Ah, Dystopia!


Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Different times call for different measures, they say. Different times call for different reading material, I say. The post-9/11 world saw the rise of Chick Lit. Did people suddenly become more frivolous or light of heart in the wake of catastrophe? No, I don’t think so. I think it was that, faced with a scary and uncertain world, people wanted to laugh more, at least when they were reading, wanted to escape from the fears of daily life. How then, do we explain the current rise in the dystopian novel?

First, we need to define what dystopian fiction is. OK, maybe you don’t have to—you’re no doubt smarter than I am and have known all along—but I need to define it for myself, since it’s something that’s only cropped up on my radar with any frequency this past year.

“Dystopias,” according to our good friend, a.k.a. Wikipedia, “usually extrapolate elements of contemporary society and function as a warning against some modern trend, often the threat of oppressive regimes in one form or another. Many utopias can be seen as dystopias in regard to their treatment of the issues of justice, freedom and happiness.”

Here is a list of novels classified as dystopian that I’ve read in the past and, er, enjoyed for want of a better word:

The Trial, Franz Kafka (1925)
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)
Darkness at Noon, Arthus Koestler (1940)
Animal Farm, George Orwell (1945)
“The Lottery”, Shirley Jackson (1948)
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (1962)
This Perfect Day, Ira Levin (1970)
The Long Walk, Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman (1979)
The Running Man, Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman (1982)
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
Fatherland, Robert Harris (1992)
The Children of Men, P.D. James (1992)
The Giver, Lois Lowry (1993)
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

Wow, it looks like I was a fan of dystopian fiction, even when I didn’t know that was what I was reading!

But that’s the far-distant to semi-distant past, in terms of reading, and we need to talk about the practically present past of the last year or so, what’s been publishing recently that’s worth noting in this subgenre for which there’s as yet no special section in the bookstores. As with so many other things these days, the Young Adult side of the bookstore is leading the way, with many adults crossing the aisle to reach for the following titles:

Little Brother, Cory Doctorow. Imagine a world in which the Department of Homeland Security has unlimited power. Not too hard to imagine, is it? Now imagine that you’re seventeen years old, you’ve decided to skip school, the city of San Francisco where you live suffers a terrorist attack while you’re skipping, you find yourself and your friends picked up by the Department of Homeland Security, after which you’re physically and mentally tortured. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? But that’s exactly what befalls poor Marcus in this engrossing dystopian novel that also stands strong as a techno-thriller. So what’s poor Marcus to do once he’s released back into the city which has turned very 1984 in its government surveillance and lack of civil liberties? Well, it looks like he’s going to have to use his techno connections to mobilize other hackers to fight the system. And maybe somewhere in there he’ll find a little romance too.

Candor, Pam Bachorz. What could possibly be scary about Florida? Isn’t that where they have all those juicy oranges? Isn’t it where Mickey Mouse lives? Unfortunately, evil lives there now too, at least it does in the seemingly Utopian town of Candor. Oscar Banks is the son of the town’s founder, a single parent whose wife—a.k.a. Oscar’s mother—took off sometime after the town became a little too perfect. Groomed to be the epitome of his father’s dreams, Oscar is a perfect student, the most popular kid in town, and doesn’t even complain about the uber-healthy meals he has to eat. But Oscar knows that beneath the Stepford surface of his well-manicured town there lies a whopper of a secret: Oscar’s dad is controlling and correcting the minds and behaviors of the town’s teens, Clockwork Orange style, through the use of subliminal messages. And now Oscar has met a girl who’s new to Candor, Nia, a girl so perfectly individual that he can’t bear to see her mind and behavior altered. What can one boy with a crush do to stop all the happy madness? Actually, with Oscar’s insider knowledge, he can do a lot . . . so long as he doesn’t get caught first.

Life as We Knew It, Susan Beth Pfeffer. This first in a trilogy, known ominously as The Moon Crash Trilogy, is told in diary form. As Miranda nears the end of her sophomore year, her entries are filled with the normal stuff of teenaged life. Her biggest concern? Getting her driver’s license. But then reports start appearing about a meteor that’s on a path to collide with the moon. Initially, Miranda’s diary reflects little concern with this impending cataclysmic event. Then the worst happens. The meteor hits and the moon is knocked off its axis, resulting in geological havoc on Earth: volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes. In the aftermath, life as Miranda and everyone else has known it changes. There are food and gas shortages, extreme weather conditions, and trying to get an education at school—well, let’s just say it’s different. Now Miranda and her family must battle back against sadness, fear and anger, and figure out how to survive in a dog-eat-dog Not-So-Brave New World without losing their humanity. The story continues in The Dead and Gone and in the final volume, to be released in 2010, The World We Live In.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Carrie Ryan. Imagine you . . .  Sorry, but it’s tough to write about some of these books, which rely so much more on the reader’s empathic imagination than more straightforward genres, like, say, Chick Lit, without starting off by imploring people to imagine. Starting again . . . Imagine there are only two types of people in the world: the good people in your village, who are able to exist only under the protection of the Sisters, and the undead who live outside the fence and who like to, you know, feed on living flesh. Now imagine that your name is Mary—because we have to call you something—and that your mother is bitten, forcing her to join the Unconsecrated while you come under the care of the Sisters, who groom you to marry your friend Henry. You don’t know how your world got to be the way it is, and not knowing has never troubled you overmuch before, but then the fences are breached and the strange life as you know it, Mary, becomes even stranger. Now you and your friends, including the boy you really love—who is Travis, not Henry—must find some serious answers while negotiating your way through a Night of the Living Dead world. Gripping, and no, it’s not told in the annoying second-person voice I just used here. (And sorry to have lapsed into a film rather than literary allusion, but there’s nothing on my list of previously read dystopian fiction that features an insider/outsider tale and Zombies.) 

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins. And now we come to the grandaddy—grandmommy? —of this current influx of dystopian fiction, the one that all others are measured against. Who hasn’t heard of this book? Even Steve, my mailman, has shouted from his little looks-like-it’d-be-cold-in-the-winter truck, “Hey Lauren, have you read The Hunger Games yet?” Honestly, if Steve knows about it, everyone must know about it. But presuming you sometimes live under the rock that I occasionally find myself residing under, here’s what you need to know: It’s postapocalyptic. There’s a nasty government in place of the good old U.S.A. called Panem that requires a sacrifice from each of the territories: two children who must beome gladiators in a televised fight. In an inverted result of The Biggest Loser, everyone here is destined to be a biggest loser, save for one: the one who can best use his or her wits and strength to kill all the other contestants. Will Peeta, determined to hold onto her humanity, be able to develop the instincts necessary to defeat competitors like win-at-all-costs Katniss? Hey, a girl’s gotta live. There’s a reason why this modern Running Man is so hugely popular, but now that you know what the book’s about you’re going to have to read it yourself to find out just what that reason is. The second book in the series, Catching Fire, was released in September to even ravinger reviews. (And yes, I do know ‘ravinger’ is not a word, but it does describe what happened.)

There are many more new dystopian novels available, so this is just the tip of the gloriously awful iceberg.

Circling back to the beginning of this piece and the idea that different times call for different reading material: What is it about these times that makes people write and read dystopian fiction with such great frequency? I think it’s that economically and militarily the world feels so scary and uncertain, even more so than in the early post-9/11 days when we at least had the we’re-all-in-this-together sense to help keep us focused on the positive sides of life. But now the world’s turned bleak in so many ways, not so different from Ms. Pfeffer’s moon-dominated Earth, with people feeling alone in their misery. So what do we do? We wallow in it, to a certain extent, reaching for grim views of life and human nature so that we can do two things at once: reconfirm our belief that the world can be a terrible place where the individual can just occasionally triumph over evil while also being uplifted by the idea that, hey, as bad as things are, at least I’m not living inside Ms. Collins’s postapocalypic world! The sky may be falling here, but it’s falling so much worse over there! That’s my take anyway.

So pull up a chair, grab a book and get depressed. You’ll be glad you did.

Win a free copy of Lauren’s Sisters 8 series!
We will be giving away a copy of her first four books in the Sisters 8 series (Annie’s Adventures; Durinda’s Dangers; Georgia’s Greatness; Jackie’s Jokes) to this week’s lucky winner. These books are appropriate for readers ages 6-10. To enter, send us an e-mail with your name. That’s it. For this drawing, all names received on or before Saturday, December 26 will be entered, and the winner’s name will be drawn that evening. We will notify the winner over the weekend. Only one entry per person, please. (We apologize to our international readers, but due to high postage costs we can only mail books to U.S. addresses.) There is no obligation, and your name and address will not be saved by BiblioBuffet or used for any purpose other than mailing the books.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted has sold twenty books to six publishers since 2003. Her published novels include The Thin Pink Line and Vertigo for adults; Angel’s Choice for teens, Me, In Between for tweens; and the first five of The Sisters 8, a nine-book series for young readers, co-written with her novelist husband Greg Logsted and their nine-year-old daughter Jackie. Her newest book is the YA novel Crazy Beautiful. Lauren lives in Danbury, CT, where she writes and reads pretty much all the time. You can read more about Lauren's life and work at her personal website and the Sisters 8 site. Contact Lauren.



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