resources creates desperate people. Fear and desperation drive the actions that follow. Types of survivors emerge. Collaborators range from being true believers, to pure opportunists. Women will sleep their way to the top of the food chain. In one character’s defense, she does so to obtain insulin for her diabetic son. Back-stabbing at the top of the resistance and at the top of the Authority accelerate. Spying and being spied upon become common place. The enemy invader has set the community against itself…just as Will and Katie have chosen opposite sides. The family embodies the societal breakdown.
Other themes in COLONY hearken back to 20th century history. The wall that divides a city is one, think Berlin, but the allusions to the Soviet State and The Third Reich don’t end there. The occupiers use their human collaborators to confiscate great art and a long scene in episode 2 portrays a group of prisoners forced to enter a shower in which they are all gassed.
I plan on going the distance, watching the remainder of COLONY (3 seasons total). Two seasons can be seen on Netflix. It’s unclear whether or not Netflix will buy the final season for its viewers, but it’s available to rent or buy on Amazon.