Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Do today's dystopian novels have any conscience, or are they money-spinners pandering to fashion?

This essay began as a review of Children of the Dust by Louise Lawrence. Bear with me while I do my review thang. It's relevant I promise.

Children of the Dust (1985) was sent to me by fellow dystopian lover Lauren of I was a Teenage Book Geek, all the way from the mother country. Lauren loves timeslip novels first and foremost, and I'd sent her an obscure Australian book of that genre, A Breath in May by Robin Hogan, that I'd loved in my high school days. I like that we send each other little known books set in each others countries!

Nuclear war. A dystopian/post apocalyptic staple, especially for books written before the mid-1980s. I realised while reading Children of the Dust, however, that I'd never read a dystopian novel in which a nuclear blast is not only described but also experienced by the characters. The blasts, one of the earliest scenes in the book, is vivid and chilling.

Children of the Dust is divided into three vignettes: three generations of teenagers who live through the war or in the years beyond it. What this book does best is relate the struggle each character has with not only their survival in a world changed forever, but also their place in it. Lawrence questions whether human beings can have a place in a world that they themselves have destroyed. I found this to be both brilliant and thought provoking.

While writing the book Lawrence was clearly motivated by fears she had about what she saw in the world around her--the very real threat of a nuclear holocaust.

But what motivates today's dystopian authors? Clearly dystopian novels are the books du jour right now. But as I run my eyes over my shelves, I wonder how many of my beloved books have even half the conscience of Children of the Dust, and how many are merely following fashion.

Is there a message in today's dystopian fiction, or has the genre become populated with books that are edgy and cool, but ultimately shallow?


  1. I think some of them have a message. The Uglies series did, as did the Hunger Games series. But others don't, and I think those books are less effective. I think the best dystopian novels are the ones rooted in some kind of truth. They end up being the most chilling because we can see our world ending up that way. However, I also think it can go too far the other way - where the message is so heavy-handed that it overshadows the plot. I've definitely read books like that and it made them less enjoyable for me.

  2. I think that definitely depends on the book! There are so many dystopians out there it's really hard to say. I'm sure there are some that are just cashing in, but I think we have plenty of our own concerns in these modern times, not unlike Lawrence's concern for nuclear war. Think about the books based on global warming or Unwind, based on the current abortion debates.

    But that book sounds really good! I'm going to have to see if it's available around here.

  3. I believe they just tell an exciting story in most cases. Not all readers desire a lesson, many just want a great ride.

  4. I've certainly read way too many dystopian books recently that had a poorly constructed premise. I think ALL books should have a message--whether it be as commonplace as "enjoy life" or "value your friends" or a larger, darker message about the effects of war on children (The Hunger Games) or whatnot--and I get constantly frustrated by books that were just written with no further thought than to just entertain. The best books, in my opinion, are simultaneously entertaining and educational. In fact, all writing should have layers. ONIONS! as Donkey from Shrek would say. That's the kind of literature I like. :)

  5. Heather--I totally agree. It's rare you find one with a heavy handed message, but it does happen.

    Lu--See, I have HUGE problems with Unwind as I think the author's extrapolation of the abortion debate makes no sense whatsoever. Pro-lifers would never in a million years be happy with the unwinding procedure. The argument is illogical. And pro-choicers--seriously not ok! Plus the age group its aimed at is also the age group that is persecuted, and I know you can say that about a lot of books but it just seems so overt and so clumsy done in Unwind. I'm sure the author had the best intentions while writing it (it doesn't seem like Shusterman was cashing in on anything) but it's just so illogical it makes me mad.

    LM--That is true, some readers do. I am certainly one of them. I wonder, though, whether dystopian novels are the best vehicle to offer a great ride. (That wasn't meant to come out as such an awful awful pun by the way!)

    Steph--Yes there should definitely be more onions! I don't have a problem with books that are purely for enjoyment if they have a heart. But what does "purely for enjoyment" even mean...? I'm going to have to think about that.

  6. That's a good point. Now you mention it, I'm starting to feel that dystopian YA is something I look to for escapism. While I still enjoy the genre as much as I ever did, I'm not sure that many of the dystopian titles I've read in the last year have had a serious impact on me. They don't scare me like they used to. While many of these books have a message, their 'what if' scenarios are sometimes too far-fetched to be frightening. I still enjoy them for entertainment but it's not the same impact.

    I think the thing that shocks me about Children of the Dust (which I'm totally glad you enjoyed!) is that there was a time when nuclear war felt like a real possiblity. I remember my mum going off to anti-nuclear weapons demonstrations and I remember clearly discussing in the playground at school whether two countries involved in a conflict might drop a nuclear bomb on each other. I was too young to really understand the conflict but obviously not too young to have overheard grown up discussions that scared the hell out of me. While it could theoretically happen now, it doesn't feel like a real and present danger. Probably the closest threat we have to that is the threat of devastating environmental disaster, and actually books that deal with that still do freak me out.

  7. Lauren--Escapism...that is definitely a big part of it for me--imagining what the world would be like if it was really shaken up. I also find escape narratives to be escapism. I guess I like my adventures with a bit of politics--something to get angry about. Ha! Though I can do without the politicians...

    I've never read a REALLY good book about environmental disaster. Not one that I found really affecting. The Carbon Diaries and The Windup Girl left me cold.

    Anyone got any recommendations?

  8. Interesting discussion. Rhiannon, it's not YA but I can highly recommend Helen Simpson's short stories about the aftermath of environmental disaster. You can listen to one read aloud by the author herself at the Edinburgh BookFest:
    (Helen Simpson is on after Michele Roberts.)
    I listened to it the other day and I can't stop thinking about it.

  9. I've never been a huge fan of dystopian lit. I just was never attracted to it when I was younger. I read Hunger Games, and loved it (well the third book and my views could be a whole blog post...but I digress..). I think I just kinda feel depressed with dystopian, although most YA dystopian have threads of hope woven throughout- those are the ones that are most attractive to me.

    But, as anything that gets popular (hello, vampires!) I have a feeling dystopian will fizzle out soon. So I haven't read enough of newer dystopian to figure out if they still are a little deeper, or if they are just jumping on the band wagon so to speak.

  10. i read children of the dust when i was a young thing and it made an impression on me even though it wasnt a favourite. i remember it as being bleak and startling and it definitely wasnt a reading experience for escapism.

    i think now dystopia's are quite trendy and can be used as an interesting backdrop for characters - but some of them are nearly a sub-genre a few steps away from a true dystopian that draws political and moral and social issues from such a screwed up setting.

    also, my comment is not coming out how i want it to... :)

  11. Luisa--THANK YOU. I will listen to this tonight!

    Abby--It's the threads of hope that I really love to. It can be quite devastating to read one devoid of all hope, but some stories demand that. I can't say I "enjoy" those ones, but they are some of my favourites. Being gutted every now and feel somehow good for the soul. (If an athiest can be said to have one.)

    Nomes--YES. Brilliant! They are evolving, as everything must. Your comment came out perfectly.

  12. Very interesting thoughts here. I think I'm going to honestly say "I don't know." I've read some dystopian that is clearly more YA than dystopian. I've read some that seems to have a message. Heck, I've written two separate dystopian novels, and I try to give them themes. Something to talk about besides cute boys and kissing. I'm not sure I've succeeded, and I guess I won't know (really) until they come out.

    So yeah. I'm going to go with "I don't know." But it's a great discussion.

  13. I think this is similar to the kind of effect that happens in movies. One studio makes a movie (the original one with a great plot, actors, script etc) and another studio catches on and makes a quick, dirty, cinema filler about the same thing. YA lit is selling like hotcakes so publishers want to get into the market which means that for every great book there are a whole other bunch of fluffy pageturners printed. Which actually in my opinion is fine - I love a good escapist read and can enjoy a book for what it is, either true 'literature' or just an enjoyable read.