Monday, March 28, 2011

Disillusioned, Disturbed, Dystopic...

Have you ever seen those pictures of a mama duck with a row of ducklings behind her? Small mirror images just trailing along behind the leader, struggling to keep up and eager to play in the big leagues. That’s the YA industry for you. Stephenie Meyer wrote a paranormal romance book that blew all the paranormal romances that came before it out of the water. Suddenly, a million aspiring writers across the globe had a sparkle in their eye (pun intended!) and a dream of making it big overnight. And the road to their success? Paranormal YA novels!

Then came Suzanne Collins. Being a lady of considerable vision and talent, she took a step off the beaten path. Instead of writing about vampires or fairies or werewolves, she decided to write a book about a grim, bleak future where society as we know it had broken down. Her dystopic idea, in a genre that had a sad lack of them, exploded sensationally onto the YA scene. What could all the little ducklings do but follow?

And thus was born the vision of the future – the dystopia.

Dystopian fiction, while somewhat novel for the YA genre, has quietly flourished in adult literary circles for a long time now. Remember the horrific Airstrip One of George Orwell’s 1984? And the pseudo-peaceful consumerist society of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? The collective irrationality and repression of Ayn Rand’s Anthem?

I’ve always had a special fondness for dystopias. There is nothing more effective in getting a person to think of the consequences of their actions than a bleak portrayal of the results in the future. Dystopias are amongst the most difficult worlds to build because they require rationalization on not only a physical level, but an ideological one. Dystopias are a distorted reflection of our world, our worst nightmares clothed in fiction. They hold up a mirror to our actions and force us to think beyond the now.

Most dystopias use social and governmental controls as a means of oppressing their population. Why? Perhaps because the abuse of power and authority is one of our greatest fears. Because every single one of us knows the power of peer pressure, the force of the hive mind beating against the individual. Because so much of our daily lives are controlled by the government, and by society’s expectations of us. This is one of dystopian fiction’s primary goals – to pick up on our greatest fear, and make us face it.

But apparently, this is not the objective of the breed of YA dystopias. YA dystopias, shockingly, are all about tru wuvv. They are about falling in insta-love with some random teenage boy whose face flashes on your computer screen for a second. They are about dithering between you ‘ideal Match’ and your, I repeat myself, tru wuvv. They are about the power of the first kiss and its ability to enlighten you about the true ghastliness of a loveless society. Please, give me a break here.

A dystopia, like any other form of speculative fiction, needs strong worldbuilding to base itself on. 1984, Brave New World, they were all set in a specific part of the world, yes, but they gave a clear idea of what the rest of the world was like. This seems to be too much work for YA dystopian writers, however. They end up either conveniently sinking the rest of the continents, leaving only America’s East Coast intact, or sometimes, not even bothering to speculate about the rest of the world. And even in their little slice of dystopia, the what, how and why of it is explained unconvincingly, at best.

Let’s take that new favourite dystopian trope – The Virus. In Lauren DeStefano’s Wither, the men die at twenty-five, and the women at twenty. Every single one of them. Now, can you name me one single virus in the history of mankind that has afflicted every single person in the world at a specific age? I don’t mean ‘during adolescence’ or ‘in their sixties’, I mean ‘on the dot of twenty and no longer’.  Similarly, in Megan McCafferty’s Bumped, all people over the age of eighteen are struck by a virus that renders them infertile. Why eighteen? Does the virus sit around with a little chronological clock saying ‘bada BOOM, you’re eighteen, no more babies!’?

And then there is the behaviour of society at large. All of us intellectual types like to tell ourselves that people are sheep. You show them where to go, and they do it without questioning. But is this really true? Doesn’t the fight against apartheid, the uprising against Mussolini, all show us that if you oppress people enough, they will fight back? That even in societies where people are conditioned to believe in the greater good and the absolute nature of the State, there are subversive free thinkers? And yet, for some reason, in Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, everybody seems to happily accept that love is a Bad Thing and line up to get rid of it. Because all we need to live happy lives is a lobotomy or a collection of little colored pills.

The realisation of the controlling State in these dystopias is abysmal, to say the least. Even dictators need a reason, a rationalization for their actions. When Hitler was dumping the Jews in gas chambers, he truly believed in the racial superiority of the Aryans, and their suppression by the Semitics. But really, what would a government achieve by making the suppression of love its primary, if not only, goal? What is the motivating factor behind a State that plays Matchmaker for its teenagers? What is the big deal behind making every teenager undergo cosmetic surgery to become ‘Pretty’?

And then there is the big one. The subliminal messages underlying the creation of a dystopian society. Freedom of thought and action, abuse of power, censorship, the conflict of the individual versus the collective. Obviously those messages are now passé. The new objective of YA dystopian fiction is to GLORIFY TRU WUVV. Yes, it’s all about teenage angst and star-crossed love. Write the standard love triangle, shove it in a futuristic society where true love is forbidden, and earn your million-dollar paycheck. I think perhaps one of these days, I will write a dystopian novel about the bloodsucking publishing industry.

This is not to say that the current crop of YA dystopias is all bad. In fact, despite some truly abysmal world-building, Lauren DeStefano’s ‘Wither' does a great job with the characterization and atmospheric prose. And more importantly, it doesn’t sink the plot in favour of wangsty romance. Neither does Megan McCafferty’s 'Bumped', a very clever satire on reproductive choice and the loss of innocence in today’s children. However, with more and more authors jumping on the dystopian bandwagon (Stacey Kade of The Ghost and The Goth fame just announced a new dystopian series to be released in 2013), I foresee a long and torturous death for the true dystopian novel. Much like Bram Stoker, I imagine George Orwell and Aldous Huxley turning in their unquiet graves as the love triangles take over the world. 


  1. My main problem with the new YA Dystopian genre is all of the psuedo-science going around. I'm still lost at how the entire world can explode, but North America remains intact. Even fantasy writers would be ashamed at these explanations.

  2. Great post!

    I will also take this moment to shamelessly plug Julie Bertagna's Exodus and Zenith. Highly entertaining and gripping dystopian YA before it was cool to do so, with the 3rd book coming soon!

  3. Well said. I wonder if anyone would be interested in dystopias in 2013, because I am sure I will not.

  4. I think you make some great and pertinent points (esp. the insta-love) but I think there needs to a further clarification else all dystopian novels will be painted with the twilight-lite brush. There are many excellent dystopian books that came out before Twilight and Hunger Games. Ex: City of Ember, The Giver, Gone (which I think is one of the best), the Dead and the Gone, Fever, Little Brother and many more. Also, Westerfield does develop why all teenagers must be pretty in the later books (don't want to get into spoilers). Basically, the serious flaws in some recent dystopians are more indicative of a "dumbing down" of YA in search of Twilight success. The fundamental question is why superficial/cheap love tropes are appearing in so many new YA books.

    In a side note, I thought Hunger Games was an entertaining and sometimes touching read but not quite as amazing and groundbreaking as many people say. Am I alone on this?

    Anyway, I love this blog and especially enjoy dystopian works so thanks for the post!

  5. Thank you! And you're right, I should probably have clarified that when I'm talking about the 'new breed' of dystopians, I mean the ones that have been published in the last year or so and are targeted specifically at tween girls. And as for the Hunger Games, I think it stands out because it has a fully actualized, well-written world as opposed to a lot of other YA novels. But no, it's not groundbreaking in any real sense of the world, I agree.

  6. I sometimes feel that dystopias appeal to readers for the same reason Lurlene McDaniel books appeal to readers. Teens like reading about people who have it worse than they do. You could also say they feel powerless in our society and again the books reflect that feeling of powerlessness. Ultimately though, YA dystopias, unlike so many of the adult versions, give the readers hope. Hope that if the characters in these dystopias can overcome the obstacles in their path, that they too as teens can overcome their own obstacles. I will admit that the current YA versions of dystopias aren’t well developed in the world building aspect, but I don’t think that is the point. Instead of building worlds, these novels are building character, and keeping the hope alive that one person (a teen in particular) can change the world. I know I am an idealist, but I am willing to forgive the faulty world building in exchange for a happy ending.  This was a great post! Thanks!

  7. This is similar to my complaint with a lot of paranormal YAs from the past couple of years, except the sketchy details apply to the badly written mythos rather than the world-building (although they often suffer from that too.)

  8. Mhmm it does seem a bit that the newer, 'all the rage' dystopias seems to have this unlikely tru-wuv thing which is annoying because I actually really like dystopians! I'm actually a big fan of YAs that don't rely so much on romance but are strong enough plot-wise and character-wise to carry on the story.

  9. haha, I know.

    I am increasingly wary of this new trend in YA ~ and all the hype. And all the fans who rave when the ARCs are out.

    I'm an adult who reads YA (as well as adult fiction) and have always advocated the goodness in YA for older readers. However, some of the latest Big Deal offerings have had me cringing and highly disappointed. Yet teens apparently LOVE them so I think they are here to stay for a looooooooong while.

  10. "But really, what would a government achieve by suppressing love?"

    Er, you did read 1984, right?

    But suppressing love was just another aspect of Orwell's totalitarian government; True Love was not the object, nor was it the key to ending the police state.

  11. I think that's kind of the point. True love wasn't the object.
    Lobotomies would make sense, but getting rid of one singular emotion
    does not. I think all of us have read 1984, otherwise we wouldn't be
    upset over this new trend of fake dystopians.

    A government would obtain nothing by suppressing love unless they
    suppressed everything else as well.

  12. *facepalm* What was I thinking?!! I've changed the sentence now to reflect what I actually wanted to say. Thanks for pointing it out!

  13. It's the carbon copy factor that keeps frustrating me as a reader (and as a former book selector in a secondary school library). No-one seems to offer anything new - they just imitate. And as you pointed out, they don't just imitate in terms of concept and ideas, they imitate characters and attitudes as well. I shudder to think how many Edwards and Bellas there are out there now.

  14. There were also a lot of excellent dystopian YA novels being written in Australia in the 90s and earlier (Victor Kelleher, John Marsden, Gillian Rubinstein, Isobelle Carmody were writing them, for example). I realise this blog is mostly about post-Twilight books, and also that Australian YA isn't exactly widely read in other parts of the world.

    Also, I agree with you about The Hunger Games. It often seemed to me that the people praising it tended not to be very familiar with YA.

  15. Oh my goodness - thank you, Ceilidh. I love this blog and the discussions and you just stopped me in my tracks there. I didn't expect to find myself plugged.

    It's weird: when Exodus was published in 2002 I was told there was no market for YA dystopian SF/speculative fiction... and now as I've finished the trilogy the world is awash in dystopian stories; some good, some not so good. But the great thing is that there is choice.

    I think you have to keep moving as a writer - keep breaking out of your comfort zone. And hope readers want to come on the next journey.

    Thanks for a brilliant blog - I liked it so much I blogged you. ; )

  16. I was with you until this "I foresee a long and torturous death for the true dystopian novel." I understand your frustration with the Young Adult side of the industry, but there's no need to be so hyperbolic or melodramatic lol. There are still people writing dystopian, in the YA comm and outside the YA comm that know what they're doing - and even there are people who will continue to write good dystopian long after the fad's passed in YA circles. I think you give the shady side of the YA industry far too much power when you make such conclusions or end up getting sucked into a wormhole of bitter cynicism.

  17. This is a great post. What tends to keep me from reading most YA dystopia is, as mentioned in the post, the pseudo-science that doesn't really make sense. It tends to take me out of the story a lot when I have to try and figure out how exactly this world would work.

  18. I agree; there needs to a certain level of believability but I guess everybody has there own line...

  19. John Marsden is excellent! I didn't know whether to include Tomorrow, When the War Began or not because it doesn't seem strict dystopian to me but it is a very fluid field. Thanks for the other tips; I will check them out!

    As for Hunger Games; perhaps a large part is the publicity surrounding it and the industry's frantic attempts to reach some Harry Potter/Twilight level.

  20. I think you are right; Katniss seems superior compared to the books you bring up in your blog.

  21. Ah! Now I realise why I was so confused by this post writing about dystopian YA fiction as if it was something new. It's because I assume everyone must know about the great dystopian YA being written by Aussie writers for years. Catherine Jinks has written a couple of good ones as well.

  22. Oh yes, I'd forgotten about Catherine Jinks. I tend to think of her mainly as the author of the Pagan series, which are wonderful as well, but not dystopian.

  23. I *think* Marsden wrote at least one dystopian fantasy novel, although the name eludes me. I think I only read it once. As a teenager I tended to spend more time rereading the Tomorrow series obsessively...

  24. Yes!! This post is wonderful. The sheer amount of new dystopians who center around a poorly developed yet plot-eclipsing tru wuvv plot (maybe with a love triangle thrown in for good measure) is really starting to bother me. It's too bad, because I often really enjoy the writing and the characters, but there's just something missing... as if more work could've been put into it, and made it so much deeper than just some shallow forbidden romance. Not to mention everything being stretched out into a trilogy. Sometimes I'm not sure if it's an author trying to cash-in on a trend or a publishing house that knows that it'll sell better if it's just more of the same.

  25. I did love your books and found that they weren't in any way related to any of the problems in today's newest trend in YA. Your world building had a melancholy tone to it. Dystopians should not only have a message but a literal backstory to them all. I find the best dystopians had that grain of truth behind them. That this could actually happen. Because that is what dystopians are; they take that one section of a society and blow it up in our faces so we see that they are a problem and could potentially endanger us all.
    Honestly, seeing all dystopians reduced to the message that "truwuv will save us all!!!" is very, very disheartening.
    Keep up the good work. Aurora will probably be the only dystopian book I will buy and NOT return.

  26. I linked here through stephxsu's post. I really do love this discussion, because it's mirrored some of my own feelings. IMO, many writers have the impression a story won't sell without romance, and many publishers have the impression teenagers won't buy stories without heavy romance. I guess we'll see over the next couple years if that ends up changing.

    Btw-- best use of a duck image ever.

  27. "looking for that grain of truth" is what I want most in any dystopian; not insta-love.

  28. "I think perhaps one of these days, I will write a dystopian novel about the bloodsucking publishing industry."

    Absolutely this!
    That is the whole crux of the publishing industry, that it is/has become an industry. It's only remaining goal seems to follow the capitalistic dictum to generate maximal profit. And the easiest way to do this, as we know from other media ventures, is to copy the current trend and hope for somebody with enough vision to dig up a new one before the old one is beaten to death.

    Was a time when publisher used to work together with people that were in it for their love of literature. A system that made money following from a true appreciation of what they sold, now it’s most often only about what you can sell.

  29. I rather liked the Uglies series. Especially the thought of being an adolescent until all your ya-yas are out and you're ready to be an adult.

    I think Tanith Lee's Biting the Sun does it better, though. And the universe she writes is a rather magnificent science fiction dream.

  30. Is it reality television that leads literature snobs to require 100% provable realism in the fiction they read? I just don't get it myself. Where were the people whining about how you can't stitch together body parts, electrify it with lightning, and bring it to life when Frankenstein came out? Oh, that's right. People understood that it was FICTION and that it wasn't supposed to be reality. Isn't the whole point of speculative fiction to say, "what if _____ were possible" or "what if ______ happened"? If every story ever written need to be 100% realistic, my goodness many brilliant stories we would lose. So why are book snobs so whiny about it? Is it because they tried to get something published and couldn't? That's what it seems like to me. And what's the problem with a love story? Or a love triangle? Or the thrill of a first kiss? If you don't like it, don't read it. Or, write something better if you're so amazing. Come on... I'm waiting...

  31. Really? THAT's the argument you're going with? "Write something better"? How... original of you. I bet you're the sort of person who spams Roger Ebert and tells him he has no right to critique movies because he's never directed one.

    Not that this will make any difference to you, but there is a difference between making your stories a hundred percent realistic, and being convincing in your world-building. I don't expect any work of fiction, let alone speculative fiction, to be completely realistic; I do, however, expect the author to do some work and convince me that this alternative vision of the future can exist. As I said in my post, dystopias are harder to build because of the very purpose that particular sub-genre serves, a purpose which has been subverted by teenybopper romances. I have no problems with romance as a sub-plot; but when it becomes the main plot in a supposedly-dystopian vision of the future, it's cheating the public - you expect to find thought-provoking literature about differing ideologies and end up with facile nonsense.

    I don't expect every person who visits this blog to agree with everything we say - I do, however, expect people to be polite about their dissent. Your poorly thought-out 'argument' serves no purpose except to make you look like a troll. Please don't come back if you can't learn internet etiquette.

  32. I thought I was going to have to take care of this Vinaya. But you
    handle yourself well. Ashleigh just got an anonymous rude person on
    her blog as well.

  33. I'm really sorry my post came off so rude. It's a subject that really bothers me and I should have put more thought into my post. For that I apologize. Also, I'm not anonymous, I just don't choose to use my full name as my user name.

    I guess I don't understand the difference between wanting something that "can happen" and wanting something to be 100% believable. Isn't that the same thing? And what is wrong with saying "what if"? Time travel can't happen, but would you criticize H.G. Wells for The Time Machine? Little boys who fight evil wizards with magic spells can't happen, but would you call Harry Potter bad writing as a result?

    I think why this subject bothers me so much (and again, I really do apologize for being such a jerk about it) is because clearly people enjoy reading these stories. People enjoy vampires, love stories, implausible worlds, magic, love triangles, etc. So why is it bad? Just because it isn't what you enjoy, why does that make everyone else wrong? Why do I (or worse, my 15 year old daughter) have to be labeled as an unintelligent tripe guzzling moron just because I enjoy reading those types of stories? I see it over and over and over again, and I guess I just feel like--leave us alone already. So it's not your thing, that's ok, but why can't the rest of us enjoy it? Why does the genre have to transform to something better by your standards, or else wander away with its tail between its legs to the place where things you personally don't like go to die? And when I say you, I really mean all the people who complain about these things.

    I also feel like people put far too much emphasis on complicated plots, complex symbolism, and morality messages. Why does every story have to be a cautionary tale? Why does every story have to deliver some sort of deep meaningful message? Why can't a story just be a story? Here is a person, here is something that happened to him. Here is a place, here are some people who lived here, here are some things that happened to them. Yes--admittedly, there has to be more, but that more doesn't have to be everything. And as far as love stories go, why can't a story just be a love story? Why does a love story have to take a back seat to a more complicated plot? Romeo and Juliet was more about their romance than it was about the fight between the Montagues and the Capulets. And wasn't Gone With the Wind more about Scarlett and Rhett than about the Civil War or what led up to it, or what happened as a result? Isn't Pride & Prejudice more about the romance between Lizzie and Darcy than it is about the setting or anything else going on in the world at the time?

    I think we live in a pretty amazing time, when books are a dime a dozen and there is an endless availability of books for anyone who wants to read them. Yes, the volume means that there will be a gradient, and there will be a "bottom of the barrel", but there are a lot of books at the top, too. Maybe that top doesn't compare with the quality of books at the top in other genres--maybe it does, I don't know--but there are much worse things out there. Look at bodice rippers. Those are worse than the bottom of the barrel, but some people love them. No one is trying to claim that they're Tolstoy, Dickens, or Virginia Woolf, but not every book has to be. Why can't literature be like food--junk food is terrible for you, but we eat it anyway, because it tastes good, it's comforting, and it's fun. And not every meal can be apple wood smoked sea bass smothered in lemon-garlic butter and capers, with roasted asparagus, and garlic potato puree.

    Again, I apologize for being rude earlier. I hope my points make more sense this time. :)

  34. P.S. Reading your post about CoFA now and wishing I'd read it before I replied. I see your points much more clearly now, (I hated the HoN series, too) so I have to back off a little on my points. I still maintain them, but not quite as vehemently. I still think there's a place for stories that are primarily about love, but I understand the point now that there needs to be a foundation for that romance to take place. It can't just be about a "vampyre" (shudder) girl and the sixteen boys she is simultaneously in love with. Anyway, you don't have to respond but you can. I really should have read more blog posts before posting myself. Lesson learned.

  35. Actually, the post that you should have read, but missed, is this one:

    I write romances for a living - you're preaching to the choir here when you say things like, "Why can't a story just be a love story?" Of course it can, but then it needs to be billed as a romance. (Although none of the examples you quoted would really hold water). I really liked Anna and the French Kiss, and I didn't expect any deeper underlying meaning to the book - it was pure fun. I liked Die For Me, which is your regular paranormal fantasy about immortal guy-meets-regular-girl. Hell, I liked Twilight, the ultimate in teen romances! But my point is, these stories never claimed to be something they weren't. They are all primarily romances, some of them with an element of mystery or adventure. But you can't claim to have written a dystopian and then end up writing a romance in a half-assed, badly-thought out future society.

    The difference between Harry Potter and, say, Wither? Harry Potter is plausible. I mean, there could be a magical platform on King's Cross Station that the rest of us can't see (although believe you me, it wasn't for lack of trying on my part!). Maybe we are all just too Muggle-like to spot it. Wither, on the other hand, is in a society populated by humans. The world is exactly our own, with no additions. So if you're going to set the story in our world, it has to follow the rules of that world. You can't come up with a virus that has no rational explanation. Good dystopian fiction always has a grounding in reality.

    And really, you need to remember that if a particular book or genre doesn't please me, I have the right to criticize it. While I do pan books that I don't like, I can't remember ever saying that the people who read those books are morons. I just express my views, on my blog, about why I think a particular book or genre needs improvement. If I was going to other people's blogs and telling them that they were stupid for liking the books I hate, it would be okay to tell me not to express my views.. But I'm not. I think that in the same way you want the intellectual freedom to enjoy the books you like, I want the intellectual freedom to critique the ones I don't. So thank you for apologizing for your previous post.

  36. Thanks for the link. I'll check it out next. And thanks for accepting my apology. :)