For teachers and students ages fourteen and older, Kevin Vachna’s Obsolete: A Teacher’s Tale (of Tomorrow, Today!) is a thrilling sci-fi graphic novel set in the not-so-distant future, where technology is engrained in every aspect of life, even finding a home inside of us. There’s a big society problem: the kids are all becoming hyperactive, disconnected screen addicts. And then Professor T finds himself with a personal problem: After giving an unauthorized history lesson, Professor T is reassigned to one of the worst-performing schools. There, his challenges and the world’s collide, as unlikely allies and hidden threats lead T to revelations about a conspiracy with sinister roots that could threaten to overturn the very foundations of society itself.
Vachna is a teacher and administrator in New York City’s public schools with an expertise in themes involving technology and culture. The what-if nightmare scenario of where he sees our educational system leading are realized in the world and characters of Obsolete.
Within minutes of picking up Obsolete: A Teacher’s Tale (of tomorrow, today!) I was already thinking back to the “dsytopias” unit I’d studied back in 2003 or 2004 as a part of my high school English syllabus. At the time, I was living abroad, and the materials we studied for the unit reflected that, but we still hit some of the major literary highwater marks of dystopic literature familiar to all: 1984, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, and even the original (director’s cut!) Blade Runner. At the time, the word “dystopia” wasn’t a part of mainstream American conversation much at all, but I remember how quickly that changed after the publication of the first Hunger Games book in 2008. At that point, I was back in the USA, finishing up a college degree, and it seemed like the word became popular overnight! The meaning was altered somewhat from what I’d studied before, which was tied as much if not more to the notion of social commentary than a projection of our current society into the future as some kind of thought experiment. Several of the novels we studied in that unit weren’t futuristic in any way! Then, along came Hugh Howey’s self-published sensation, Wool, in 2011, and the floodgates were officially wide open to dystopic stories featuring more futuristic shenanigans, and now common definitions of the word reflect that.
All of this history is important, I think, to better understand what’s at work in Vachna’s Obsolete; as much as this is a graphic novel set in a frightening future, it is also a sharp social commentary about the way things are today, much in line with works like 1984 and Brave New World. Obsolete could be happening today, and much of it I believe already is! We are all, like the students in Professor Tieh’s classroom, firmly entrenched in our dependence on technology for daily living, whether consciously or not. Our cars and fridges have computers in them, our light switches and microwaves can be turned on remotely and our doorbells monitored by phone using apps, and our friendships are built and maintained digitally as much as through personal contact. This is the world of Vachna’s book, even though our present world is not quite to the point where “schooling” takes place in spheres designed to brainwash and then expel students, assembly-line style. It may seem like it sometimes, though, and all it would take is a bit of technological advancement to get us there.
Technological advancement, and the resignation of teachers to the new mode of education. And that is where Professor T (as he is called) comes in.
In his world, Professor T is the last bastion of critical thinking in a classroom of tech-addicted teenagers. When he goes off script during one class, his students barely know how to respond––at least, the ones who look up from their equivalent of tablet computers long enough to notice something is different. Professor T is immediately reassigned by the powers that be in Obsolete‘s education system, and must once again weigh his own personal security against the importance of deprogramming the next generation of children in order to allow them to sift through all of the white noise of propaganda and think for themselves.
Of course, you can probably guess what happens next ….
There has always been something appealing about the underdog, the rebel within an unfair system. Without giving too much away, I think it’s fair to say that Professor T (and a couple of other secondary characters) is anchored firmly in that literary type. I haven’t seen many teachers play this part, particularly in dystopias, so it is exciting to see how T’s relationship with his students differs from those relationships popularized in other recent dystopias. He’s in a position of some limited authority within the system against which he rebels, in that he has the authority to contribute to or alter the trajectory of his students’ worldviews, but he is managed and counteracted by an education system, which is not often seen in those other books. But there’s a plot twist lying underneath this choice of Vachna’s, so I won’t go into more detail there.
The other interesting deviation from the norm when it comes to dystopias is Vachna’s use of the Socratic Method, wherein a question-and-answer approach to public dialogue was used as a tool of education. (There are many more fascinating details to the Socratic Method, too many for me to go into, but I highly recommend reading about it sometime.) It has been far, far too long since I’ve seen this on the page, and to find it in a dystopic graphic novel was a pleasant surprise. I’d tell you more about it, but Obsolete is pretty much the perfect example of what it looks like on the page.
Of course, there is a third deviation from the norm, and that is Vachna’s decision to publish Obsolete as a graphic novel rather than as a text-based work. It’s not absolutely unheard of for a graphic novel to be published first, but it is far more common for books to start first as text, then be adapted into graphic novel or even a film format. I appreciate Vachna’s willingness to defy norms and to make the choices that best fit his vision for his book. I also appreciate the deliberate references to some of those works of social commentary that I referred to before: Vachna begins each chapter with a quote, including words by William Gibson and H.G. Wells. Even the art direction is designed to emphasize key points, reflecting a dimness of perception and propaganda-based black-and-white thinking in its largely monochromatic color scheme. Blue is used to highlight the workings of the ubiquitous technology, and more colors are introduced as Professor T begins opening his and his students’ eyes to the range of possibilities that lay beyond their screens and tracking devices.
There are other neat references woven into Obsolete, this time by way of the art direction instead of quotes: the arbiter of Professor T’s carefully curated world looks an awful lot like those that populate the popular comic series Saga, and the all-seeing eye of technology hints at the computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. None of these cross the line that keeps references and direct representations distinct from each other, but there are enough similarities to tease the reader’s brain. And the all-seeing eye … could it represent both the ever-watchful technology as well as the eyes of Tieh’s students as they are opened to the world around them?
As much as this is a graphic novel and therefore appealing to all sorts of readers, I believe adults will find it particularly rich in allusions and conversant with the public debate over the mediation of public education by technology, especially as a consequence of COVID-19.
Kevin Vachna’s Obsolete serves as a timely reminder that both technology cannot always mediate and can never serve as a full replacement for quality personal connections with others, be they friendships, the bond between teachers and students, or professional working relationships. This graphic novel prompts readers to examine their own use of technology and the ways in which it can operate, undetected, as a tool of social development––and even control.
WHERE TO BUY?
I have a number of books on my TBR pile as I rush to catch up on (and close out) books published in 2020. There have been some fantastic new additions to that shelf, too––so I haven’t quite decided between all of the options!
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
* Courtesy of Outskirts Press book listing.