Monday, September 16, 2013

Population Control Narratives and Entitlement

Hi Torch Bearers, missed me?

Sorry the Bumped Mondays took a backseat, but I do plan on picking them up again very soon. RL got in the way, and while that isn't necessarily an excuse, I couldn't exactly tax Ceilidh and Christina with doing my work for me either.

Anyway, the deconstructions will get back on track, but before I get there, let me tell you about a little sci-fi trope that has been bugging me since... yesterday, I guess.

Those of you familiar with "Ender's Game" will remember that the very first thing we learn about Ender Wiggin that makes him super speshul is that he is a Third. As in, a third child in a world where the maximum child quota for a couple is two. Population Control Legislation isn't a new thing in sci-fi; in fact, it's a pretty good way to let readers know they're no longer in Kansas.

Currently, Western society is very big on the sanctity of life thing. Access to birth control and abortions is not the same for women everywhere, family planning is almost universally underfunded, not to mention the subliminal idea that bringing life to this world is a woman's ultimate achievement (Love, marriage and baby carriage is the American Dream for the XX chromosome types, you see.) So to have things inverted - that children are not a blessing, but a carefully regulated quota - is an indicator that some serious shit went down prior to the novel's inception.

However, there is a serious problem with how that trope is deployed and used in sci-fi. Well... two, actually.

The first is pretty obvious. In "Ender's Game", the titular character is a special Third because  the government commissioned him - his first two siblings having failed to be the perfect soldiers humanity needs - and that serves as a double whammy on protagonist and reader. Ender is not just potentially awesome, he must be awesome because people broke the rules to have him.

The second is slightly more subliminal, and I will refer you to the TV series "Terra Nova" for an example. The series starts in the 22nd century, in a polluted wasteland of a world where you can't set foot outside without a mask. The Shannon family is visited by Population Control - apparently Thirds are also a big no-no in this world - and we're treated to a truly terrifying passage of policemen tearing the flat apart while the parents and the two older children look on. The sound of the destruction scares the aforementioned Third - a little girl named Zoe - and the father gets into a scuffle with the head honcho trying to prevent her being taken away.

That, in itself, is a pretty good introduction and it serves as an interesting set-up for later on. The father is taken away and locked up for two years, the family is shattered, the only chance for happiness is taking part of a colony that goes to an alternate dimension. Drama all around!

Except... later in the episode, we learn that the only reason the father was locked up was because he assaulted that enforcer from Population Control, and the son of the family is holding onto some serious angst over the fact. Had his father kept his cool, they would have gotten away with a fine and they wouldn't have had to fend for themselves for two years.

Let's take a moment to process all that.

The world is going to hell. Population control laws are in place, but the punishment for having more than two kids is a fine. That, in itself, is okay - money being the easiest motivator - but then how do you justify the raid we saw earlier? Do the fines cover the salary and insurance for those three enforcers? And what about them destroying the Shannon family's apartment - if they hadn't found a Third kid, would they have just walked off without paying damages? How can an alleged Third justify the destruction of a flat, but an actual Third only warrant a fine?

Did the Shannon family have Zoe just to hide her during raids, and then sue the police department for damages? Then why did the father attack the other guy? Surely a lawsuit for fraud is bad enough without adding obstruction of justice and battery to the bill.

From what I could tell, though, none of this was the case. The Shannon family just wanted a Third child SO MUCH Y'ALL, they were ready to break the rules, and we're supposed to sympathise with them.

Um... are you kidding me?

Let's step back from this particular situation and consider the global picture. The world is dying! It's so polluted people need masks to walk outside of their filtered abodes. Oranges are so rare, adults haven't seen them in years, so we can also assume food is scarce. Obviously, this isn't a dome or a space colony where everything is rationed, but things must be heading that way, if there is a POPULATION CONTROL LAW in place.

Whomever put that legislation in place must have known that a certain amount of control needs to be exercised in the name of the general good. We can also assume that, if this legislation is in place, access to birth control and abortion is not limited in any way, shape and form.

So basically the Shannon family broke the law, hid their Third kid, and, when faced with the possibility of  being brought to task (by paying a bloody fine) the father reacted by attacking the enforcers who, safe for the show of excessive force, are only doing their job.

Something doesn't add up here.

We're meant to sympathise with the Shannon family because they're just like a family in the 21st century is supposed to be - loving, tight-knit, willing to make sacrifices for one another, willing to have children when circumstances are obviously stacked against them. We're meant to hate the enforcers because they're mean and have no regard for personal property and family values.

But this isn't the 21st century. The situation is much worse than the one in the 21st century, as the series has clearly shown. And yet, we're supposed to uphold outdated values because they're objectively right? What does that say about all the other families in the 22nd century, who work hard and don't exceed their child quota?

The problem with these population control narratives is that the people breaking the law are usually the ones with the most privilege. The Shannon family boasts two able-bodied and fully-employed parents, and two older children who can easily take employment if necessary. If they were forced to pay their fine, they would have been able to (otherwise, Josh's angst would be totally and wholly disproportional.) We don't see how other people live in this world, or how they might feel if resources are re-allocated to accommodate this new and illegal Third.

The Shannon family broke the law, but they didn't just break it, they felt they didn't deserve to face the repercussions (why else would they hide? It's not like the police would have killed their kid). I also don't buy that they counted on keeping Zoe hidden all her life, which means they also didn't expect to deprive only their little family unit in order to raise this extra member. They felt entitled to having this third child, possibly because the real consequences of having it wouldn't be falling on them.

Again - why are we supposed to root for them?

Is it because this kind of narrative holds a universal truth? Or is it because it validates the fact that, right now, 20% of the world population is using up 80% of its resources?

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