The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a Science Fiction cult classic. Intended for adults, this clever book, full of sometimes off-color British humor, is now often featured on reading lists for kids as young as 10 and 12. Is it appropriate for young Catholic middle schoolers? I submit that it is not for several reasons.
As is not unusual in British humor, there is a fair amount of innuendo in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For example, there are similes such as: “He had an odd feeling of being like a man in the act of adultery who is surprised when the woman’s husband wanders into the room, changes his trousers, passes a few idle remarks about the weather and leaves again.” There are also references to sex, whores, and nudity. For example: “Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 6.” Or “five hundred entirely naked women dropped out of the sky on parachutes.”
There’s a fair amount of drinking, often portrayed humorously. Ford, an alien stranded on earth, drinks excessively to pass the time. He also encourages Arthur, a human, to get drunk as a suitable preparation for death.
Poking fun at Religion
Another favorite “humorous” topic in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is religion. One of the major plot lines is that the Earth was created by Slartibartfast, a custom planet designer, by order of a group of hyperintelligent pandimensional beings who appear on earth as mice. These “mice” build super computers who are more intelligent than they are to answer questions such as “what is the meaning of life.” The answer to that question, according to the computer, is 42.
In the Name of Humor
Both the sexual innuendo and the religious jabs are obviously supposed to be funny. Sensibilities vary greatly about whether this sort of humor is actually funny or, in fact, offensive. Obviously this is a prudential judgment on each parents’ part about whether they are comfortable with their children reading this material. I most often see this book recommended for tweens and teenagers. Please remember that it was not intended for children and be forewarned about the religious jabs and sexual innuendo.
Dune is often called a Science Fiction masterpiece. Now, in 2020, it’s coming out as a movie that will probably be a major hit. After the release of the movie, I’m guessing the Dune books will enjoy a new wave of popularity, so I recently read them with a view to determining their level of appropriateness for teen readers. In order to make this review a manageable length, I will concentrate on the issues I found in the first book.
Dune‘s setting is a futuristic interplanetary society where noble houses, a corrupt emperor, a power-hungry pilot’s Guild, and big-business CHOAM vie for power and wealth. There’s also the Bene Gesserit, a warrior-nun group which pursues its own agenda striving for racial purity and power. Wealth in the world of Dune is measured in terms of Melange, also called Spice, a drug which has whole universe under its thrall.
The plot centers around Paul Atreides, a teenager coming of age in one of the noble houses. Paul’s family takes charge of Arrakis, the planet which produces all the Spice. Paul is a unique combination of visionary, genius, and leader. With the aid of his Bene Gesserit mother Lady Jessica, he becomes the leader of the Fremen, a nomadic warrior tribe who control the Spice fields. At the head of the Fremen, Paul takes control of the Empire.
There’s no denying that the scope and richness of the Dune series is captivating. The insights about greed for power and wealth and its results are commendable. I even appreciated the first book simply as a literary work. But as a parent, I found several concerning aspects with this book on multiple levels.
Drug Use: the entire planetary system in the world of Dune is addicted to Spice, their drug of choice. Many are well aware of this fact, but choose addiction because they want the heightened senses and visions the Spice brings. There is a heavy emphasis on the powers and enhancements the drug provides. A recipe for encouraging teens to try drugs, anyone?
Sexual content: Lady Jessica is a concubine. There is a scene where another Bene Gesserit “sister” is sent by her husband to sleep with a teenage boy whose DNA they want for their breeding program. Paul takes a concubine from among the Fremen and has a son with her. None of this is particularly graphic; it is more stated than described.
Anti-Catholic content: The Bene Gesserit are basically nuns. Well, except they’re obsessed with preserving the best genes, so frequently become concubines, commit adultery, and so on. They use terms like “Reverend Mother” for their leaders. They send “Missionaries” to other planets to sew seeds of “storylines” in case one of the sisterhood is ever in need. The concept of an “awaited Messiah” is one of these intentionally created legends.
Both the depiction of Bene Gesserit and use of Messiah motif are troublesome. In the world of Dune, the coming of a Messiah is basically a big hoax carefully planned for millennia. “Religion” is an intentional manipulative force used by the Bene Geserit to further their own secret goals of racial purity.
I really dislike it when authors take Catholic terms and intentionally try to pervert the mental connotations, seeding doubt and reversion in the reader’s mind when they hear terms like “Reverend Mother,” “Messiah,” or “Missionary.” In Dune, this agenda extended to the entire concept of religion. For me, that largely ruined the Dune books so I wouldn’t recommend them for teens.
But, if you have an older teen who loves science fiction and really wants to read them, I recommend encouraging an analytical approach. For example, ask your teen to intentionally try to spot all the examples of twisting Religion and Christian terms in a negative way. Or ask them to form an opinion on whether author Herbert was intentionally normalizing drug use and free love. A mature teen can gain a lot of benefit can by this kind of intentional analysis.
In The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, fairy tales meet science fiction. In this exciting series, a deadly disease is ravaging earth, a totalitarian moon queen is threatening war, and true love wins as some creatively portrayed princesses find their princes. These popular books are clearly aimed at teenagers, and the question is: are they indecent, innocent, or somewhere in between?
The Biggest Positive
The Lunar Chronicles had a surprising number of positive aspects. I’ll admit, I was skeptical about the covers! The best part about the series was its staunchly pro-life and anti-discrimination theme. In both earthen and lunar society, there is a lack of respect for the dignity of all human life.
On the earth, people who have received robotic parts, such as hands or feet, are considered as fair game to be used for medical research against their will. Labeled as “Cyborgs,” these people lack many of the rights and protections other earthen citizens have. Some, like the heroine of the series Cinder, are treated as property.
In lunar society, on the moon, some people are born with the “gift,” which is the ability to manipulate others by controlling their bio-electricity. Those unfortunate lunars who aren’t born with this “gift” are labeled as shells and torn from their parents at birth to be killed since they are “defective.” Some shells, like Cress, the heroine of the third book, do survive, but only as slaves.
Meyer does a fantastic job showing the appalling injustice of treating Cyborgs and shells as less than human. In our current society, this is truly a valuable theme. Any Catholic reader will immediately see parallels with abortion and euthanasia.
Other great themes in this book include an emphasis on showing the dangers and threat of totalitarianism and fascism. The lunar queen’s greed for power and adoration lead her to establish a dictatorship built on mind control and illusion. While her court lives in luxury, her people are impoverished and abused.
To give her full credit, Meyer does not fall into the trap of portraying the root of the queen’s evil to lie in the monarchy. Although the monarchy on the moon is portrayed as the example of fascism, Meyer fairly portrays several earthen countries as also having monarchies that are just. The problem is not the monarchy; it’s the coercion and injustice. However, in the end of the series, Cinder, crowned as moon queen, decides to dissolve the monarchy in favor of a republic.
Strong friendships have a prime place in the series. Without their mutual trust and respect, the four heroines could never have overthrown the moon queen’s evil regime. The girls’ friendships with their princes, and even android robots, become important in resolving the crisis. Loyalty, sacrifice, and love are the real tools that bring down the evil regime.
Redemption is another important motif in The Lunar Chronciles. Most of the “princes” are in need of redemption when they enter the story. Wolf is a volatile, genetically modified man with a dark past. Thorne is a cocky thief. Jacin is a palace guard with divided loyalties. The third heroine, Cress, also is plagued with guilt for working for the lunar tyrant for years as head programmer. Each of them finds redemption through sacrifice and reparation by the end of the series.
Unlike many teen novels, The Lunar Chronicles are relatively clean overall. Minimal crass language. Minimal mentions of alcohol or drugs. Almost no sexual content: there are several passionate kisses between main characters, but it doesn’t go farther than that. There are some passing mentions of “companionship” rooms and “escort” droids, which I deduced had to do with some kind of prostitute droids. But that’s it.
Sounding pretty great so far? Read on for the not so pretty.
One concern I had with the series was how Meyer handled the Red Riding Hood retelling in book two, Scarlet. Scarlet was great: fiery and tough. But Meyer chooses to twist the story so the Wolf becomes the “prince.” I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, there’s great redemption here: the Wolf repents when he falls for the girl and spends the rest of the books trying to help the good side. But on the other hand, I think Meyer twisted the spirit of the original fairy tale by changing the wolf into the good guy. I generally don’t like plots where a villain symbol is portrayed as a good guy. And in fairy tales, wolves are the bad guys. But then, in fairness, St. Francis did redeem the wolf of Gubbio, so there is a certain precedent to redeeming the wolf.
Also, Wolf’s genetic engineering and past training as a wolf-man brings some other challenges to the series. His wolf-like instincts make him very protective of his “mate” Scarlet, but also bring violence into their relationship. At one point, he almost rips her throat out while under the mind control of a lunar villain. The thing that bothered me here and in a few other Wolf-Scarlet scenes was there seemed to be a sensual-sexual aspect to the violence. Almost a BDSM vibe. Subtle, but there in my opinion.
The violence is minimal in the first book, but quickly ramps up in the rest of the series. There is an awful war, with some truly terrible genetically engineered creatures running amuck. There are descriptions of people cutting their throats and shooting themselves under lunar mind control. Wolf-men rip out people’s throats. Lots of bloody fights. Overall, I considered these books a little heavy on the graphic violence.
Another element in the plot that never seemed to be adequately addressed was the mind control question. Mind control is portrayed as an evil overall, yet Cinder, the heroine, frequently uses it to protect herself and others. She also uses it to fight, and sometimes, in anger, to humiliate. In contrast to Cinder, Princess Winter in the fourth book simply refuses to use mind control for any reason… until in the end she does once to save her love. The question is: if mind control is evil, is it licit for Cinder and Winter to use it to protect others? Morally speaking, if mind control is inherently an evil act, using it for a good end still makes the act evil. Food for thought.
One final negative with The Lunar Chronicles is that they’re simply not all that well-written. Yes, it’s a fast-paced, exciting plot with lots of action and dialogue. But there is little to no descriptive language to flesh out the story. These books read like what they are: typical 21st century YA fiction.
Overall, The Lunar Chronicles are a gripping, fairly clean series with lots of action, romantic tension, and a great pro-life theme. But on the other hand, they’re not particularly well written, not great literature, and have some concerning elements like the confusion about mind control, sensual violence at times, and overall graphic violence. Worth reading? Maybe if you have an older teen who really enjoys science fiction and wants to use them for a book report to delve into some of the controversial topics. Otherwise, I’d give them a pass.