There’s a very interesting trend in fiction, particularly dystopian, that has to do with science and how it’s presented to readers. More specifically, the fact that authors, when in need of something to blame the world’s problems on, turn to science as the most likely culprit. And while I don’t deny that science (and scientists) can be evil, I take issue when ALL science and ALL scientists are lumped together and given the same “EVIL” brand.
Recently, Celidh of The Book Lantern made a wonderful post on anti-intellectualism in Origin and Divergent, both of which I intended to discuss in this post (I’ve been ruminating on this topic since I first read Lauren DeStefano in 2011 and have been attempting to find the words).
Here’s what Celidh had to say:
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.
Obviously, Celidh pretty much hit the nail on the head with her post.
I would also like to bring up a third example, the one that speaks most strongly to me and what first brought my attention to trend of demonizing science in YA fiction. That example is Wither by Lauren DeStefano. Without going into too much detail as to the plot, I’ll just say it’s about scientists who get too cocky and create a virus that spells the end of humanity. And I think that, in general, the “viral apocalypse” plot is just fine and doesn’t have anything inherently wrong with it.
But what DeStefano did in her novel was give science a blanket approach. According to Wither, ALL science was bad; humanity was better off in the dark ages (something we all know isn’t true). So while maybe a handful of scientists did some bad things, saying ALL scientists are evil is a bit of stretch. Because do you honestly believe that a scientist who works on finding a cure for cancer is the same thing and can be put in the same group as a scientist developing new means of biological warfare? Nope. A marine biologist and a chemical engineer aren’t interchangeable, so when an author acts like they are, I start to shake my head.
On the other hand, there are authors who appear to contradict the rampant anti-intellectualism that seems to be dominating fiction. I’m not sure if it was her intent or not, but in For Darkness Shows the Stars, Diana Peterfreund seems to outright mock people who think along the lines of Origin and Wither. In her novel, the anti-intellectual group (aka “Luddites”) end up looking like ignorant fools, too busy lumping ALL science together to realize that SOME science is actually okay. It’s a very interesting contrast.
For myself, when a book claims that loss of humanity is the cost of scientific advancement, I want to smash things. Authors who write like that end up looking like Peterfreund’s small-minded Luddites—juvenile and ignorant. When you lump every single scientist in the world together and announce that all scientific achievement is evil, you set yourself up from problems. The author ends up looking lazy and foolish—it was too hard to find a real antagonist, so you just fell back on science, perpetuating anti-intellectual sentiments that really have no foundation or merit.