One of the best books I've read this year is Toushun Takami's Battle Royale.
It's a book (and a manga, and a movie) that most people have probably heard of even if they haven't read it. A grade 9 high school class is randomly selected for "the Program," where they are stranded on a deserted island and given three days to murder one another. If there isn't a single survivor at the end of those three days, they all die.
It is an amazing book, with some of the most effective horror I've ever seen alongside a startlingly deep meditation on violence and submission to totalitarianism. And, after reading it, I am convinced that around fifteen years ago we needed a version set in America.
I came out of the Canadian public school system just over twenty years ago, and my high school experience was NOT hell. Nor, as far as I can tell, was it for any of my peers. There were cliques, but none of them actually cared about what any of the others were doing. The fact that I was a gamer and something approximating a "computer geek" was never once used against me. The experience was entirely "live and let live."
For years, I thought that was what all North American high schools were like. But then came the 1999 Columbine school shooting, and more importantly, Jon Katz's "Voices from the Hellmouth," where American high school kids opened up about the unending hell they were experiencing. And my eyes opened wide.
I don't need to explain that hell to any of my American readers who were in high school in the early 2000s or before - just mentioning it may be running the risk of triggering memories of past trauma. One of the most insightful stories came from a student who had started in a Canadian high school, and finished in an American one. His comparison explained a lot. In a nutshell, American high schools treated their students as children to be supervised and controlled at all times, while Canadian high schools treated their students as young adults capable of making their own decisions. South of the border, you were trapped in a small space with various cliques which may very well be in open warfare against one another - and if you were under siege by any of them, there was no escape.
To be fair, overall, this has changed for the better. Prior to finishing the editing of this installment, I asked some of my American readers and members of LRRChat about their more recent experiences in high school, and everybody I reached out to told me that even if their time in high school was hell, they were not seeing the open warfare between cliques, or the complicit administrators and authority figures documented in Voices from the Hellmouth. There are still schools with serious problems, but the balance of evidence is that "Voices from the Hellmouth" made a difference, and American school systems have spent the last decade and a half cleaning up their act.
But that said, as I read Battle Royale, I could not help but think of the American high school system I had read about in Jon Katz's Slashdot articles, and how well so much of the teenagers pitted against each other to the death tracked with "Voices from the Hellmouth" on the other side of the world.
And wrestling with issues like this is where fiction comes in. The best science fiction is not about the future, but instead uses the future to talk about the present. It allows us to frame a single aspect of an issue so that we can explore it in isolation, without extra complications.
A Battle Royale story set in an American high school - complete with explosive implants and the students selected because of a miscast blame over school shootings - would have been perfect for exploring the alienation and torment that all too many high school students experienced at the turn of the 21st century, and which some still experience today. It is a story that would shock, horrify, and offend - but it would also provoke discussion. With the exception of the kids being forced to murder each other, all of its elements were present at American public high schools less than two decades ago, and remain present at some high schools right now. And, I think it would still work today - by exaggerating these elements into a more outlandish tale of horror, it would shine a light on those high schools which still mistreat their students, while providing a cautionary tale of what could be once again to the others.
At the very least, it would have given those American high school kids being tormented something that they could have taken to others and said, "this is how I feel!"
Robert B. Marks is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, and Garwulf's Corner. His newest book, An Odyssey into Video Games and Pop Culture, is available in print and Kindle formats. He also has a Livejournal and is on Facebook.
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