Since this is our last post before Christmas (we’ll be back January 6th), I have a Christmas present for you all: a new awesome YA series for you to check out! I’ve been dying to write about The Lunar Chronicles for months, and now that my semester has finally ended, I can! Be ready for a barrage of Lunar Chronicles posts from me over the next few months.
Many fantasy series use fantastical or sci-fi aspects as a commentary on issues relevant to the society in which the books were published. For instance, in the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling attempted to use lycanthropy as an allegory for AIDS. The Lunar Chronicles, a quartet of cyberpunk fairy tale retellings by Marissa Meyer, similarly uses werewolves to get a point across. But in this case, the “werewolves” are genetically modified human soldiers, forced to fight for an oppressive regime, just like other indoctrinated soldiers throughout real history.
Spoilers for the second and fourth books in the series, Scarlet and Winter, below.
The coincidence was a little scary: on the same day the November 13th attacks on Paris occurred, I was reading the part at the end of Scarlet in which soldiers, genetically modified with wolf DNA, struck in coordinated terrorist attacks throughout the world. And the part of the world where our POV characters were located? Paris.
I started wondering if there were any parallels between the real world and fictional attacks. A first glance might have dismissed the wolfish soldiers as an overly far-fetched, almost fantastical element in a supposed sci-fi story, or as simply another way to bring in aspects of Little Red Riding Hood, the inspirational fairy tale for Scarlet. But like with any good fantasy, a deep read shows us ways to apply its lessons to the real world, and how to sympathize with those different from us.
The Lunar Chronicles take place a few hundred years in our future, when technology has advanced enough for there to be cyborgs and artificially intelligent androids, not to mention soldiers whose genes have been spliced with those of wolves. There is also a civilization that has been established on the moon, and its evil queen wants to take over the Earth. The terrorist attack by the wolf soldiers is her first strike upon the planet.
It’s easy to dismiss most of the wolf soldiers as vicious, violent monsters who only like to destroy things. Indeed, except for Wolf (a nickname), the main male character of Scarlet, the other wolf soldiers do seem despicable. They relish ripping people apart and eating them, they’re convinced that Earthens are inferior to Lunars, and they have no qualms about following destructive orders.
But through Wolf, we learn that all of the wolf soldiers were recruited against their will at the tender age of twelve, forced into surgery and genetic therapy that gave them wolfish instincts and physical features, and trained like dogs by mind controllers called thaumaturges who broke their wills. It’s a huge struggle for Wolf to break out of this indoctrination and help our protagonist Scarlet instead. Most of the soldiers took the easy path and accepted their brainwashing, acting and seeming as if they truly believed in the Lunar cause of world domination.
In the fourth book, we learn that Wolf isn’t an anomaly. We meet other soldiers who realize they are being used as weapons and treated like animals, and who know that after the war ends, even if they win, their situation will never improve and they will never be treated like full citizens ever again. Before they get a push toward mutiny from a couple of our fairy tale heroines, they had simply resigned themselves to this fate. But when given a chance, they rise up against their oppressors and join our heroines’ side. We discover that they’re fully capable of restraining the engineered instincts that constantly encourage them to hunt and kill. More importantly, though, we learn to have sympathy for them, as yet more victims of the evil queen’s power-hungriness. Winter, the queen’s stepdaughter who joins our heroines’ rebellion against her stepmother, is convinced from the start that the soldiers are men rather than animals, and can be reasoned with. Scarlet, however, is skeptical, because these soldiers are even more wolf-like than her boyfriend Wolf. But when she talks to them and sees that they did not immediately kill her and Winter, and in fact long for a life in which they can be free to make their own choices, she accepts them as allies.
If you think about it, our world is also full of soldiers who have been indoctrinated into believing that their cause is righteous, who have been desensitized to violence against those they’ve been taught are “inferior,” and view themselves as mere weapons to the point where they’re willing to die as suicide bombers. On the outside, they may seem to us as if they’re acting like animals, just like these fictional wolf soldiers. In fact, after the Paris attacks, I saw a lot of people call the terrorists “animals.” And it’s not just so-called “terrorists,” either; it’s child soldiers forced into wars in Africa, or the ordinary German footsoldiers who got caught up in the Nazis’ genocidal madness. It doesn’t matter if their actions seem like those of animals. The Lunar Chronicles remind us that they are in fact human after all–yes, even the men who were genetically modified into werewolves–and as such, it is possible to feel empathy for them and reach out to them. Most of them were originally forced into these situations and brainwashed to accept perverse beliefs. Most are fighting for causes that ultimately will not benefit them, especially if they die in the process. I firmly believe that most people who adopt and act upon radically violent beliefs did not do so as a 100% free choice.
There is always a more powerful oppressive force engaging in forms of brainwashing. Certainly child soldiers do not adopt that life by choice. We keep hearing stories about Syrian refugees fleeing their civil war not just to avoid the fighting, but also because if they stay, they know they will be forced to fight for the Assad regime whether they believe in it or not. And Saudi Arabia is funding schools, media, and preachers throughout the Middle East to teach a radical, conservative version of Islam that is the first step in turning young people toward terrorist groups like ISIS. The story shows us that the appropriate response is not to reject them as inhuman, or to try to meet violence with more violence. If our heroines had tried to do that, they would have lost the war and likely died. Only when we band together as fellow human beings can we overcome the oppressive structures that lead to terroristic, animal-like violence. And The Lunar Chronicles helps us learn some of the empathetic skills needed to start doing just that.