Saturday, February 7, 2009

Transcript: Presenting Lenore Presents...Dystopias (1): What If?

Science fiction asks the “what if” questions, like ‘what if there was life on mars” or “what if little green aliens attacked earth”. Dystopias ask “what if society was really, really frakked up?” – how would people live and what would they do about their situation?” Authors build fictional dystopian societies as a device to criticize some hot button cultural issue of the day and to show us what our future might be like if the human race doesn’t get their act together.

George Orwell wrote his dystopian classic 1984 in 1948 and publicly asserted that it was written as a response to the oppressive communist and fascist regimes of that time. Today’s dystopias explore societies built on everything from marketers abuse of consumer privacy – such as in MT Anderson’s Feed – to government mandated plastic surgery – such as Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series. In 2008 we had Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games which can be seen as a criticism of reality TV, Allegra Goodman’s The Other Side of the Island, a criticism of extreme environmentalism, and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, a criticism of the termination of human rights in the name of national security.

Not all dystopias are necessarily criticisms of course. They can also ask purely speculative questions such as “what would happen if children were left to rule themselves?” This was in fact asked twice this past year, in Michael Grant’s Gone and Bonnie Dobkin’s Nepture’s Children, two books I don’t feel a pressing need to read, because this particular question was quite adequately answered for me by William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Post apocalyptic fiction is a very similar and often interchangeable subgenre which explores the question “what if there would be a complete breakdown of society due to some cataclysmic event?” Books in this category include The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Life as We Knew it by Susan Beth Pfeffer.

Something that I’ve noticed is that dystopian novels written for adults tend to have unresolved and/or depressing endings while novels written with a teen audience in mind tend to have more uplifting or inspiring endings. If the teen protagonist doesn’t find a way to overthrow the society completely, he or she at least carves out some measure of freedom within or outside the society.

YA novels also tend to be less brutally realistic. In Life As We Knew It, Miranda and her family are holed up at home and trying to survive after a meteor hits the moon and pushes it too close to Earth, causing massive societal disruptions. There are no more food deliveries so people are starving. At one point, Miranda’s cat goes missing. Had this been an adult dystopia like The Road, the cat would have been roasting over a fire and in some starving belly by day’s end. But no. The cat comes back! And he even has enough dry cat food to last him until society can get back on its feet again. I found this unrealistic in the context of a post-apocalyptic landscape.

But despite that very specific plot criticism, I really love YA dystopias. They are generally creative, exciting reads and I think they are a great way to get teens thinking about and discussing “what if” questions and hopefully thinking about ways to make our world a better place so that we don’t actually have to live out a dystopian or post apocalyptic future.

14 comments:

Taren said...

You rule for posting this! I've gotten into this genre more lately and it's so great to have new recommendations and comparisons to older books.

Molly said...

I so enjoyed reading this post (and I thank you for putting your podcast in visual form, as I rarely listen to them even though I desperately want to.)

I do not read much sci-fi and therefore have not read many of the books you mentioned (the exception being Lord of the Flies) - but you have presented the material in such a clear, understandable way that I am no longer intimidated to try this genre in the future.

Mishel said...

It was very kind of you to provide a transcript for those who missed the podcast. I appreciate it.

And what a wonderful and thoughtful post! You provided some great book mentions that I will definitely have to look into.

Dystopias are always interesting to read. I have yet to read any YA versions...even Lord of the Flies I'm afraid (although I will be sometime in the future). I enjoyed reading your comparision of YA dystopias vs. the ones written for adults.

Marie said...

Great post. I've enjoyed many dystopian novels but they can be tough reads sometimes too. I agree with you that YA novels in this genre tend to be more empowering.

H said...

That was a really thoughtful post. I don't normally enjoy dystopias as usually they seem to be trying too hard to make a point to bother much with a plot, but The Hunger Games is a massive exception. Loved it!

Steph Su said...

I'm agreeing with everyone above me. It is true that YA dystopian literature are slightly more upbeat than adult dystopian lit, but I feel like that's also due to the genre too, and that if a YA author wrote an extremely depressing and challenging dystopian novel, it'd probably get bumped into the adult lit category, and vice versa. You're also right about Lord of the Flies pretty much covering that what-if; Gone is a rather minor story in comparison.

Thanks for putting up the post! Will you be doing this again in the future for those of us who are not very audio-inclined?

Lenore said...

Steph - Yes, I plan to post my transcripts a week after airdate.

Also I'm working on Dystopias Part 2 now, so if anyone has any questions, feel free to ask!

Staci said...

I loved Life as We Knew It and The Road is waiting on my bookshelf...it will be interesting to compare the two...thanks for a great post.

wrigleyfield said...

This is great, thanks.

I've been contemplating a post on Lois Lowry's dystopian quasi-trilogy (The Giver, Gathering Blue, and Messenger; I love the first two).

Readingjunky said...

Have you read LITTLE BROTHER by Cory Doctorow? It is a 1984 sort of book. Very high tech.

Jena said...

Have you read Shift by Charlotte Agell? I just finished it last night; my review is in the works!

Shelley/Chain Reader said...

I love, love, love dystopia's. Thanks for giving me some more ideas of what's out there!

Miss chick said...

I agree with Taren! It's a formidable task to come on here and try to maneuver and keep track of all the blogs, and I am a person who always looks at past books in comparison to modern day fantasy fiction!

Have you seen the Rowan of the Wood reviews on here? It's a good fantasy fiction one.

EH said...

Very nice - thanks! I have a working list of YA dystopias here, FYI.