Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dystopian novels

When the buzz began about the release of Mockingjay, I started thinking about the growing popularity of dystopian novels. I’m reading two now. One is a provocative work-in-progress titledHive, by my student Heather Zenzen. The other is A Crack in the Sky, by Mark Peter Hughes. (Mark and Kelly and I teach at Rhode Island College’s ASTAL Institute every June.) Mark’s novel is both funny and frightening. He projects the known dangers of global warming into a bleak future. His world seems completely possible, given our current inability to deal with climate change.

I hope Hughes is not as prescient as other dystopian writers have been. A few years after I read M.T. Anderson’s Feed, a neighbor with early-stage Alzeheimer’s had a computer chip embedded in his arm so that his family could find him when he wandered off. Access to the Internet through a chip in our brains no longer seemed far-fetched. But why the sudden explosion of dystopian novels? Is it as simple as a current fad and the pull of the marketplace? That’s not true for Hughes, who says he “didn’t know they were all the rage” until someone else informed him, and he has been working on his trilogy for a long time. Is it a commentary on the difficult times we live in? Or are we always drawn to a good story with strong characters, a great premise, and a fast-paced plot, no matter the genre?

I tossed these questions out to a few pals. Kelly said:It's an interesting topic. Teens are so trendy for one thing. If nothing else, they like to belong…It could be their increased reliance on technology and the increased mythic violence with some of those games, like Halo.

Ron, of course, had a different take: I would like to see a dystopian picture book set in a bleak forest and featuring an angst-ridden vole. But that's just me.

While Mary Logue responded with a good question:Whatever happened to Utopian novels?

If you read or write about dystopia—or angst-ridden voles—what draws you? Meanwhile, I’m returning to Eli and his sentient mongoose, Marilyn. They live in the domed city of Providence where something has gone terribly wrong…


  1. Good questions, Liza! Thanks for getting this ball rolling. I think the dystopia mania is a combination of these things and more: literature that reflects the times, our interest in a good story, as well as writers wanting to push the boundaries (this has historically always been especially true of YA authors), along with publishers needing to stay alive by printing books that have an "edge" and will sell. Fine reasons all of them. I have no problem with dystopia or utopia if engaged. I do however have a problem with Hunger Games but for very different reasons that are better for a private conversation.

    By the way, there are dystopian picture books. THE RABBITS by Shaun Tan is one. If anyone is up for it here's a good weighty article on Utopian and Dystopian Discourses in Picture Books:

    What a great critical thesis topic! Anyone?

  2. I've been reading dystopian science fiction for decades (John Brunner anyone?), but also enjoy the recent YA dystopias. I like well-done utopias also.... although they are much harder to pull off.

    A good dystopian story spins out threads from the present. For example, Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, published 17 years ago, took income inequality and the undermining of public schools and built a future where the social compact has completely disintegrated. Scary and disturbing, but very compelling.

  3. Sure miss Octavia Butler.

    Yes--these novels are linked to the present. And I find the ones that have worked best for me are the ones that maintain a focus of exploration of the fictional world and not condemnation of the real world.

    Maybe one reason dystopian novels resonate with so many teens is that their world feels dystopic already. High school--for many, though not all--is certainly a strange world.

  4. I think it is no coincidence that dystopia came into vogue just recently after the financial meltdown and the Bush administration sent America over a cliff. But that's just the Truman democrat in me talking.

    Feed doesn't seem that far off the mark, either, when you see folks walking or driving around in a daze, staring at their phones.

    Ron: All voles are angst-ridden until they meet something with claws or talons.

  5. Maybe an angst-ridden lemming on a glacier would work as well.

  6. Wall-E was very dystopian too with the remnant of humanity too fat to know their space ship had a pool. That had de-evolved.
    I find most dystopian stories make people nervous. They are like tattle-tells or police cars in my rear view mirror. It's hard to believe they aren't out to get you.
    But then any story about society is going to be about a "bad" one or a "good" one right? Functioning or disfunctioning. Then after reading the book or watching the movie, we will have to compare ourselves to that one, no matter if we would rather not.
    And why not write about society and especially a disfunctional one when you live in a society with a solidifying culture like ours? Sameness is the same six stores on every other block--like we're stuck in the fat hardening on top of the stew. And if I wanted to make a stew I could go to the market and find exactly three types of gnetically modifed root vegetables. Really we may be into dystopia because we've gelled into something we can't figure out how to get out of.

  7. I agree with MarshaQ. I think many teens are already feeling the pinch of potential future failure on very personal levels. I also think that on some level everyone worries about failure. And isn't that what dystopian societies are? The social order (or not) that has risen out of failure? Dystopian stories say, Yes, there was failure, let's move on. There is some comfort to realize that what you predict actually happened. Yet, dystopian works then go on to say, this will happen next. That too can be a comfort by assuaging the fears of the unknown future. So in essence dystopian works might give YA readers a little reassurance or hope that their own lives will work out - sort of like wacked out, new age fairy tales.