Monday, February 20, 2012

My Problem with Dystopian Novels

It's those damn dystopians.  They're so hot right now.

And they are.  It seems that everywhere I turn, someone is writing about a world gone mad.  And that's okay.  It's better than okay.  I mean, dystopian novels like 1984 and A Brave New World pointed sharp fingers at aspects of our society that most people would rather not think about.  Dystopian novels are a way to talk about current politics and societal fears without being boring.

But writing a dystopian isn't easy.  You can just say: In the future, something really bad happens to lots and lots of people.  One average looking but heroic girl on the verge of maturity will have to decide whether to rise up against the VERY BAD GOVERNMENT or continue to make smoochies with her absurdly handsome boyfriend as the world crumbles around her.

In my opinion, one of the worst trends I'm seeing is that, for some reason, everyone stops aging.  I get that because the book is YA, having everyone age to only 20 or 18 is a great way to make ALL the characters teens, but there has got to be a reason for it.  And not just a reason, but a reason FOR the reason.  Saying that everyone stops aging because of a disease is a cop out.  

The best dystopian books (like SHIPB REAKER) start with a current problem (lack of fuel) and then take that problem to a terrifying theoretical conclusion.  I didn't connect well to the characters in SHIP BREAKER but Bacigaupi's world building is impeccable.  Not only was it plausible, but I could see it happening in just a couple of generations.  

1984 was so brilliant because Orwell didn't just theorize what our world might look like, he practically predicted it!

UNWIND is another amazing example.  In UNWIND Shusterman created a world where civil war broke out between pro-life and pro-choice advocates.  To end the war, they worked out a compromise. Abortion would be banned, but if parents decide that they don't want their child by the age of 16 (or 18...I forget), they can have them Unwound, a process that takes every bit of that person and donates it to someone else.  It's like organ donation but without any leftovers.  The idea itself is somewhat far-fetched, but Shusterman took a problem that is very real today and imagined what it could turn into.  Doing it in an incredibly plausible manner.  

DELIRIUM is a book I had major problems with.  In the world created by Lauren Oliver, love is determined to be a disease, and everyone gets an operation at the age of 18 that essentially lobotomizes them and makes them unable to love.  First off, Lauren Oliver is an extremely talented writer.  If her writing wasn't so emotional and lyrical, I probably wouldn't have finished the book.  Because, for me, the idea that removing a portion of the brain responsible for feelings of love (and not just romantic love, but familial love as well...there's even a scene where a dog is left to die because no one cares about it) ever got traction in our society is ludicrous.  I'm sure it sounded wonderful on paper (and to the author's credit, it is well-reviewed, so this is only my opinion), but there is nothing in the plot that allows me to look at the society she created (which is set in a pretty near future) and link it back to our own society.  

Even THE HUNGER GAMES, which was set much father in the future, took elements from our current society and spun them out into something far-fetched but ultimately believable.  With the current state of reality TV, it isn't difficult to believe we'd put people to death for entertainment.  Our society now is so fractured, the idea that we'd split into districts is wild but not out of the realm of possibility.

Like paranormal romances, dystopians will begin to fade away, but if you're writing one, take a hard look at your central conceit and see if it only serves to hold up your book or if it's something you seem as actually plausible.  The best books are the ones that scare us with visions of our own possible futures.


  1. Very interesting post and some great points. My daughter is always bugging me to read those YA dystopian novels but what I have trouble with is the teenagers saving the world while the adults are helpless to change it. Doesn't work for me. I can't stretch my imagination that far. On the other hand, I'm glad people are writing stuff that convinces kids to read.

  2. Yes! There's that too. The one book I thought that really handled that well was Michael Grant's GONE series. But other books where the adults are so clueless is idiotic.

  3. The only one of these I've read is Ship Breaker. I loved it, but I do think there was room for a bit more character development.


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