Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dystopias That Work

by Yael Itamar

I don’t have to tell you dystopia is big. Look at the hype surrounding Divergent, Legend, and Shatter Me, three books that spawned movie deals before they hit the shelves. And that doesn’t account for the countless other dystopias like Wither, Delirium, and Enclave.

Teenagers are rebellious creatures, so it’s no surprise that dystopia is popular. Star-crossed love is so much more interesting than normal love. And who doesn’t want to read about some badass chick fighting an evil totalitarian government? 

But is this really what dystopia is about? It seems like the current crop of YA dystopian novels fall into one of two categories:

a) Whimsical worldbuilding: These are your high-concept “What if?” scenarios. What if you could cure love? What if classes were divided by language? What if society was divided by virtues? What these “What if?” scenarios tend to have in common is that the worldbuilding is not only completely implausible, but that they have no roots in "real" society. As Vinaya mentioned earlier, Dystopia is supposed to be a distorted mirror of our own world, a premonition, even. These worlds are not premonitions -- they are gimmicks.

b) Pointless evil: Dystopias where the evil totalitarian government only serves as something for the protagonists to rebel against. These novels aren’t about the horrors of eugenics, human experimentation, mass murder, etc. Sure, these tropes may exist, but only to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys, and to give the supergenius protagonists an excuse to fight something.

I won’t disagree that some of these are good stories, regardless of worldbuilding issues. However, when we constantly focus on the “next big thing,” we often overlook the dystopias that are true to our world. I’m not just referring to adult classics, such as 1984, Brave New World, A Handmaid’s Tale, etc. I’m referring to books on the YA shelf.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker is actually a post-apocalyptic book, not a dystopia, but since the subgenres tend to fall under the same umbrella, I think it is worth mentioning. Ship Breaker is set in a post-global warming world, where oil shortages rule the economy, major hurricanes are the norm, and there’s a massive income gap between the rich and the poor. Nailer’s world is gritty and repulsive, and he is constantly forced to choose between loyalty and survival. 

M.T. Anderson’s Feed is, if anything, more terrifying. In this novel, everyone (who can afford it) has internet reception in their brain (called “the Feed.”) The characters are constantly bombarded with advertisement, have no reason to actually learn anything since they can just look it up, and are completely oblivious to the fact that the world is collapsing around them. The protagonist, Titus, isn’t some sassy revolutionary like today’s YA heroes/heroines—no, he’s as much a victim of his society as everyone else is, and that’s why this book is so scary. Would you recognize a dystopia if you were living in one? Also, this book came out in 2002—years before the concept of iPhones and on-the-go internet. Premonition, much? 

A dystopia isn’t supposed to be something that can be overcome by a group of plucky teenagers, rousing speeches, and epic fighting skills. If totalitarianism and ignorance were this easy to defeat, they wouldn’t exist in the first place.

No, the scary dystopias are those who grin at you and say “What the hell are you going to do about it?”

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