Thursday, April 21, 2011

Dystopic Tellings

Dystopias and anti-utopias (yes, I know they are two separate terms, but I’m not joining that hair-splitting debate) have long been a part of fiction. From Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to The Hunger Games, the concept of a world hiding behind a wall of an (at first) well-meaning, but ultimately, heavily controlled utopic principles, has always fascinated readers. For some time we have been awash in a sea of vampires, fairies, then zombies, and then fallen angels—the paranormal literally overtaking bookshelves and movie theaters, but now, thanks to Suzanne Collins, the tide has shifted and we are caught in a frenzy of dystopic bestsellers. What does this mean exactly? Well, for one it means that my desk is literally covered in dystopic novels from every publisher out there, but it also implies that we, as readers, as people wishing to be entertained, are just as fascinated with the often frightening aspect of dystopic worlds as our predecessors.

I have always enjoyed the edgy feeling of dystopian novels; that slight sense of apprehension when you start to compare the “real world” and all of it’s stunning technologies and it’s militant use of political correctness, to this imagined alter-earth, where all these concepts lead to totalitarian governments and the squashing of free thought and actions. Is it any wonder that readers, young and old all experience the same thrill and general awe when reading about that one fictional person or group who decides to defy that power?

The popularity of this genre has been under much scrutiny, particularly since the majority of these novels are aimed at young adults and/or taught in schools. Scott Westerfield, the author of the Uglies series, which presents a dystopic world where 16 year olds are able to have a beautifying surgery (turning them from Uglies to Pretties) that allows them to live in a work-free, party-filled, high tech environment, gives his thoughts on this topic:

“Teenagers’ lives are constantly defined by rules, and in response they construct their identities through necessary confrontations with authority, large and small. Imagining a world in which those authorities must be destroyed by any means necessary is one way of expanding that game. Imagining a world in which those authorities are utterly gone is another …It’s little wonder, then, that a lot of YA dyslit embraces both extremes of hyper-control and chaos, wedding an oppressive government with post-apocalyptic ruin.”
(Teenage Wastelands,

 I have to think that Westerfield has something here, but why have adults so thoroughly embraced this genre? Laura Miller of the New Yorker presents this concept (as discussed by Kay Sambell in “Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults”)

"The adult dystopia extrapolates from aspects of the present to show readers how terrible things will become if our deplorable behavior continues unchecked. The more utterly the protagonist is crushed, the more urgent and forceful the message.“ (The New Yorker,

 I guess this could be true also, in a rather Brechtian way of catharsis. But really, who cares why we love it—we just do and the publishers are having a field day. So, here’s what I’m going to do; mention of few great new genre novels and steer you all away from a couple of the horrid.

I’ve written about Penguin’s Matched, and in October of 2011 Ally Condie is back with the sequel Crossed. I’ve yet to receive an ARC, but am eagerly awaiting one. This is a series to be read and enjoyed, well-written and entertaining, it’s Penguin’s top dystopic novel. Also from Penguin, Across the Universe by Beth Revis, is another dystopic novel, but one which takes place in space. This one is an okay read, nothing enlightening, and there is a general feeling of discontent when you reach the end.

From Simon & Schuster, look for Blood Red Road by Moira Young. This is a great debut, a little rough around the edges, but sure to pick up as the series progresses. Look for a full review here in June.

From HarperCollins comes Divergent by Veronica Roth. This is another glittering debut, sharper and more fully defined than Blood Red Road, it is an edgy look at a world that for the betterment of humanity, has broken itself up into factions according to traits brought forth during an aptitude test given to all sixteen year olds. When Beatrice, a member of the Abnegation faction (the governing faction, devoted to selflessness) chooses to become a Dauntless (a wild and reckless faction, devoted to courage above all else) she must deal with a the hidden danger of her own true status, factions that have taken their well-intentioned programs to the extreme, and her own personal morals, as she navigates through an increasingly volatile world. This is a great new novel, one I’m quite happy to see come from a publisher with such a strong paranormal and dystopic list (ie. the utterly fantastic and gritty post-apocolyptic Forest of Hands and Teeth trilogy by Carrie Ryan). It’s a difficult book to put down and has a whopper of an ending—a must for genre fans.

From Scholastic comes Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens—an truly aweful dystopic-like satire, that will be throughly reviewed and harrangued in May.

As dystopia continues to prevail and over run the paranormals and steampunks, it is sure that we will see more and more of these novels. We are a society that thrives on such tales: Maybe because we’re teens searching for a way to outlet our rage against authority, or maybe because we desperately need some pity and purgation. Whatever the reason, they will write it and we will come, because we all want to topple a totalitarian world every once in awhile.

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