Erin Kernohan-Berning, Branch Services Librarian: Hello, I’m Erin Kernohan-Berning from the Haliburton County Public Library and this is Library Moments. Once a week some of us from the library will come and talk about books, upcoming events, or the services we offer at the library.
Science fiction is steadily becoming more and more mainstream. Once relegated to smaller genre publishers and shunned by large publishing houses, and even waived off by authors who didn’t want to be pigeonholed, science fiction can now be found along side big releases and on literary awards lists. Far from just spaceships and flying cars, science fiction deals with the big questions and fears of our time, evolving along with science and society – whether responding to the fear of the atomic bomb after World War II, or the thorny ethics of genetic engineering since the discovery of DNA. Newer science fiction adds artificial intelligence and climate change to the list – both very present realities. Recently some classic science fiction has gained newfound popularity, indicating that some old fears have cropped up again – or maybe never went away.
Today on Library Moments Bessie Sullivan and I will each talk about a piece of science fiction – old or new – that reflects some of the fears and insecurities that we are experiencing in the world today.
Bessie Sullivan, County Librarian: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was published in 1985. It was made into a movie in 1990 and now has had a resurgence in the form of a TV show. The TV show, in which Margaret Atwood has a cameo, has been dubbed as being “anti-Trump” but ironically predates his life as a politician. Set in a near-future New England, in a totalitarian theocracy which has overthrown the United States government, the dystopian novel explores themes of women in subjugation and the various means by which they gain individualism and independence. The issue causing the most difficulty for women in the story is reproductive rights and control of one’s body. Restrictions on women’s rights that are happening right now all over the world are mirrored in this story. Science Fiction can explore current fears which is why this novel has made a comeback. Margaret Atwood has never defined herself as a Science Fiction writer because I think she felt it jeopardized her status as a prominent literary author. Clearly some of what she writes, including The Handmaid’s Tale, falls squarely in the category of Science Fiction.
Erin: While not being marketed as science fiction, Omar El Akkad’s American War certainly has all the trappings of it. The years 2074 to 2095 mark the second American Civil War. Once again the North and South are divided, but this time biological warfare, unmanned drones, and runaway climate change feature heavily. The story focuses on 6-year old Sara T. Chestnut, who calls herself Sarat after a teacher misreads her name during roll call. Growing up in rural Louisiana, Sarat and her family live in a shipping container in the nearly underwater state. Other states are underwater as well – Florida is mostly gone, the federal government now resides in Columbus, Ohio, and Augusta, Georgia is now a major port. Fossil fuels have been outlawed, which is why the country is at war. When Sarat’s father is killed while trying to get a Northern work visa, and the fighting grows closer to their home, Sarat’s mother is forced to flee with her children to a refugee camp in the MAGS (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina territory – otherwise known as the Free Southern State) – where they rely on aid brought on ships from China and the Middle East, and Red Crescent workers struggle to get people the care they need. But coming from a “purple” territory, life in “the Red” is perilous, and as Sarat grows older she is befriended by a mysterious functionary and turned into a deadly instrument of war.
American War, like all good science fiction, looks at the world and asks “what if”. What if society can’t weather the runaway effects of climate change? What if one of the world’s most influential democracies crumbles under the pressure? What if our weapons of defense are turned inward on us? As with all my favourite science fiction, including Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam series, The Mercy Journals by Claudia Casper, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, Omar El Akkad’s post apocalyptic future contains enough call-backs to our present to allow the reader to find themselves immersed in that world – whether they want to be there or not.
If you have never read science fiction because it brings to mind the spaceships and scantily clad female aliens of 1980’s pulp fiction covers, it’s probably time to try it again. You have so much to choose from whether it’s the timeless work of Atwood, Asimov, or Lovecraft, 2017’s Canada Reads runner up Madeline Ashby, or a book adapted to the screen like Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series or Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, you’re bound to find an author or sub genre that will capture your imagination. Science fiction changes with the times and – well – the times they are a changin.
That’s it for this week’s Library Moments, where we also change with the times – but not too much – here in 100.9 CANOE FM.
*Originally aired on 100.9 CANOE FM April 30 – May 6, 2017.