Wednesday, February 13, 2013

“She blinded me with science!” Anti-intellectualism in “Divergent” & “Origin”.

If “Jurassic Park” has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that just because we can, that doesn’t mean that we should. Just because you’ve figured out how to clone dinosaurs that doesn’t mean that you should do so for theme park purposes. Even my own mum voices these concerns whenever a major scientific breakthrough is announced on the news, although when pressed to give an example of this happening outside of a film, she comes up short. Scientists in Edinburgh cloned Dolly the sheep 17 years ago but we’ve yet to unleash the virus that wipes us all out or be overrun by evil clones. While the science of our lives offers up potentially limitless possibilities to improve and understand our lives, in mainstream YA the scope seems a little more narrow and a whole lot less positive. (Side note, if you’re interested in Dolly the sheep, you can see her in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, stuffed and on a revolving platform in the same area where you can test your reflexes).

As the release date for the 3rd book in Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series is finally revealed to the world (mid-October, in case you were wondering) and the movie adaptation attracting the Oscar winner Kate Winslet to the production, the material warrants a deeper analysis. I’ve written of my dislike for the series before and focused on what I saw to be a deep anti-intellectual slant to the portrayal of a city divided into factions based on vague emotional traits. The villains of the piece belong to the Erudite faction, which values intelligence above all else. These people are stereotyped by their appearance (usually wearing glasses, whether they need them or not, because apparently we still believe that impaired eyesight makes you look smarter. One antagonist is also scrutinised by Tris for having stretch-marks, which is both childish and confusing) and their blind and arrogant support of clinical facts above emotion. In the end, the heroine of “Divergent” Tris, who chose the bravery faction Dauntless, puts violence above reason in order to achieve her goal. If you need to put a bullet through someone’s head to stop them, so be it. I found this to be particularly disturbing. The lazy characterisation and nonsensical nature of the factions barely allowed for any real development of the concept, but the glorification of violence coupled with the condemnation of intellect felt very dangerous to me, particularly given our current political climate and attitudes towards education. “Divergent” may be fiction, and it may be doing what sci-fi has done for quite some time now, but our entertainment does reflect our world in many forms.

A more recent example of these anti-intellect attitudes in YA came with the highly hyped “Origin” by Jessica Khoury. While the book didn’t quite light up the literary world in the way its publishers were hoping (they gave it a 250,000 first print and it dramatically undersold), any book that’s compared to “Lost”, one of the benchmarks of modern mainstream sci-fi, is bound to garner some level of interest. The book itself is fine in many aspects – it’s strong in its prose and characterisation of the heroine, a young woman constantly described as perfect yet remains very stubborn and immature – but ultimately a disappointment. The general message of the piece is hard to ignore: The relentless pursuit of knowledge will ultimately lead to evil. The scientists featured throughout the novel, including the protagonist Pia’s own mother, discourage emotional displays of all kinds and will go to any means to achieve their scientific goal. The book also features several animal torture scenes to illustrate just how bad they are. The portrayal of science being the catalyst of blind evil is so strong that even the mildly good scientists that side with Pia can’t counteract it. The anti-science slant of “Origin” is especially odd since the book takes a diversion into magic territory, which is much more acceptable than the cold rationalism of the scientists, and don’t get me started on the noble native stereotype the book invokes to create a contrast to the evil scientists.

The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction categorises anti-intellectualism in the genre in two ways: “a persistent if minor theme appears in stories in which the intellect is distrusted; more common are stories about future Dystopias in which society at large distrusts the intellect although the authors, themselves intellectuals, do not.” The former is pretty common in dystopian YA – an all-powerful establishment takes control of society and every element within it. In Ally Condie’s “Matched”, the society decides everything for you, genetically modifies the food for your nutritional needs, and decides when you die (at least they do it peacefully and without animal torture). They also restrict access to the arts, only allowing 100 poems to be taught in schools. It’s the classic battle between the left side of your brain and the right.

Anti-intellectualism usually exists in fiction in the form of a cautionary tale. Don’t overstep your boundaries or play God because bad things happen when you do that. That can be told in a dramatic and thoughtful way in fiction, and has been done many times before by people such as Kurt Vonnegut. The issue here, in relation to “Divergent” and “Origin” is that there are absolutely no nuances present in their worlds. It’s very obvious that science and intellect are not to be trusted. Science is cold, emotionless, obsessive, and ultimately destructive. If it doesn’t make you want to take over the world, it’ll at least drive you to innocently kill a few cute kittens just to prove a point. In the world of “Origin”, scientist equals sociopath, while the Erudite of “Divergent” are arrogance personified, with the depth of a latter Moore era Bond villain (but not Raoul Silva because he’s amazing). Anyone who’s ever worked or interacted with a scientist or science student will be very aware that they’re not ice-cold and emotionally vapid. They’re just as warm, complex, interesting and hard-working as anyone else, and certainly don’t deserve to be tarred with such a broad brush. Honestly, a little more respect for intellect would have done these books wonders (for an example of major research fail on Khoury’s part, check out Yael Itamar’s piece on the author’sdisrespectful treatment of cerebal palsy in “Origin”). The battle between intellect and humanity isn’t just a false dilemma, it’s a boring literary device.