The Illusion of Power: An Examination of the Science Fiction Genre Within YA Fiction
What If Everything Went Wrong?
The genre of science fiction is often characterized by things such as new technologies and speculations on the future. Moreover, the existence and functions of these things must be able to be viably explained, as it would otherwise be more fantastic in nature. This realism adds a sort of horror, due to another significant component of the genre, in that science fiction comments on the insecurities of the present. The reader is forced to consider their own world as how it could be, or often how it could go wrong. Science fiction often highlights weaknesses of the present, and the novels Feed, by M. T. Anderson and The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker certainly follow this sort of pattern. Both novels show bluntly that any sense of control is an illusion and that humans are truly powerless to greater forces, such as nature. The authors comment on human powerlessness and often cluelessness, a condition that accurately mirrors the adolescent experience.
Feed by M.T. Anderson
Degradation of Education
M. T. Anderson’s novel, Feed, takes place in the distant future, where the internet is something that can be accessed mentally, through internal hardware, instead of through a computer. The Feed, as it is called, is installed in the brain, ideally at a very young age, and it tends to rival and even replace though processes at times. Every aspect of life is controlled by the corporations that run the feed, and it is not something that is questioned very much by the general population. “Now that School™ is run by the corporations, it’s pretty brag, because it teaches us how the world can be used, like mainly how to use our feeds. Also, it’s good because that way we know that the big corps are made up of real human beings, and not just jerks out for money, because taking care of children, they care about America’s future. It’s an investment in tomorrow” (Anderson 110). In this passage, the main character, Titus, does not just inform the reader of the disturbing fact that the corporations are running the education system; he also shows the degradation of language in the sentence structure and incorrect grammar. The last sentence, also, stating that schools are an investment in tomorrow is reminiscent of brand’s logo or catch phrase, showing that the corporations are feeding the people these sorts of comforting phrases, and people are buying them to the point that it becomes almost part of their vocabulary. They no longer choose words themselves, the feed and therefore the corporations decide what they say.
Lack of Control
There is no real evidence that any of the people in the novel, with the exception of one major character, Violet, make any sort of decision independent of the feed, as it controls everything. “The braggest thing about the feed, the thing that made it really big, is that it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you even know what those things are” (48). There is no need to think when a machine does it for you. Most disturbingly is everyone’s complete disregard for the consequences of so much power placed with these corporations. “Of course, everyone is like, da da da, evil corporations, oh they’re so bad, we all say that, and we all know they control everything. I mean, it’s not great, because who knows what evil shit they’re up to. Everyone feels bad about that. But they’re the only way to get all this stuff, and it’s no good getting pissy about it, because they’re still going to control everything whether you like it or not” (49).
Loss of Health
Aside from the depletion of brain power is the fact that the people in the novel are actually physically falling apart from lesions that appearing all over them, leaving them physically compromised as well. Essentially, the feed is draining them in every way, though most people seem to not realize or be concerned in the least. Moreover, at the very end Violet is informed that her patterns as a consumer are not ones the Feed can market to, and therefore her request to get her feed fixed is denied. “We’re sorry, Violet Durn. Unfortunately, FeedTech and other investors reviewed your purchasing history, and we don’t feel that you would be a reliable investment at this time” (247). Because of where the feed is implanted, FeedTech's denial to fix the device is equivalent to refusing necessary brain surgery. Here, the corporations decide, based on her shopping habits, that her life is not worth saving.
Dependence on Technology
M. T. Anderson makes a clear statement about the dangers of empowering technology to this extent. He asserts that the more power given to technology leaves the human population more helpless. This helplessness is eerily reinforced by the growing dependency on technology that is becoming an issue today. It also reinforces a human weakness in a different way, in showing that nature is truly more powerful than anything of human construction. While people now have access to this wealth of knowledge, they are physically deteriorating because the feed is too unnatural to exist inside the human body, and is beginning to break it down. The resulting condition reflects the hard truth that control and power are often illusions. Even with the power of limitless and instant knowledge no one is invincible.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Overpowered by Nature
Karen Thompson Walker paints a similar picture in The Age of Miracles. In this particular novel, the world is literally spinning out of control. The days are lengthening inexplicably, and this has a tremendous effect on things as fundamental as gravity. “We were living under a new gravity, too subtle for our minds to register, but our bodies were already subject to its sway. In the coming weeks that followed, as the days continued to expand, I would find it harder and harder to kick a soccer ball across a field. Quarterbacks found that footballs didn’t fly as far as they used to. Homerun hitters slipped into slumps. Pilots would have to retrain themselves to fly. Every falling thing fell faster to the ground” (Walker 33). Some try to embrace it by observing “real time,” or the sun's time, as unpredictable as it may be, while the government eventually sets a twenty-four-hour clock to create some semblance of order and consistency, only reinforcing the understanding that this problem is not one that will be fixed any time soon. Everywhere, people panicked, stock-piling emergency supplies and coming up with theories of why this was happening, and what would happen next. “Certain scientists struggled to predict the future rate of the slowing and to map its multiplying effects, while others argued that the rotation might still correct itself. But some were inclined not to forecast at all, likening this new science to the prediction of earthquakes or brain tumors” (115). Despite the theories, the research, the combined efforts of brilliant minds bent to solve a single problem, no one had a clue as to why the days were lengthening, nor any idea of how to correct it.
The Age of Miracles differs from Feed in that the characters are hyperaware of their powerlessness. There are those that try to adapt as well as they can, such as the “real timers,” but for the most part everyone lives in fear of the effects and realizes that there is no real way to control the turning of the Earth. It also differs in that Walker never names a definite cause, so that the message is not so much cautionary as it is speculative on the behavior of a population reminded of their own mortality. The reader is forced to confront their own powerlessness at the hands of nature, and consider what they would do in that particular situation. Conversely, Feed makes a statement about society’s dependence on technology, and the powerlessness that could result from that. The novel itself is dedicated “To all those who resist the feed,” which empowers the readers to prevent that sort of fate. Even with these differences, however, both novels reflect a basic fear powerlessness, and force the reader to confront this fear under different circumstances.
When Heroes Fail
These novels, in many ways, also illustrate the young adult experience. The Age of Miracles follows a very young girl named Julia who, in the midst of a major crisis, is growing up. The crisis happens almost synonymously with her loss of innocence. Perhaps the biggest example of this is her father. While watching her neighbor, Sylvia’s, house through a telescope one night, Julia makes a shocking discovery. “And then it happened: I realized as he turned that I knew that man’s mouth. I knew the sharp slope of his jaw, the long angle of his hairline. I recognized that blue shirt—I remembered exactly how it looked when it was brand-new, on Father’s Day at the steak house, the shirt starched flat and folded in a silver department store box, topped with a purple card, handmade by me” (Walker 128). Julia’s discovery of her father’s infidelity rocks her world in a way comparative to the recent crisis. It is hard for her to wrap her mind around this failure, the wrong done by someone she had formerly trusted. He later redeems himself in Julia’s eyes by coming home after Sylvia moved out, but the childlike innocence she carried towards him is gone, and replacing it is a new understanding that no one is faultless. Her father describes it later on. “A paradox,” he went on, “is when two contradictory things are both true” (256). This loss of innocence is a huge and hurtful part of growing up, and in many ways it is mirrored and magnified in the crisis described in this novel. Much like Julia, the people in the novel lived in a comfortable sort of ignorance, assuming from day to day that the sun would rise and set on schedule, just as it always had. When the days started getting longer, the foundation of everyone’s most fundamental understanding of time is rocked, and, even further, it is not a problem that can simply be fixed or even explained. This is much like adolescence, when the parents, the foundation of a child’s life, are first recognized to human, and therefore fallible. The guardians that the child assumes to know what was best, and to have the power to fix anything, are not perfect. In this way The Age of Miracles is not just a novel about an adolescent, but about adolescence as a whole.
In Feed, most of the characters also display a very childlike innocence and even a sense of apathy. Not only are their attention spans incredibly short, but they show an amazing lack of concern for things that would usually warrant concern, blindly trusting that the feed will take care of them, much like a child. An example of this would be the lesions that begin appearing on everyone, which no one can seem to explain. At first, they were seen as a bit of an embarrassment. “We had the lesions that people were getting, and ours right then were kind of red and wet-looking. Link had a lesion on his jaw, and I had lesions on my arm and on my side. Quendy had a lesion on her forehead. In the lights of the hallway you could see them real good. There are different kinds of lesions, I mean, there are lesions and lesions, but somehow our lesions, in this case, seemed like kid stuff” (Anderson 11). Later on, however, due to the social media put out by the feed, no one worried very much about them anymore, and they even become a sort of fashion statement. “Violet was standing near the fountain and she had a real low shirt on, to show off her lesion, because the stars of Oh? Wow! Thing! had started to get lesions, so now people were thinking better about lesions, and lesions even looked kind of cool” (96). In a very childlike way, even the grown men and women in this novel are soothed about these sores, and are even manipulated to like them. Due to Violet, however, who had learned to think for herself before her feed was installed, the reader can see the main character, Titus, begin to mature some. For example, at a party, Quendy comes in covered in artificial lesions, and all are shocked for a moment. However, while some started to find it attractive within a few minutes, Titus remains a bit disgusted. “No it’s sure not too attractive. Lenticels” (193). Through Violet, he comes to see that things aren’t as stable and perfect with the world as his feed had been telling him. The reader, too, gets a glimpse of the tragedy that lies beyond the shiny, unblemished world of the feed. “Have you heard about this Central American stuff? Two villages on the Gulf of Mexico, fifteen hundred people—they’ve just been found dead, covered in this black stuff” (241). In this way, Titus gradually changes throughout the book, slowly coming to recognize what is going on around him, and thinking independently of what the feed wants him to think. This also mirrors adolescence, and what it means to grow into a young adult. Where a child is sheltered from the world’s problems, an adult is aware and must deal with them, and the transition can be very shocking. Through Titus, M. T. Anderson illustrates this transition phase, showing his loss of innocence as the plot progresses. Therefore, this novel not only deals with problems that youth can relate to, such as a dependence on technology, but it also deals with the problems of being a youth, such as that shocking transition from innocence to maturity.
The Age of Miracles and Feed both certainly fulfill the criteria for the science fiction genre. Both are set sometime in the future and portray futuristic technologies and problems to which the reader can see a logical progression. This progression forces the reader to reconsider the world from an outside perspective, and what might possibly need changing. Both also comment on an ever-present insecurity, specifically the fear of helplessness at the hands of a powerful force, be it nature or something else. All of these things come together to create novels that are unquestionably of the science fiction persuasion. These novels also, however, relate uniquely to young adults. Both have characters that undergo a major transition period that mimics that of the journey towards maturity. Often the crises themselves reflect an adolescent struggle and convey a fear and insecurity that is incredibly reminiscent of a sudden loss of innocence. In this way, the reader is forced to go through the young adult experience which, in neither novel, is much different than in the present day. Both novels comment on fear, but also on adolescence.
Anderson, M. T. Feed. Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 2002. Print.
Walker, Karen Thompson. The Age of Miracles. New York: Random House Inc., 2012. Print.
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© 2018 Elyse Maupin-Thomas