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
KINDRED, perhaps the most admired novel written by the late, great Octavia Butler is nearly perfect.
I rate this novel PG-13 for the violence that is shown, though not celebrated, against black slaves.
I plan to write a separate post for educators after this general review of the novel.
Short Review…3 Reasons to Read
- KINDRED is a page-turner. As a novelist, I so admire this book. It ain’t easy to keep your audience on edge. Butler does it with genius.
- KINDRED humanizes slaves and slaveholders…In my mind, KINDRED is a literary narrative because it does not simplify the incredibly complex story of slavery in US history/society.
- KINDRED is literary, yet it is also an adventure story…Read the book to gain empathy, knowledge and understanding, but count on being entertained and in suspense while you learn.
Octavia Butler did write great science fiction, like The Xenogenesis Trilogy, but KINDRED falls into a different category. It’s a time-travel fantasy with fewer of the typical time travel tropes. We all know those tropes, how tension builds as the reader/audience wonders whether a character who impacts past will change the future. In KINDRED, that tension (changing the future by impacting the past) stays in the background. It is a worry, but not the primary worry. What creates the tension in KINDRED is the survival of the main character.
The story premise is brilliant.
Dana, whom the reader affixes to early in the novel, is an African American woman, married to a white man living in the 1970s. She is living her life in the present as a happy, seemingly normal person. Suddenly, she finds herself yanked back into history. It takes her a while to figure out why, but eventually, she and the reader understand that every time one of her ancestors (a white slave owner) finds his life in danger, Dana is summoned to the past. This happens multiple times.
In the past, Dana is a compelling character because she has experienced some degree of liberty in the 1970s as a black woman. Out of that experience, she becomes a guide and a conscience to those she encounters, to slaves and to slaveholders. Dana is also a threat, including the slaves she will try to help, because her agency upends the social norms in such a significant way.
Dana comes back into real time when she finds herself in danger of being severly injured or killed. The going back and forth is painful and a brilliant narrative device. The reader, who empathizes with Dana, finds these short respites back in the modern era as hopeful and yet terrifying, knowing, as Dana does, that she will be yanked back in time within minutes, hours or days. The oasis in the modern era gives Dana and the reader a chance to catch a breath and process the dark reality of slavery, but the tension remains.
At least in part, our society has grown out of the horrors of slavery, even the novel puts forward this idea. Yet, the African Slave trade is an historical reality which cannot be denied. Butler brings the audience close to the horror. She makes her reader think and feel the impact of slavery and does it disarmingly, through story. It’s a powerful way to teach.
Regarding KINDRED’s captivating narrative, I challenge you to read the first twenty pages of this book and be able to put it down.
Regarding KINDRED’s story, I challenge you to read something of greater substance that falls into the category of “time travel narrative”. I doubt you will find one.
To buy this masterpiece, click KINDRED
To buy the first of Butler’s science fiction the Xenogenesis trilogy, click DAWN
To buy the whole trilogy, click The Xenogenesis Trilogy
I write this post in honor of International Women’s Day and I hope it might spur you to pick up a novel or download an audiobook that you might not have read without a little urging. You won’t be disappointed!
With that said, here’s the list:
- Octavia Butler
- Ursula K. Le Guin
- Margaret Atwood
- N.K. Jemisin
- Julian May
Octavia Butler, author of KINDRED, passed away in 2006. She was one of a handful of women to win multiple Nebula and Hugo Awards, as well as the Arthur C. Clarke Award. If you’re starting out and want a great taste of Butler’s writing, order or pickup BLOOD CHILD AND OTHER STORIES The novelette, BLOOD CHILD, won both the Nebula and the Hugo. If you’re a fan of graphic novels, try this version of KINDRED: GRAPHIC NOVEL
Ursula K. Le Guin, author of THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS passed away last year. Many love her for her fantasy, but she is perhaps chief among our mothers in the pantheon of many fathers who have written the most important science fiction in the last 40 years. She was the first woman to win a Nebula award and a Hugo, for THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. My review of the novel is here. Much adored by her fans is the THE EARTHSEA CYCLE novels that were intentionally targeted at the young adult audience (Le Guin was encouraged by her publisher to do so.)
Margaret Atwood, author of THE HANDMAID’S TALE, for which she won a Nebula award, The Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Booker Prize, has a contemporary fan base since her novel was adapted to television by HBO. That novel is worthy of your attention, but so are many of her others, like ORYX AND CRAKE, the first in the The MaddAddam Trilogy.
N.K. Jemisin is blowing the socks off the scifi community with her brilliant story-telling and characters that breathe prophetic. The Broken Earth Trilogy belongs on every scifi fan’s shelf. She is the first author in the history of the Nebula to win three awards in three consecutive years. For a dip into her writing, try some of her short stories, many of which are award-winning and/or brilliant in their own right. This collection is what you need. HOW LONG ‘TIL BLACK FUTURE MONTH: STORIES
Julian May passed away last year and will be the most obscure recommendation I make. I do so because I recently discovered her and feel her scifi to be completely wonderful, different and imaginative in a way I had not expected. She’s written a series called The Saga of Pliocene Exile which is a riveting tale with fantastic and memorable characters. I reviewed THE MANY COLORED LAND in the Fall. You can read the review here.
Women bring a unique voice to the science fiction landscape and they have mostly been welcomed by those who love the genre. They are still out-numbered on the shelves of your local bookstore and it’s good to be reminded of the best.
Who are your favorite female authors within the genre? I’d love to hear who you love.