thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Posts Tagged ‘dystopias’

“Blast Radius”: The Revolution Is Here

In Uncategorized on April 10, 2012 at 8:37 am

Sarah T.

spoilers ahead!

“We can lie to the people we love,” one character tells another in the sci-fi play Blast Radius. She’s talking to an alien in a human’s body, and she means both to give the alien permission and to explain the warty compromises people make in times of crisis. But aliens, it turns out, have secrets of their own. This one is becoming more human all the time.

Playwright Mac Rogers has created a uniquely moving post-apocalyptic world in Blast Radius, playing at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City through April 14. (Full disclosure: I’m friends with cast member Seth Shelden and have met several other people involved with the production.) The play has the dramatic tension and sweeping stakes of a blockbuster film, but the big explosions and giant insects are all offstage. Michael Bay would be so sad! Meanwhile, with Jordana Williams’ intimate direction, the emphasis on complex characters and nuanced relationships is ratcheted way up.

The deal is this: Twelve years prior, the human race and the aliens on Mars were at the end of their respective ropes. An astronaut ambassador struck a deal with the communally-minded, nature-loving aliens: they could come to earth if they’d help the humans survive. They would save each other. Read the rest of this entry »

Interview: YA Author Lauren McLaughlin on “Scored”

In gender, race on February 21, 2012 at 11:46 am

Sarah Todd

The hyper-competitive college admissions game can turn any high school student into an insecure, anxiety-ridden puddle. But what if kids spent their whole lives knowing exactly how they measured up, aware that every move could make or break their futures? That’s the scenario Lauren McLaughlin explores in her deeply compelling young adult novel Scored.

In Scored‘s not-so-distant future, a computerized surveillance system ranks students according to their academic performance and selected social behaviors. High scores guarantee them college scholarships and stable jobs. The lower their scores are, the narrower their options.

Imani LeMonde, a bright teenager from a working-class, mixed-race family, is exactly the kind of student who’s supposed to benefit from scoring. The system was created in the aftermath of a Second Depression that wiped out the middle class and made upward mobility virtually impossible. Merit-based scoring offers students access to higher education regardless of their income—though the rich can still buy their way into college if necessary.

At the novel’s outset, Imani’s dream of going to college and becoming a marine biologist seems secure. But when her score plummets unexpectedly, she must choose between her future and her friendships. Soon, she begins to question the system she’s grown up with, asking whether scoring has only exchanged one form of inequality for another.

Smart, socially-relevant young adult books are currently riding a wave of well-deserved enthusiasm on the success of The Hunger Games trilogy. Scored stands out from the crowd, interweaving a fast-paced plot with complex characters and thoughtful discussions of race, class, politics, and history.

Author Lauren McLaughlin graciously agreed to talk to Girls Like Giants about her novel, which was published by Random House in October 2011. Read on for her thoughts on standardized testing, status obsession, and the secret ingredient for great young adult fiction.

In Scored, Imani begins to question the standardized rankings and surveillance culture she’s grown up with. Do you think there’s a natural connection between dystopian stories and young adult fiction? How can young protagonists explore and challenge their societies in unique ways?  

I do think it’s very interesting that dystopian fiction is having a big moment right now with teens. Personally, I can’t help but speculate as to whether it may have something to do with the fact that we are living in very trying, even dystopian, times. Many aspects of our society are crumbling. Our economy has hit a brick wall and many believe our democracy itself is at risk of collapsing under the weight of extreme corruption. Perhaps the authors of dystopian fiction are hoping to channel the revolutionary inside every teenager in hopes of turning things around. I know I am. I sincerely hope today’s teenagers do a better job of managing society than we’ve done. We messed some things up.

How did current events inform your depiction of the world Imani lives in? Did any personal experiences with standardized testing and surveillance influence the novel?

I graduated from high school at a time when the standardized-test-taking experience was comparatively benign. Of course I got nervous taking the SAT’s, but back then (in the ancient eighties) college admission wasn’t nearly as competitive as it is now. I was very much influenced by the stories I heard of young people with good grades and real talents being kept out of college because of weak SAT’s and ACT’s. That seemed outrageous to me. I think we’ve become so obsessed with status and ranking that we’ve allowed it to warp the entire educational experience.

Are there similarities between Somerton, the blue-collar Massachusetts town in which the novel takes place, and Wenham, the Massachusetts town where you grew up?

Somerton is more similar to Essex Massachusetts, which was home to the marina where my Dad kept his boat. Geographically, I basically just used my exact memories of Essex to create Somerton then added bits and bobs here and there. But the socio-economic status of Somerton is entirely my creation. As far as I know, Essex is still doing quite well, whereas Somerton, as with the rest of the nation in the world of Scored, has fallen on extremely hard times.

What would you say Imani has in common with some of your own favorite female protagonists, and what sets her apart?

Like all good protagonists, Imani has a big dream, or quest. In her case it’s to go to college, study marine biology, then return home to save the dying fisheries and shoreline. What gets in her way isn’t so much the evil actions of Score Corp, but her own conflicted conscience. I’m always drawn to protagonists whose make-or-break moments hinge on an internal realignment of their own morality. I think of Katniss choosing to sacrifice her own life to protect her sister. The whole Hunger Games trilogy hinges on this essentially moral plot line, which I think elevates it above many other dystopian stories. The risk with dystopian fiction is that you make the world itself so dark that the protagonist can only ever be seen as a sainted victim. It’s much more interesting when the protagonist’s own morals are engaged. Read the rest of this entry »

Hopelessly Real: Anticipating Katniss’s Transition to the Big Screen

In gender, girl culture, race on November 14, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Melissa Sexton

A couple of weeks ago, following my Halloween debut as Katniss Everdeen, I posted about the awesomeness of The Hunger Games‘s main heroine.  Today, the Hunger Games hype has kicked up again as Lionsgate released the official full-length trailer for the March 2012 film. From the chatter I’ve seen on the Internet and heard amongst friends, a lot of speculation has centered on exactly how the film will depict Katniss – a matter that has been of particular concern given the novels’ self-conscious reflection on the repeated manipulation of beauty and sex appeal as part of the televised spectacle of the Games. Concern has also been high because Katniss is an unusual heroine, self-consciously rejecting beauty and romance, constantly conscious of her class situation, admired for what she does rather than how she looks. I think many girls, like me, are rooting for a female heroine that isn’t supposed to be ugly but also isn’t way prettier than her role necessitates (there’s been quite a range of these, from Zooey Deschanel in New Girl to Hermione Granger in The Past 4 Harry Potter Movies). While I might have indulged in some extra eyeliner for my Halloween costume, I like many others fear a sexed-up Katniss – an ass-kicking heroine in the Tomb Raider tradition. All I really want is a girl whose toughness, independence, and anger isn’t made more palatable for polite (male) consumption by disguising it with pursed lips and big boobs: Don’t be afraid of Katniss! She might brutally slay you, but she looks so good doing it; she might look angry, but that’s just disguised passionate lust. Can’t a girl be fearsome and not a sex machine? There was also plentiful reaction to the Katniss casting  calls for a Caucasian actress (a narrow set of parameters given Katniss’s ambiguous racial identification, marked by dark hair and olive-toned skin). Read the rest of this entry »

Death and Bureaucracy in Torchwood: Miracle Day

In Uncategorized on August 30, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Austin Wren Hansell*

It is said that the two things we can never escape are death and taxes.  But in the latest season of Torchwood death is no longer a factor. One day, no one dies.  No one dies the day after that, or the day after that, or the day after that.  People still get hurt, sick, grow old and weary, but no one dies. No one.  Not the child rapist on death row injected with a cocktail of poisons.  Not the security guard disemboweled and charred in an explosion.  Not the CIA agent impaled through the heart in a traffic accident.  Despite everything, people keep on living, hurting, loving, existing. It is, they say, a Miracle Day.

This Miracle, as you can imagine, causes quite a few problems.  The health care industry must be entirely revamped. People who hate themselves can no longer use death to assuage guilt.  Religion is in crisis, for with no death there can be no afterlife.  And, perhaps most urgent, resources are running out fast.

Torchwood is one of those rare shows not afraid to look directly into the eyes of modern society and tell it exactly where and how badly it is screwing up. Because it is a scifi show, it carries our foibles and fallacies to more logical extremes than a strictly realist show and the social criticism is all the harsher. So, in Torchwood, when death is no longer a factor, life quickly becomes categorized, complete with forms in triplicate and proper (though often illogical) procedures.  Predictably, all hell breaks loose.

The child rapist and killer Oswald Danes, no longer on death row, argues that his sentence was commuted and thus he is now a free man.  He has a natural talent for manipulation and quickly becomes a figurehead in the PR wars over the Miracle.  Danes shifts his image from infamous parolee to media darling by fighting for the rights of those who should be dead, or as they are soon to be known, Category Ones.  The Cat Ones have no voice of their own, as by definition they are unresponsive. The government plan for dealing with them is holocaustic, and while Torchwood fights from the shadows, Danes preaches on the national media circuit.

Oswald Danes

Danes also takes on the unwanted job of champion for the Category Twos, those who are stuck somewhere between life and death, the sick and injured who are being ignored by the system for lack of supplies, manpower, and money. They are ignored because hey, it isn’t like they are going to die while we are busy figuring out what to do, and they are miserable – dysentery, infections, pain all run rampant in the overflow wards. Danes has a lot of powerful help and money behind his vault to fame as he attempts to manipulate the situation for his own increasingly disturbing ends.

Bill Pullman is captivating in this role, with enough of his leading man charisma oozing through his repulsive character to draw you in – and make you hate yourself for continuing to be fascinated. Who knew Captain Lone Starr and President Whitman could be so creepy?

Jilly Kitzinger

At his side is his PR rep, Jilly Kitzinger (Lauren Ambrose), yearning desperately for her scrap of power.  Kitzinger works immensely hard for this man she loathes simply because the right people are noticing her efforts.  And the right people, inevitably, are not government workers but corporations. Pharmaceutical companies, family businesses (in the mafia sense of the word), and shadowy networked corporations working invisibly behind the government. Kitzinger’s sheer determination will ensure her employers reach the pinnacle because it means she too will get a taste of the prize.

(SPOILER) When Danes’ ugly nature can no longer be controlled in the most recent episode, she prepares to fight back with a means far worse than the law: by calling a press conference. In the post-Miracle world, much as in our own death-riddled society, a press conference can mean a fate much worse than an arrest. Justice has moved from a blind court to blind bureaucracy. But bureaucracy is blind to human needs, suffering, and all those exceptions to the rules that individuals require, and this is terrifying. Just look at the ovens they plan on using for the Cat Ones and Zeros!

Ambrose is so very good in this role – sweet, lovely, feminine in appearance, but with a hard and fast cutthroat need for power.  Kitzinger’s girlish glee in success wins you over, but only until you remember you are cheering for the woman representing a child predator and an increasingly villainous bureaucracy.

In Torchwood: Miracle Day, death is no longer an option, so bureaucracy – the next best thing to taxes – steps in to try to control the chaos of the Miracle.  Death, the great equalizer, got rid of the best and the worst, all in good time.  But now, the good can go on fighting forever, but so can the bad, the awful, and the very worst. So much contemporary scifi postulates that bureaucracy, public relations, and corporations are our most conceivable future, but this is especially horrifying when coupled with a world suddenly without death.  The impersonal nature of bureaucracy can’t have sympathy. Numbers, spreadsheets, and bottom lines are all that truly matter and it is the job of people like Miss Kitzinger to appease, however superficially, the individuals lost in the paperwork of the masses. Torchwood: Miracle Day is terrifying, captivating, and so utterly watchable. Go set the DVR!

*Hi!  I’m a new contributor and I am pumped to be in such excellent company. I think you’ll quickly become aware that I am a huge nerd and hope to be your companion in scifi and geekery.