Friday, August 13, 2010

Dystopian Reader Views - A Look at Plausibility

What validates fiction is plausibility, which it creates for itself, most notably through accurate, honest observation of the world it creates. This created world is of course more or less directly related to and dependent on the actual, factual world outside the book.” Ursula K. LeGuin

For me to really get lost in a story, I have to believe in the plausibility of the world the author presents.  That doesn't mean, of course, that everything has to work according to the rules of our actual, non-fictional world. But if the story is set in our world, then I need the author to convince me that the implausible things happening in the story are happening for a reason.

Dystopian works often take a modern issue and magnify it through the lense of fiction, and this is always most satisfying when I can actually imagine such a scenario occuring.  But a plausible scenario can quickly turn implausible if all the details don't compute.

In Z FOR ZACHARIAH, Robert O'Brien presents a world where automic bombs have destroyed (at least) the Eastern US.  That's a plausible scenario.  Into this devastation however, he places a girl living in an untouched valley that appears to have it's own contained ecosystem, with clouds untouched by radiation, and no explanation for its existence.  Is that plausible?  No.

In CARBON DIARIES 2015, Saci Lloyd imagines that the UK decides to move to strict carbon rationing for all of its citizens.  I can see that.  What I can't see though, is the UK government being efficient enough to actually install all of those machines that count people's carbon usage.  And even if they could, the effort would be so expensive, I couldn't see them justifying the cost.

Of course, even when a scenario is implausible, the author can still tell a good, satisfying story if they stick to the rules they create and have characters reacting in ways that feel authentic.

I asked readers of dystopian lit what dystopian/ post apocalyptic scenarios they found most plausible and least plausible in their reading.  Here are some of their responses.

Most plausible
Of the dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels I've read I'd say that Marsden's Tomorrow series is most plausible. The story of teenagers hiding away from and rebelling against the military forces that have begun to occupy their country is absolutely something I could see happening in real life. There's nothing fantastical (ie: mystical or supernatural) about it it's just flat out real.  - Michelle Franz @galleysmith

I think LUCIFER'S HAMMER by Larry Niven is incredibly plausible. Niven presents the world pre-, during-, and post-comet realistically, where some people rise to the occasion, some turn frightening bad, and the majority have no idea what to do. - Jennifer

RESTORING HARMONY by Joelle Anthony - running out of oil seems VERY plausible. - Swapna Krishna

The most plausible to me, I think would have to be a world stripped of resources, where people have to forage and fend for themselves against each other in order to survive. I think there are a lot of ways this could happen. - Heather Figearo

I find the ones where some disease has wiped out people or created a form of zombie or killer to be the most plausible - diseases seem to be mutating and cropping up more regularly than ever these days. Another plausible scenario is natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes killing off large numbers of people. - Amy McKie

I think the ones where governments seize too much power are most plausible, such as AMONG THE HIDDEN.  Beth Revis, Author  @bethrevis

A little of both
I just read LIFE AS WE KNEW IT, and I think it can fit both categories. I think what happens to the moon is the least plausible. However, it was amazing to see how quickly societal structures broke down. I think that the effects from natural disasters, if a lot of them happened at once on a global scale could realistically cause such break down if they were numerous and extreme enough (the volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, and weather changes along with lack of electricity and fuel). - Alyce  @athomewithbooks


CITY OF EMBER'S underground city is not plausible at all, but one can dream. - Lija

Much as I love reading zombie novels, I don't think the physics of it works. Ditto for the magically induced apocalypses in books like PEEPS and THE LAST DAYS (though again, I love those!) - Diana Peterfreund, Author

One of the ones that's the least plausible is actually THE HUNGER GAMES. I love, love, love the series, but I don't think I can possibly imagine a government ever forcing children into battle like that, or a society that accepts it for as long as they do in HG. But I think there are a lot of other true things in the book, like how the Capitol district has power and money and none of the others do, or how the Capitol rewards and favors the Districts that give them their favorite goods. Maybe I just don't want to imagine a world where something like that could ever happen.  - Heather Trese  @HeatherTrese

The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld is least plausible. I don’t think humans would be content experiencing pleasure 24/7 and living in a city. There are too many free spirits that love hard work and the mountains. -Emily Ellsworth  @emsreadingroom

FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH is one that is least plausible because there hasn't been any explanation as to why people have turned into zombies. Is it spontaneous? In the books, it's spread if bitten - but who was patient zero? How did (s)he become infected? If I had that info then I could maybe see some reality to the story - but until then its just a fun piece of fiction. -  Gail  @Irisheyz77

What about you?  Which scenarios do you find particularly plausible or implausible? Was a plausible scenario ruined for you by implausible details in the story?  Was an implausible scenario made more real for you by the author's attention to detail in the world building? Tell me either in the comments OR you are welcome to write a post about it on your own blog and link to it in the comments for us all to read!


bermudaonion said...

I need to check out Restoring Harmony - I agree with Swapna that running out of oil sounds very plausible.

Stasia said...

I think plausibility in dystopian fiction has 2 aspects: 1-the plausibility of the world-building; and 2-the plausibility/possibility of the MC's plight. The MC's of Meg Rosoff's HOW I LIVE NOW (plausible WORLD) & M.T. Anderson's FEED (less plausibile WORLD) both confront very plausible, timely problems (war/invasion; techno- saturation/corporate control). So, despite varying degrees of WORLD BUILDING plausibility, I find myself able to engage fully in both narratives. Same goes for HUNGER GAMES. Very thought-provoking post! - Stasia

Lenore Appelhans said...

Stasia - How much we engage with the MC does have a lot do with how plausible their reactions are to their plight, though of course we want to see a strong, active MC - not one who is paralyzed with inaction.

Anonymous said...

Hello! This is my first time visiting your blog, but I love what I've read so far. Since I'm in my last year of grad school, I'm buried in academia, but I'll be watching your blog for book recommendations!

As far as your post goes, I enjoyed Life as We Knew It, mainly for the reasons you pointed out. I thought the mother and the daughter pulling the family through the hard times was a nice reprieve from other apocalyptic stories in which the male characters get to do all the heroic work. Sure, what happens to the moon is pretty implausible, but I got goosebumps all the same when it did happen. I haven't read any of the other books in the series though they are stacked up on my desk.

I'll have to pick up a few of the other books you've mentioned here, so thanks for the recommendations. I'm looking forward to your next post!

Lenore Appelhans said...

Mouse - There was actually an interesting discussion over at Forever Young Adult blog about how plausible it was that the mother in LIFE AS WE KNEW IT did laundry and vacuumed every time they got a bit of electricity. On the one hand, it makes sense that she'd want to try to control her environment as much as possible and keep things clean, but some found it implausible that cleanliness would be such a high priority with everything else that was going on.

christina said...

I don't know if I'm in the minority or not, but the children sacrifices in Hunger Games does seem like a possibility to me. How different is it from "The Lottery"? or that Japanese book (that it is loosely based/inspired from?) I guess what I'm saying is if the idea of "The Lottery" has been around for as long as it has and ANOTHER culture came up with a similar idea of Hunger Games, then it's somehow innately a part of our human make-up, and hence, a true possibility.

Hell, people didn't think the concentration camps could happen. Or ethnic cleansing (which unfortunately still does today). It's not something to be proud of, but I think that there is little impossibilities when it comes to government control.

Er, am I beginning to sound like a conspiracist? LOL

Zibilee said...

I think you bring up a great point, Lenore.The settings and world building in dystopian novels matters a lot to me, and I think that if I came across a really implausible situation, it might really affect my enjoyment and immersion in the book.

Carla said...

maybe my love of the hunger games is shadowing my comment, but, i think one of the reasons i love it so much, is because i can imagine it so clearly in my head and the world is so structured and well laid out, that i could actually imagine it happening.

lanna-lovely said...

I'm actually okay with a story not being very plausable in a real life context so long as it is explained in a way in the book that makes me believe it.

I disagree with something said in the post though:

"One of the ones that's the least plausible is actually THE HUNGER GAMES. I love, love, love the series, but I don't think I can possibly imagine a government ever forcing children into battle like that, or a society that accepts it for as long as they do in HG.(...) Maybe I just don't want to imagine a world where something like that could ever happen."

One word: Holocaust

Of course, there's other examples of genocide happening through out history but I'll just use the holocaust as a specific example.

6 million innocent people were killed. Put in concentration camps and starved and worked to the bone, buried in mass graves after being shot or gassed to death... that is beyond brutal and it didn't matter whether they were little children or women or men or old people, they were all brutally murdered.

And the people doing the murdering, not all of them were okay with it but they had to do it because they were scared. People are capable of doing awful things when they get scared, when they fear for their lives or their families lives.

Really, the games in The Hunger Games doesn't seem so bad in comparison to the holocaust and the holocaust actually happened.

Only two people from each district are chosen... all of the other people would just be thankful that it's not them or someone they care about and they're scared that if they stand up to the Capitol then they'll be killed or tortured or something.

As for society accepting it for so long, again fear would have a lot to do with it but also, after so long it would've become accepted as a part of their lives... just like the way Hitler managed to brainwash some Germans into believing what he did.
And the government using something like the games is pretty plausable too, if you think about the world we live in where people are obsessed with reality TV, it's not so far fetched that in a dystopian world it could be twisted and used that way.

lanna-lovely said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jen - devourer of books said...

I think that comparing The Hunger Games to Holocaust (or even child soldiers) is a bit fallacious. The full reality of what was happening in the Holocaust wasn't as openly celebrated as the games, so I don't buy that as a reason that THG isn't implausible. That being said, I'm not entirely certain that a heavily subjugated society basically sending human sacrifices to the subjugating power is completely far-fetched, nor is the cult of the hero that grows up around the sacrifices in some districts (think many pre-Colombian Mesoamerican societies).

...and now I've completely forgotten what it was I wanted to say about the post before I read the comments.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I know some had issues with the actual science in the Life As We Knew It series, but it was believable enough for me to go with it. Maybe I'm just simple. I just finished The Way We Live Now and that one completely sucked me into it. To me, it was like WWII with cell phones.

PJ Hoover said...

I've loving your dystopian month, btw! I find the heavier romance dystopic YAs a bit unplausible because possibly not as much work is put into the world building as the romance. Just saying. But that said, I think they definitely target the teen audience.

Diana Peterfreund said...

It's interesting to see my words used in this context. Real-life plausibility of the scenario is less important to me (see my love of PEEPS) than internal consistency. I'm more than happy to believe that, say, a buffalo can go to kindergarten, but if so, I want there to be internal consistency to his buffalo-ness (i.e., cud chewing at snack time, or not being able to wrangle scissors with his hooves).

The books that I want to hit with the plausibility hammer are the ones where the author hasn't thought through the world building. I don't like to see the idea that the scenario exists on a stage. So if the society exists to promote longevity, then people should generally live for a long time. If the origin of zombies are not explained, it should be because that knowledge was LOST in the wake of the zombie apocalypse. Do I need to know the evolutionary origin of a cockroach, or do I just need to squish it with my boot? Do I need to know who patient zero of the zombie apocalypse was, or do I just need to keep a loaded shotgun by my bed? The Forest of Hands and Teeth is therefore very plausible to me.

Steph Su said...

I must be insane, but I think EVERYTHING is plausible in the hands of a talented writer! Honestly, if a writer can convince me absolutely that in 50 years, artificial intelligence will become smarter than humans and will take over the world, I'm sold. One of my favorite writers doesn't write dystopian, but Jeri Smith-Ready has probably the most incredible world-building skills ever. In SHADE, everything tied together with the world we knew and this "new" world so well that I have no trouble believing that if something like the Shift happens, the result will be what we have read about in that book. It's THAT quality I look for in a dystopian read, not really whatever the situation is itself.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Re: Children sacrifices - What Jen says about societies where human sacrifices were ritualized was actually one of Suzanne Collins' influences for the HG, and definitely HAS happened before.

Lenore Appelhans said...

PJ - It does seem odd to me sometimes that even characters fleeing from zombies would focus so much of their time on romance. But then, I remember being pretty boy crazy as a teen, so it's not that outside the realm of possibility.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Diana - I hope you don't mind that I used just your implausible examples. It fit the structure of my post better.

I totally agree with you on the importance of internal consistancy, and I adore your use of the Buffalo example.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Steph Su - Good point. I really don't care if a scenario is implausible, as long as the writer is talented enough to make me believe it within the confines of their story. It's when they can't, that I start to see the holes that hinder my enjoyment of the novel.

And I agree with you about SHADE!

lanna-lovely said...

@Jen - devourer of books... I didn't mean to actually compare the two, I was just pointing out that we live in a world where the Holocaust happened -- brutal murders of millions of innocent people.

The point is, people are capable of doing really awful things to each other or turning a blind eye to something or going along with something awful out of fear.

If something as awful and extreme as the Holocaust can happen, then it's plausable that something like the games in THG can happen too.

Dawn Embers said...

Interesting. I hadn't considered the plausibility really but that's partly because I love fantasy with magick. But I've been pondering what is plausible for picking a genre with my mutant stories. It's not always easy to tell.

I wouldn't consider zombies plausible, but I loved reading The Forest of Hands and Teeth.

Anonymous said...

I actually love most of the least plausible series. In Uglies, I can see it both ways because, technically, the pretties have a lesion keeping them contained.

Sara Kankowski DeSabato said...

This was a really interesting post. Like some others that have commented, I think that The Hunger Games feels pretty plausible to me.

Christina--I agree with your point that The Hunger Games feels more plausible because there have been so many other horrific instances in world history where much of civilization has sat by and let it happen for far too long before doing something about it.

But I'm not sure we can equate something like the Holocaust because like Jen said in her comment, wasn't openly celebrated the way THG is in the books.

Personally, I think THG plausibility fits most closely with the US military/draft (particularly right now/in recent history), where we, as a country, send hundreds of thousands of young people off to fight to the death for an unclear/murky cause. Some come from families that encourage and take pride in their children's choices, whereas other families have few other options for their children.

That military mindset, paired with our nation's strange obsession with reality television (think about it--we already watch a show called "Survivor"--do you think we would stop watching if they raised the stakes?) makes THG feel plausible to me.

On a side note, there is a movie--Untraceable--which is of questionable quality (I found it overly gruesome) but has an interesting and somewhat applicable premise--a killer rigs torture methods to a computer, and the torture increases as more viewers sign on to the site to see what's going on. By the end of the movie, the victims are dying faster than ever. I would like to think that something like that would never happen in real life, but I do find the idea scarily plausible.

Meytal Radzinski said...

I wonder (and I'm just thinking "aloud" here for now) if the plausibility factor is what can distinguish realistic dystopian fiction (that is quite fiction-like) versus science fiction, which can be (by using broad definitions) a little less plausible than your everyday fiction novel.

I can argue for days and days about what qualifies as science fiction (and, in fact, have), but this point seems to touch on it so well. "Life As We Knew It" doesn't really feel like science fiction (let's not get into the official definitions here of sci-fi - I've ranted about this enough in the past), because it seems quite plausible once you accept the premise. "Feed" (to use Stasia's great comparison comment) definitely does, because the premise doesn't really resemble our world. It's the settings that make these books dystopian. Maybe it's the way the plausibility factor plays out that makes them science fiction... Again, just thinking aloud.

Absolutely fascinating post (and subsequent comments), so much to think about here.

Heather said...

Wow, I had no idea my comment would spark the most discussion here! I suppose I should have guessed that when I chose the most popular dystopian series on the market.

I think the point has been pretty much beaten into the ground by now, more or less on both sides, but I will add that I agree with those that say they don't care if the events could be plausible in our world so long as they were plausible within the context of the book. If the writer is able to make me believe it, I completely forget the current state/moral compass and suspend my disbelief that these things could or would ever occur. And that's why I've been able to love the HG series so much. It doesn't matter to me that I can't see it happening here, because I can absolutely see it happening to Katniss. (Which I realize is supposed to be here so that probably makes no sense.)

Plus the good news is we are seeing the revolution now, or will in MJ, which I guess is the point - no one will tolerate that kind of treatment for long.

Jodie said...

Hey you're talking smack about my wait that sounds about right ;) I'm reading The Hopkins Manuscript right now where the moon is about to collide with the Earth and the government have been extremly prepared and rational and have got things done. This is set in Britain!

Em and Nora said...

I thought Ship Breaker was incredibly scary because the world seemed so believable. As was mentioned above, although I liked the book, I had trouble getting into City of Ember because I couldn't get over the fact that they were living without sunlight.