This one has been a long time coming. I penned the very first draft of The Extractionist and it’s vision of virtual reality waaaaay back before the Oculus Kickstarter even launched. Little did I know back then that I’d be actually be working on the leading edge of Virtual Reality when the book finally made it’s debut. The world’s a funny place!
It occurs to me that the problem is probably not the use of “abridged” versions of any topic in education.
When you’re in fourth grade and you learn about any given subject, be it mathematics, history, grammar… You receive a shorthand version. What are considered to be key elements have been selected. They have been presented in a format that is something that the fourth grade mind can get its head around.
As you get older and you revisit these topics, you are exposed to how little you actually know. You find out that everything goes much deeper than the initial casual brush against it you had when you were a fourth grader.
But, for some strange reason, fourth or fifth grade (in US education terms) seems to be where many people’s knowledge sticks. Those are the facts, as abbreviated as they might be, that stay with people until long into adulthood. And I would argue that these early simplified forms are important. In fact, they are very important. They provide a beginning and an ending to a complex topic, they package it into something that most kids can learn in the space a school year.
Every teacher has had a student who once they figure out 1+1 = 2 they want to know what happens when you try to -2 from one. And, while that may be beyond the boundaries of the current lesson, because the lesson is directed at conveying the basic fact that 1+1 = 2, negative numbers at this point become a distraction. But just because they are not part of the *current* lesson doesn’t mean they have ceased to exist. They don’t go away because you’re not exposed to them in the early stages of your education.
The same can be argued of history, of politics. The versions of history that you’ve learned in fourth grade are sanitized. They are merely a high concept that is designed to be as accessible to as many fourth grade minds as possible. The current versions may leave a lot to be desired, but it’s not the abridgement itself that’s the problem. It’s the lens through which those edits were made.
That deeper breadth of content is out there. The facts don’t cease to exist because your fourth grade textbook skipped them. That means a new lens can be applied in light of everything we know now, and a new abridgement can be designed, one that’s in better keeping with the realities of the diverse and flourishing future that everyone says they’re reaching for.
In fourth grade we were taught that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. When you take a high school class you learn that Columbus was an asshole and that history is kind only to the ones who write it. When you get to college you learn just how deep the damage went. You learn, if you choose to continue pursuing the topic, that fourth grade is merely a nursery rhyme compared to the historical fact that underpins it.
I do not advocate for teaching calculus in fourth grade (without some consideration for special case students). I do not advocate for teaching the full depth and breath of history in that same year. The shorthand is important, the digestibility and easy remembrance of events on the timeline is key. But as those lessons were first originally designed to be celebrate-able in the service of a very one-sided historical identity. We now have the opportunity to create new ones, more inclusive ones. We have an opportunity to upscale the selection of facts to raise a generation with a better historical identity. A generation that can build on the mistakes and successes of the past, rather than remaining trapped in repetition.
If fourth and fifth grade are where knowledge sticks, lets make a change to better select that knowledge. We get to decide who we are. No other species on this planet has that privilege. Let’s leverage it for the next generation.
Deborah J. Ross opens Collaborators by flipping the script in a first contact scenario and not stopping there. In her story of a strange new world, the Terrans are the outsiders reaching in and the people of Chacarre and the Erlind are the normal, the everyday folk.
It’s through this flipped lens that the story first opens, a rare look at our version of humanity through the eyes of a different… humanity. Because, as details of this alien world get revealed, it becomes apparent that while some of the structures of Chacarran civilization are strikingly familiar, particularly in politics and protest, there are just as many cultural and biological differences, from gender constructs that transcend the binary on through to clan structures and societal languages hidden in the tremble of fur.
Ross brings us along to follow several life stories as they play out across the backdrop of the politics and perils of diplomacy and, as is almost inevitable when new cultures meet, mistakes are made. Brief windows into the lives and relationships of the Terrans first reveal an earnest attempt to stay neutral and avoid upsetting the balance between two nations in conflict, then a desire to do everything in their power to repair their ship so they can go home. As they overstay their welcome, the Terrans leverage first their influence and then their might. The logic is the same line we have all heard before both in real-life and fiction, to establish a new and stable rule of law so they can get the help they need and leave. The Chacarran and the Erlind start the story on the edge of conflict with each other, but as all the tragedies unfold, the truth of the Terran manipulation comes to light.
With the Terrans and the Chacarran now entangled in a conflict that none wants to continue, but neither can find a way out of, the storylines of our main characters all come together, each contributing their own piece to the final outcome and ultimately finding a way forward that everyone can live with.
This novel is a refresh of a work Ross originally published under the name of Deborah Wheeler, and as such, I feel it may have been a bit ahead of its time. The depth of the world and the complex relations feel much more at home among today’s science-fiction trends than in previous decades and as such I am delighted I managed to catch this novel in it;s latest release. Deborah Ross is an expert worldbuilder and the care and attention she pays to developing the specifics of Chacarran culture and the diverse viewpoints of her world helps to put a fresh frame a complex story of first contact, political machinations and a revolution that everybody, even the invaders, wants to see succeed.