Fantasy with a side of social commentary

I finished reading a middle-grade book recently, which was a delightful departure from most of the material I’ve cycled through this past year (unfortunately, that amount wasn’t much). The book was a gift to my kids from my mom, but even though they aren’t interested quite yet, I was, and it turned out to be great fun to travel to the island of Skuldark–and far beyond–with a protagonist named Gertie Milk (she thinks). It’s a story lodged soundly in an otherworldly setting, and I’d forgotten how refreshing it can be to explore a storyscape in a thoroughly imaginary environment. Reading can provide a haven of escape, but when the pages are populated by fantastical creatures and concepts, the added dimension of invention provides another degree of separation between the reader and his or her present reality. Practicing that willing suspension of disbelief can feel almost therapeutic, particularly when the rest of our waking hours are spent in the troubling, uncertain, difficult, unfortunate, and very real climate of the current day. So there I was, romping through space and time in this deliberately fictional world, when I came upon a paragraph bridging page 136 and 137 that rang jarringly applicable to current events.

It’s right after Gertie has come across something that her companion identifies as a “knowledge license”, or, more informally, a “brain card”. When she asks what its purpose was, he answers, “After the Information War, it was decided that you could only share information if it was factual, or based on firsthand experience–this was to stop opinions and feelings being passed off as facts, which caused chaos, especially in the medical field. Anyone posting false or misleading information would lose their brain card and be limited to ‘live speech’ for two years.” I paused to reread that paragraph a few times and consider this idea. What if this were a real-life mandate, as if it could even be enforced? What if anyone who subjected others to subjective material as if it were objective would lose their freedom to communicate or broadcast in any modality or format other than their very own speaking voice for two entire years?

I had to check the book’s publication date then, curious about what was happening in the world when the author was having this idea, thinking that if it had been published within the past year or so that this was surely an oblique nod to the turmoil resulting from trust issues involving science and government during the pandemic. But no…the copyright was issued in 2017, which does make sense on the heels of the 2016 election. But the notion still felt prophetic when applied to the these past many months, particularly for people so young as to still be ineligible for a vaccine, for the parents of those people, and for people exposed routinely to the harm and hardships dealt by the virus. I’m talking about about those lionhearted luminaries working in pediatrics and those venerable souls logging hours during emergency room shifts, among so many others.

The epigraph in this book is “Welcome to your life. There’s no turning back…” –Tears for Fears. I pulled up the lyrics for this song, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” from 1985, only to find that they, too, seemed eerily prescient. Upon a bit more research, I learned that this song was banned from being broadcast by the BBC five years later for the duration of the Gulf War based on the presumption of its bearing anti-war undertones. How strange and unsettling it was, I thought, that the imaginary concept of revoking one’s “knowledge license”, which essentially severely limits the breadth and scope of his audience for a set amount of time, seems like an impossibility, and yet we live in a world where such censorship as banning books and songs is a very real thing?

As you can see, my journey with Gertie Milk took an abrupt detour out of her surrealistic dreamland of a story and hit hard on the ground of the equally bizarre human condition. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll tuck my nose back into the sequel of her adventure, full of inventions like Johnny the Guard Worm, Slug Lamps, the Time Cat, and Robot Rabbit Boy, because no matter what intrigue lies within those pages, it might make just as much sense as reality.

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