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YA Corner – Dystopias

undertheneversky Welcome to the YA Corner! This is an ongoing feature in which Caroline and Jenna, two AAR reviewers who love their YA fiction, discuss a set of YA novels related by genre or theme.

The focus of this YA Corner is Science Fiction Dystopias, either full romance or with strong romantic elements. The books we chose are:

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi: Aria lives in the domes, which protect her from the toxic environment of her planet, so life expectancy and medicine are advanced, and technology like her SmartEye allows her to escape to virtual realities. Perry lives on the outside, where violence is too real and technology is less important than his heightened senses. When Aria learns a secret and is thrown out of the domes, her survival will depend on Perry – unless she can learn to save herself.

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey: Cassie and her brother are among the rare human survivors of the first four waves of an alien assault on Earth. She’s learned that she can trust no-one, so when her brother is taking by soldiers, she reluctantly joins forces with farmboy Evan to find him. But no group or individual is quite what they seem, and choosing wrongly will mean instant death.

Across the Universe by Beth Revis: Amy reluctantly agrees to follow her parents into cryo-sleep so that, after a three hundred year space journey, she can be one of the pioneers to settle on Centauri Earth. When Amy is mysteriously awakened some fifty years too early, she finds herself on a ship ruled by a dictator, ruling suspiciously compliant passengers, while other sleeping passengers have been murdered. Elder, the boy chosen to become the next leader, must help Amy solve the mystery.

Q: These all sound like science fiction. What is the difference between regular sci-fi and dystopias?

Jenna: Well, to be honest, I would probably consider all of these to be science fiction first, with the result being dystopian societies. In each case, the characters live in a future where science and technology play key roles in their stories. UtNS features a damaged environment forcing people to live in highly technological dome-cities. T5W involves aliens. And AtU has its action happening aboard a genuine spaceship. I suppose the difference from straight up sci-fi is the fact that all three of these books focus on the resulting breakdown of society as we know it rather than on the differences in the way that future people live while still in a well functioning society. In these books, “science” was the catalyst of change as opposed to being just an indicator that we are dealing with a story set in some future time. I don’t know that I’ve read a straight up sci-fi YA title that didn’t have some form of dystopian aspect. I can, however, name about a half a dozen books where the dystopian aspect comes first with either little to no science fiction element. We can tackle those in another column.

Caroline: If you’re interested in gender roles, I think there’s a significant difference between dystopia and straight sci-fi. A hallmark of dystopia is technological breakdown or betrayal by technology you thought was there to protect you. Since technology takes away many physical differences between men and women (a female spaceship pilot isn’t terribly different from a male pilot), a sci-fi story doesn’t have to confront these issues the way dystopia does. Females thrown into wilderness survival (as with Cassie in The 5th Wave and Aria in Under the Never Sky) have size and strength-related challenges solved by education in distance weapons like guns, bows and arrows, or throwing knives.

Jenna: In all three of the books we’ve listed here, the societies involved have “devolved”, for lack of a better word, into a more simplistic state despite the fact that they have so much technology at their disposal. For example, both UtNS and T5W have their heroines learning to live off the earth and use weapons to protect themselves. And the people on board the Godspeed in AtU resemble a simplistic, agrarian culture from some distant past. What I like, however, is that the female characters maintain their power or, even better, come to see that they are strong enough to deal with their problems and that they can protect themselves. They don’t need a man to do that for them. In that aspect, these books definitely fall into the classic dystopian trope.

Caroline: In a way, everybody in a dystopia is equally powerless in the face of the authorities. In fact, while the female characters do have to become physically stronger to survive, what makes them the protagonists is the fact that they are strong mentally, refusing to conform or to collaborate. In this way, they are stronger than men (except the heroes, of course!)

Q: How does romance, which is positive and uplifting, fit with dystopias, which are dark and negative?

Jenna: It seems that I find in most dystopians that the romantic relationship takes a back seat to the story of the characters battling the dysfunctional society. Cassie certainly isn’t interested in finding a boyfriend in T5W – she’s all about survival. For her, I think finding a single person in whom she could finally put her trust was a huge thing, awakening romantic feelings that would never have come into play given her life-or-death situation. UtNS did a fantastic job building the relationship between Aria and Perry, and of these three books, it was the one I found most romantic by far. When you throw in the enemies-to friends-to lovers angle as well as the fact that this is basically a road romance, you could lift their story out of YA and easily put it into any contemporary adult romance and it would work. And as far as Elder and Amy, I don’t know if I would even say that what they shared was a romance at all. I can’t say much without spoiling the book, but the only thing romantic about their coupling was the promise of a relationship. It certainly didn’t leave me feeling very good.

Caroline: I think romance and dystopias complement each other. Dystopian plots involve resistance against dishonest or corrupt power structures. Romance plots involve the pursuit of emotional honesty from another individual. The romance echoes and reinforces the dystopian conflict at an individual, human level.

In fact, the progression of the fight against the dystopian power structures and the progression of the relationship towards the HEA are often intertwined. Characters who make gains in subverting the dystopia are rewarded by relationship growth, as when Aria in Never Sky learns a secret truth about her mother’s scientific research which brings her closer to Perry. And the reverse is also true: by becoming closer to her romantic partner, The 5th Wave’s Cassie opens the way for her to realize a truth about the alien invasion.

I want to avoid spoilers, but lies (typically lies of omission) by one or both protagonists are important HEA obstacles in all three of these books. Adult authority figures in these worlds have already decided to conceal truths rather than jeopardize their power. The young protagonists obviously don’t have governments at stake, but they do have relationships they care about. When they must decide whether or not to risk telling the truth to their partner, it’s an analogous decision to the one that the adult authority figures have already failed. By taking the risk of honesty, they differentiate themselves from information-hoarding adult power figures, avoid hypocrisy, and gain the moral high ground.

Jenna: There are other dystopian books that I think reinforce this idea of the romance being a reward for battling the dysfunctional status quo. The problems can arise when it feels like the romantic relationship is being shoehorned into the story as some form of fan service. It’s almost like publishers think that every YA must have a romantic element or YA readers will avoid that book, so they throw in a love interest when the dystopian story is more than plenty.

I think it’s very telling when you feel compelled to pick up the next book in a dystopian series more to find out what happens between the characters (as I did in UtNS’s follow up, Through the Ever Night) versus because you want to find out how the characters are fighting the chaos around them (as applies, for me, to the upcoming sequel to T5W, The Infinite Sea, scheduled for release in September, 2014).

I will also continue the 5th Wave series to learn about the plot and not Cassie’s romance, although another character’s romance intrigues me. However, I’m the complete opposite on Never Sky. I thought Perry and Aria’s story was complete and I’m not interested enough in the world to read any sequels. Then there’s Across the Universe. I read that sequel for both plot and relationship.

Jenna: The sequel to Across the Universe? I’d definitely will hunt that down because it really ended in a cliffhanger, both as to the romance and how they were going to deal with their situation. I suppose that’s a sign of a well-integrated relationship story within a dystopian book.

Caroline: Yes, both sequels in that trilogy are already out: A Million Suns and Shades of Earth. A Beatles lyric trifecta!

Q: Dystopian titles do not shy away from violence. This raises the question of why there aren’t more calls to ban dystopian titles from school library shelves the way that there are for books containing explicit (or any) sex between YA characters. Why do you think this is? Does either one bother you?

Jenna: It’s funny because I’ve found in the dozens of YA titles that I’ve read, that generally writers use a soft pen when describing any form of sex between two characters. Most romantic physical action happens off the page or in very vague terms – there is not a lot of graphic or explicit description. However, violent acts are very graphically described. In UtNS, Aria and Perry must deal with cannibalistic creatures, and fighting and killing is a matter of survival. The entire premise of T5W is how aliens are out to annihilate the entire human race, and they do so with any violent means necessary.

Caroline: Yes, and protagonists are perpetrators, too, not just aliens or other villains. Occasionally, especially in 5th Wave, it is not even clear or obvious self defense.

Jenna:And victims aren’t limited to red-shirt characters who mean nothing to the main characters, but can easily include family members, friends and love interests. I personally find the public’s acceptance of this huge discrepancy to be yet another example of our society’s general Puritan world view. We see it in all other forms of media – movies, TV programs, video games – so it’s not surprising that the YA genre reflects more of this same hypocrisy that “sex is bad for kids” but “violence is okay”.

I suppose the argument could be made that while it’s quite realistic and easy for young people to engage in sex, it’s not as likely that they will be involved in some violent altercation. The violence angle involves a lot of fantasy, whereas sex is actually a part of their real-world lives. Therefore, I can see why explicit sex is more frightening for parents than graphic depictions of killing and maiming. Still, I worry more about the desensitizing effect that constant exposure to violence has on kids today than I do that reading a sexy book is going to send them all off to certain pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Caroline: How strange that we think killing is a “safer” thing for our kids to read about than sex.

Q: Some have claimed that the overwhelming popularity of dystopian-themed books among today’s teens reflects their overall skepticism about the direction that our country is headed, and that they feel that they face a very bleak future. Do you see any validity in this assertion?

Caroline: I think it’s natural for young adults to empathize with powerlessness in the face of authority, and are more likely to be skeptical of authorities. When I was a teen, I found this storyline in The X-Files because that’s what there was. If there had been dystopias around, I would have read those. And that was in the ‘90s, an optimistic time. So no, I don’t think it’s necessarily a response to the economic climate or job uncertainty, etc.

Jenna: I agree. I think that in any given point in time, people tended to have a fairly bleak perception of where the world was headed. The Cold War generation was sure that we were going to be nuked into oblivion. The Y2K hysteria brought about delusions that the entire country would shut down when computers ceased to function. And 9/11 proved the most tragic example of how we couldn’t walk safely down the streets for fear of terrorist attack. There is always something that threatens the way that we live now.

Caroline: As you say, dystopias are responses to context. Cold War dystopias drew on the fear of totalitarianism, resulting in books like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. If I were to link the popularity of dystopias to “nowadays,” I’d say the most important element is the role of technology in our lives. These books are all very concerned with how technology creates false and ultimately unsustainable bubbles, rendering us unable to survive in “real” situations. Maybe, as a generation that grew up with constant access to the internet and cell phones, today’s young adults are more likely to wonder about unplugged life.

Jenna: Perhaps dystopian books allow teens a catharsis, a chance to live through the worst case scenario, and since the protagonists always come out on top, a reassurance that they, too, can survive any eventuality. I think generations past didn’t have these types of books to read so it’s hard to say if dystopians are just a passing fad, the way that bands of bad-boy vamps were all the rage in the romance world only a few short years ago. I suppose time will tell.

Caroline: I think the only reason YA dystopias haven’t been around is that YA hasn’t been around. There have always been dystopias in other marketing classifications. I think the boom now has more to do with the commercial success of The Hunger Games. I also expect it will fade, but that the best books produced in the boom will stick around.

If you’re interested in reading other YA Dystopias,

Caroline recommends:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Host by Stephenie Meyer
Library Wars by Hiro Arikawa (manga comic series)

Jenna recommends:
The Divergent/Insurgent/Allegiant trilogy by Veronica Roth
The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness
Bumped by Megan McCafferty

– Caroline Russomanno and Jenna Harper


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01/07/2014 2:38 am

The Revis books really do need to be read as a complete trilogy. The relationship between Amy and Elder develops over the course of the three books. It’s a really great YA series, particularly in avoiding a lot of the tropes that keep popping up in YA.

12/28/2013 9:18 am

Interesting discussion but I’d disagree that YA dystopias are a new thing, they come and go in fads like everything else. There was a while in the late 80s where every second YA book I picked up was dystopian, mostly post apocalyptic of the nuclear variety. I’ve forgotten most of the titles but some notable ones would be Children of the Dust by Louise Lawrence, Z for Zachariah I think was one of them, the Obernewton series by Isabelle Carmody and many more.

Reply to  Yuri
12/29/2013 10:38 am

I don’t think that we are saying that YA dystopian titles are a new thing. I would say that there really isn’t anything “”new”” in YA that hasn’t at some point in time been explored. I think we are more interested in understanding the – yes, recent – surge in popularity of this particular subgenre. Whereas in the past, you could find a handful of dystpoians sprinkled throughout all YA offerings, over the past couple of years, dystopian themes have become one of the dominating forces.

Ironically, I just read an article about expected trends in YA that states that dystopians are on the decline. Looks like this particular wave has been played out, at least for now. You can check out the article here: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/59297-new-trends-in-ya-the-agents-perspective.html