Science fiction can do a lot of different things. It can entertain, of course, and speculate about possible futures or stretch the bounds of science with a dose of imagination. It can also get readers thinking about the way we live, right now, today.
Cadwell Turnbull’s The Lesson did all those things for me. It entertained even as it got me to think about important and topical things like immigration, colonization, and even anger management. And it introduced me to a place that no other science fiction novel has taken me to before: the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The islands (which are a United States territory) serve as Earth’s entry point for the Ynaa, beings from a far corner of the universe whose intentions and desires are as complex as the humans who come to loathe them.
The Ynaa (pronounced EE-nah) claim to come in peace, but there are echoes of colonization in the way they manipulate humans with fear and violence. And just as attitudes toward European colonization are reflected in the use of words like “discover” versus “invade,” so too do Virgin Islanders debate whether the Ynaa violently “invaded” or more neutrally “arrived.”
Humans are no match—either physically or technologically—for the Ynaa, yet that doesn’t stop some angry (and one might argue foolish) homo sapiens from trying to thwart them. Turnbull treats humans and Ynaa with an even hand, offering cultural and psychological insights into the nature of toxic masculinity and the Ynaa’s bursts of extreme violence.
Even though Turnbull is from the U.S. Virgin Islands, he initially avoided it as a setting for his fiction. But when a teacher in his MFA program “recommended to me quite nicely that I should write about my own experience,” he found himself crafting stories that eventually turned into The Lesson.
“I guess it’s inevitable that once I started writing about home, something clicked for me. I think that my giving myself the opportunity to have that conversation with the place where I was from allowed me to find my way into storytelling in a way that I feel is more meaningful. I think a lot of the things that I was trying to explore in the novel—faith and sexuality and relationships and violence and toxic masculinity—all these things are things that I have had to explore within myself.”
Note: In the interview, we talk about Hurricane Dorian as if it were a relatively minor storm. The interview was conducted on August 28, the day Tropical Storm Dorian moved through the U.S. Virgin Islands and turned into a hurricane. The U.S. Virgin Islands were not substantially affected, but four days later, Hurricane Dorian turned into a devastating Category 5 storm that inflicted catastrophic damage on the Bahamas.