La Roche Professor and Science Fiction Author: The Tale of Two Worlds
By Kailyn Lunn, Entertainment Editor
Science fiction and fantasy movie posters and figurines of their characters reside in Dr. Bellin’s office—relics of the genre’s past and present.
Dr. Joshua Bellin, an English professor at La Roche University, doubles as an author of works ranging from scholarly to fantasy. With three series, two standalone novels, and a collection of short stories, Bellin is no stranger to the otherworldly and peculiar.
A King Kong poster rested on the floor; Bellin said this was his favorite monster growing up, which sparked an interest in monsters that would carry on in his adult life and career as a writer.
He discussed his “Ecosystem Cycle” series, a four-book series and a digital-only prequel, where the monster is our own environment.
In the series, Bellin illustrated a harrowing journey through the deadly Ecosystem. He told the story from Sarah’s perspective; she is a young Sensor with the ability to venture through the Ecosystem.
The concept for Ecosystem stemmed from Bellin’s own interest in environmental activism. He said it allowed him to speak his mind on this topic through the story.
Bellin often looked away when he spoke, furrowed his brow, and sat still in his chair. This was a clear sign that his mind was at work.
The 56-year-old professor and author received a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.
He answered a series of questions regarding science fiction and fantasy and how readers and writers use the genre to make sense of the world.
Q. It is often said that readers and writers are attracted to dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction to make sense of their fears. Do you find this to be true? Why/why not?
A. There are a lot of things that people are anxious about; we’re sitting here wearing masks. But also, people are concerned about climate and politics, and a lot of dystopian/post-apocalyptic literature envisions futures or societies where there’s a dictatorial or totalitarian government, so that’s certainly something that’s on people’s minds. I think it’s a way of managing it because when it’s seen in a fictional form it doesn’t seem as threatening and you can wrap your mind around it, but I also think it’s an outlet for people–readers and writers–to express those anxieties
Q. You’ve been writing since you were very young and are keen on monsters. Am I right to assume your interest in post-apocalyptic fiction started at an early age?
A. Yes, I was actually looking through my bookshelf recently and I came across a book from 1973. It was a science fiction book for kids about this little boy who suddenly starts having telepathic communications with an alien intelligence; it was very interesting to me at the time. When I looked back over it, part of the story had to do with global warming, so that was one of the first books I remember really loving.
Q. Can you recall any particular novels that made the most significant impact? This could be on your writing or even on your worldview.
A. It would definitely be “Lord of the Rings” in three ways. I thought it was a compelling story; the heroic story really grabbed me at the time. Some of the monsters were cool, like Gollum and Shelob. Also, it was such an amazing feat of world building which is what I most enjoy doing now. I thought Tolkien did such a great job of making everything seem real even though you know it’s not when you’re reading it. It had the depth and richness expected from our own reality, and partof that is in the sense that there’s always something more to find. Lord of the Rings is where my interest in reading and writing fantasy and sci-fi accelerated.
Q. Novels of this genre can be incredibly thought provoking. Do you feel that exposure to this genre has driven our society to make changes? Why or why not?
A. One of the things we find is that things will pop up in science fiction novels and eventually come true. For example, everything these days is about robotics, and we’re expecting a lot more sophisticated robots in the next generation, possibly even artificial intelligence. The word “robot” was coined in a 1930s play called “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” and it wasn’t in the language before. Science fiction anticipates changes or new conditions. Or Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” deals with issues of creating life, which is something we’re on the verge of doing now. In that sense, science fiction is always looking toward realities that later come true. Whether science fiction has, in a larger sense, fomented social change? I’d say it raises awareness about social goods or ills, but I don’t see it as having motivated a movement by itself. It prepares the ground for people to think about change.
Q. Many science fiction novels have been banned from schools or libraries, for reasons ranging from their content or a fear of what they might be promoting. You mentioned that novels of this genre should be taken as fiction; because of this, do you find the banning of novels to be groundless?
A. I understand why some people–and especially parents–are anxious about science fiction: since the genre often raises troubling questions and challenges the status quo, some people fear that sci-fi might produce misunderstanding and conflict among young readers. But as a teacher as well as a writer, I believe that the way to handle tough issues is to bring them out in the open, not to wish them away by pretending they don’t exist.
Q. Some believe dystopian fiction can also act as a warning of the future of our society, while some consider it hyperbole of where we already are. Where do you stand?
A. I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s fiction, and of course fiction is not real stuff, but it’s prophecy. We don’t know exactly what the future will turn out to be. We can make predictions, but we are often caught sleeping on major things we didn’t see coming. So, I think it can be predictive, but at the same time, it exaggerates to heighten people’s sensitivity to issues. It reflects preexisting anxieties while elevating people’s thinking about the issues that are raised. Like in “The Hunger Games,” we’re probably not going to have a capitol, districts, and a real hunger games where young people are killed on TV. However, we have a media that glorifies violence and is consumed eagerly. “The Hunger Games” is expressing things that already exist and imagining them getting worse. It’s not showing us an actual future but showing us where we’re heading in a larger sense.
Q. Novels of this genre have a timeless quality or are given the chance to resurface because our society has proven that history repeats itself. Do you think there’s a chance this will ever no longer be true?
A. As a species, we progress, but we also regress and cling to old things. We abolished slavery, and slavery is illegal worldwide. On the other hand, there are more slaves now than there ever were in history in terms of people who have been trafficked and people living in conditions of wage slavery. So, we’ve illegalized slavery, but we continue to do it. I don’t know whether those problems are ever fully resolved, so I think that the fiction continues to be relevant.
Q. It’s hard to discuss dystopia with bringing up utopia. Do you feel our society is destined to succumb to either? Is balance a possibility?
A. I think of it when I think in terms of technology, because a lot of utopian or dystopian visions have to do with technology. I often see people take extreme positions for one or the other: this technology is going to save us, or this technology is going to doom us. But the reality is, if you look at any technology we’ve ever created, it has done both negative and positive things. I just recently got a cell phone; I held out and didn’t want one and I didn’t want to constantly be in contact with people. But I have one now and I don’t use it much. So, what have cell phones done? They’ve been positive in enhancing communication and they enabled the impossibility of communicating from afar and building social movements. Maybe on a personal level, they’ve enabled people to get emergency assistance. On the flip side, there’s more car accidents because people are on their phones when driving. There’s social media which is apparently related to rising rates in depression, anxiety, and suicide–especially among young people. More broadly, I think cell phones make us more distracted. It can distance us from real experiences and others, while at the same time, connecting people. So, I don’t think there’s a pure utopia or dystopia; there continues to be both positives and negatives in everything.