Tag Archives: dystopian

Strange Bodies: Why we need the Humanities

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Sometimes – let’s admit it, often – I’m asked about the purpose of the Humanities. Why not take a course in accounting? Or better yet, something in engineering? Why not, indeed.

Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies gives us the great, and oft repeated, justification for the Humanities: the Humanities let us explore the moral and ethical dimensions of our current (and future) worlds, with keen critical awareness and imaginative and robust analyses of complex problems. And what does that mean?

In the novel it means humans have developed the capacity to download an individual consciousness (not as far off as you might think) into a ‘new’ (that is to say, harvested) body. It means the humans involved need to work out all the philosophical and ethical implications of this new technology: who/what/where is the individual? what is the relationship among body, mind and spirit? how can one consent to a technological and biological process with unknown or unforeseen outcomes? just because we can do something with technology, ought we to? It means we read a novel to explore these questions through story in a way that lets the nuances and complexities of the questions unfold through plot and character.

We also get the book’s provocative thematic question on the relationship between immortality achieved in text and immortality in body. That is, the novel poses that all writers of all ages who have active readers have already achieved a certain kind of immortality (hardly a new argument, but a fascinating one all the same). In writing and reading we engage in a dialogue that transcends time and space. (you might want to say ‘dun dun dun’ right now – as if you’ve just realized something brand new and shocking, rather than something you’ve always known).

I admit I found the conceit of the novel exciting at first. I eagerly read the quasi-mystery, quasi-thriller as I worked to figure out how our protagonist could be at once living and dead. Midway through the book, once the urgency of the mystery resolved into the still-urgent-if-less-car-chasing-and-explosions questions of the nature of humanity, identity, memory and the soul, I was a little less wholly captivated. Call me a lazy reader, or more properly, call me one who likes her philosophy and ethics neatly packed in a story compelling in its own right. That is, I’m a student of literature, and not of philosophy.

But I’m nevertheless a proud student of the Humanities. I see this novel as a prescient and provocative call to question (if not challenge) the way we make use of technology and the way we work towards technological change that is neither good nor bad on its own. So we need the Humanities to help us make sense, to urge us to pause, to discuss, to question. And we need this book as a captivating means to do just this work.

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Ship Breaker: The Young Adult Fiction Debate

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2014 has been a year for “think pieces” on young adult fiction. Beginning with the Slate “Against YA” , other writers took up the question of why adults read fiction purportedly written and marketed to young adults and many asked whether this was a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing (see The New York Times “The Death of Adulthood” , Salon’s defense of The Fault in Our Stars, the New Yorker’s “The Great YA Debate” and Book Riot’s take “23 Things I’d Rather Read than Another Think Piece On What’s ‘Wrong’ With Children’s Literature” — what is a ‘think piece’ anyway, if not another way for Slate to describe an article?)

What I want to do here is not to rehash the same ‘good’ or ‘bad’ question, but rather to describe three moments from Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker that, to me anyway, suggest that the genre debate is beside the point. What we would be better off doing, as readers, as cultural consumers, is asking questions about the merits of individual books, how they get read and discussed, what their impact might be on readers of whatever age. When we fall into disparaging an entire [genre][generation] we forget that the nuance and depth of individual books within this genre varies wildly, just as those who read them do. To the extent that we might be better off asking if there are “good” and “bad” readers, rather than ‘good’ or ‘bad’ choices of texts.

Tirade aside – here’s three things about Ship Breaker that I found provocative:

1. The exploration of income inequality and precarious labour: As the novel opens, our protagonist, Nailer, is maneuvering through the dangerous innards of a ship in order to extract valuable copper for his owner/patron. While doing this work we learn that this work will soon be beyond him as he’ll grow too big to fit in the narrow passages; we also witness as he is injured and worries about whether he will be able to work with his injury because ‘time off for illness’ isn’t something his owner/patron will tolerate. Nailer is spared the decision of whether to work with his injury when he stumbles upon his ‘lucky strike’ (more on luck in a minute) – an opportunity for enough money to leave the city in which his fate (to work until he dies) is predetermined. The novel explores at length the luxuries – material and psychological – that come with wealth, not the least of which is access to transport (call it ‘mobility’ if you want the double play on social standing and geographic movement).

2. The tension between luck/fate and choice: Nailer is the son of an abusive father. He is witness and subject to all sorts of violences. All the while, he, his friends and his community put great store in ‘fates’ – to the extent that the fates ought to be appeased with offerings when good ‘luck’ occurs in order to prevent the opposite. When Nailer makes his significant ‘lucky strike’ his friend, Pima, advises him to kill in order to secure the prize. Nailer, unwilling to kill, makes a deliberate choice that is – according to Pima and his context – contrary to expectation. The novel places the idea of predetermination and choice in tension not to suggest these ideas are polarities, but rather to explore the ways the characters travel between positions and struggle to test the limits of both epistemologies.

3. The consequences of resource extraction/consumption on global warming (and the dangers of genetic modifications): The novel is set in the dystopic-future after the floods, droughts and cataclysmic storms of global warming have destroyed infrastructure and government, and rising sea levels have redrawn not just the maps, but the social, political and economic landscapes. As Nailer and co. make their way though the different plot points, and as the different thematic questions are explored, underpinning it it all is this setting of grim disease, pollution and danger wrought by the setting. A setting, the novel takes some pains to remind us, that is the consequence of human greed and over-dependence on non-renewable resources (with some direct links back to income inequality). Hybrid species of part-human/part-dog (or tiger) move through this world – and demand agency (or not) – in fascinating and complicated ways (with some direct links back to fate and choice).

So there you go. Call the YA genre simplistic if you like. Deride those who read it for lacking sophisticated taste or a willingness to engage with complex questions. Or consider each book on its own merits for what it offers each reader. Which is not to say that I liked Ship Breaker. I didn’t really. But even while I don’t want to gush about how much fun it was to read, there are certainly complex ideas at work in the novel well worth exploring for readers of all ages.

P.S. Someone lent me this one and I can’t (at all) remember who recommended it and lent it. SO – if this is your book, let me know and you can have it back, and also: thanks for sending it my way!

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Filed under Bestseller, Fiction, Prize Winner, Young Adult Fiction