Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Trouble with Dystopians - Part 1

I've been meaning for a while now to write a post about dystopian YA fiction. I finished several dystopian series at once near the end of last year, right around the time the second Hunger Games movie came out. And now, with the Divergent movie having done so well, it seems like the first time to finally get to finishing this post.

Dystopians have been popular for a while, but it really kicked off with the Hunger Games. Theories as to why they're so popular range from high school is like a rigid, dystopian society, to dystopians hold a mirror to society, to my personal favorite - recent dystopian fiction tends to follow the Hero's Journey. Oh, and apparently Edward Snowden is a lot like Katniss.  Anyway, the Hero's Journey theory actually makes a lot of sense - I don't think the Hero(ine?)'s journey is ever going to go out of style. 

Speaking of style issues, let's look at the series I'm going to be discussing:

In a distant, dark future, a sudden event changes a young woman's life, pulling her away from everything she knows. The society as she's known it has always been bad, but it turns out its worse than she thought, and she finds herself at the center of a revolution, and a race to save what's left of society. But is the revolution everything it seems? Who are the good guys? And in fighting the revolution, will she has to sacrifice the boy she loves?
Believe it or not, I actually hadn't noticed this pattern (clearly modeled after the Hunger Games) until I started writing tonight. I'd mentally grouped these books together to compare them more for the plot structure, but apparently they stuck together in my mind for others as well. In case you're wondering, the series are:

The Chemical Garden Trilogy, Lauren DeStefano
The Divergent Trilogy, Veronica Roth
The Matched Trilogy, Allie Condie
The Hunger Games Trilogy, Suzanne Collins (of course)

From what I've read so far, the Crewel, Delirium, and Under the Never Sky series (and possibly Shatter Me**) should probably be in this group, but I haven't finished them yet, and I'm far too lazy to do so by the next post. In any case, for this first post, I'm going to talk about patterns and shared ideas and fiction.

I don't think similarities are necessarily a bad thing. It's a little startling to me how similar these dystopian novels are on that basic level, now that I'm aware of it. But they're certainly not the first time an idea has been recycled. For one, there's the hilarious comparison of Pocahontas and James Cameron's Avatar that's been around for a while. And it's not like I'm going around saying, "Oh darn, too many awesome strong female characters who save the world!" 

And in Fantasy, we have the whole Tolkien subgenre. And Arthurian stories, which I've never liked. I mean, it's a never ending pattern of "everyone betrays each other and then they die." In most stories, you have hope that something good will happen at the end, but with Arthurian retellings, it's pretty much set that everyone dies tragically.

Then, of course, there's urban fantasy. I'm pretty sure Laurell K. Hamilton and Anita Blake are solely responsible for the current trends, though I'm too lazy to Google it to see if I'm right. And yes, I know Emma Bull's War of the Oaks is the real first urban fantasy. But Hamilton is responsible for the vampire/witch/shapeshifter/half (or full) faerie/necromancer/wizard, who lives in a city and hunts the local vampire/witch/shapeshifter/half (or full) faerie/necromancer/wizards, all while fending off her attraction for a darkly mysterious vampire/witch/shapeshifter/half (or full) faerie/necromancer/wizard. Oh, Anita Blake. I remember how awesome you were before you gathered your male harem. All those interesting moral thoughts you had about religion and intimacy? Whatever! Forget those!Though I think I'd probably hate those books if I started reading them now. But at the time, I loved them, and Anita  was in a class of her own.  

So why do we keep seeing so much of the same? I think some of it is comfort - my comfort reads are historical romance. Not sure why, because they're some of the most formulaic of all genres, but there's something soothing about pretty dresses and a guaranteed squishy happy ending. 

But I think there's another aspect at work: publishers will sell what is likely to be successful. That's not necessarily a critique. Their job is to publish books they know people will buy. It can go deeper than that though. Here is an excellent and thoughtful post (WARNING: contains adult language). from the review site Dear Author (they have a ton of amazing and insightful articles there on publishing, self-publishing, authors behaving badly, and more... apart from all the book reviews). 

For those not in the mood to read a post with adult language, or who don't want to click on one more freaking link for this post, here is the conclusion to the article:

Assumptions about what readers want not only reinforce the sexist status quo, but they create homogenized books. Books in which we know what’s going to happen before it happens.... And as the comments from self-policing authors attest, these established norms are self-perpetuating. They’re writing what they’ve read, what they expect to read.
What do readers want? Perhaps we won’t truly know ourselves, until we get to experience all the possibilities.
What do you think? What would you like to see more of in your traditionally published fiction?***

Maybe it will be urban science fiction, with the android/cyborg/alien/space pirate/three-headed space lobster who hunts android/cyborg/alien/space pirate/three-headed space lobsters and fights off her attraction to a  android/cyborg/alien/space pirate/three-headed space lobster.

One can only hope not.

Coming up next week: the second half of the dystopian post, where I talk about what does and does not work in this particular brand of dystopian fiction.

*Blogger flags dystopian as misspelled - and offers 'utopia' as the only correction. STOP TRYING TO WHITEWASH EVERYTHING, GOOGLE! I will not bow to your evil empire!
**A large part of the reason I haven't read this one yet is because the heroine's name is Juliette. I think that would confuse me too much right now.
***Yes, self-publishing is its own thing that might be the solution, but I'm not going to talk about it in this post, because it's late and I'm lazy.


  1. LOL, that description fits every single YA dystopian novel that I have read.

    I agree that there is something comforting about familiarity. I have my own predictable, comfort stories that I love and can never seem to get enough of. But yeah, imposing limits on writers because of supposed readers' preferences without ever giving readers other options is a little bit of faulty logic. I think this is where self-publishing will shine. I think we'll see a few new trends emerging from popular self-published works.

    One last thought, personally I don't feel like any of the YA dystopias should actually be called dystopias. They just use a dystopia-like setting, but stories like Hunger Games could easily work in a secondary fantasy world or historical or alternate history setting. To me, true dystopias like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 should have themes that warn us of a dark possible future. They are more rooted in themes than setting, if that makes any sense at all.

    Excellent post. I'm looking forward to part 2. :)

  2. That's a very good point, MaryAnn. I started to try to argue that the Hunger Games could theoretically happen - but then I realized what the issue was. None of these stories have that connecting moment that shows how or why our society devolved in such a way. Things like the Divergent trilogy have a founding even that brings out the worst in society - but that's not the same as showing the path of how current societal trends can degrade into a true dystopia.

    One truly egregious example based on that is Delirium. In the first book, we're never shown how or why society makes such a radical change to completely outlawing love. You can argue that we wouldn't see it because we're in first person POV from after the change, but I think this is one case in which a prologue would have been very useful. As it was, I spent the book unable to shake my disbelief that such a society could ever really come about.


Got an opinion? Use it! Remember... be silly, be honest, and be nice/proofread.