Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Dysfunctional Dystopia...

Warning, this will be long, but I fear I shall smote myself from the inside out if I don't say my piece on the matter.

I've been thinking a lot about Dystopian YA recently. This is mostly because right now, my novel EVERNOW has gained some praise from respected agents, a few requests - one has a full right now, I'm trying not to stroke from the waiting - and I've gotten some very uplifting feedback about my voice and that I'm unique and yet commercial. BUT, I've also been told by several agents (although they passed on reping me for other reasons) that I might have difficulty with EVERNOW because it falls into the category of Dystopian, and many agents feel that Dystopian has 'been done'.

I try to keep an eye on the market, and what sorts of books are selling, what sort are due to come out, what's causing a buzz. Not because I'm trying to write for it, but just to be informed and in-the-know. I mean, seeing as I'd like to join that market, duh, it seems like a good idea to sort of keep abreast, you know? Which leads me to this Dystopian quandary. When I wrote EVERNOW, I didn't really think of it as being dystopian. Yes, it's set in the future. Yes, a world-changing event has taken place and most of humanity is dead. But there is no overpowering government. In fact, there's no human government at all. There is no ongoing chaos. There are no men in suits rounding up 'dissentients', and no civil war. When several people (not agents, or professionals) remarked that I should clarify that EVERNOW is not just a YA, but a Dystopian YA, I went and looked 'dystopia' up.

Below is the Wikipedia definition of the word.

A dystopia (from Ancient Greek: δυσ-: bad-, ill- and Ancient Greek: τόπος: place, landscape) (alternatively, cacotopia,[1] or anti-utopia) is a vision of an often futuristic society, which has developed into a negative version of Utopia, in which society has degraded into a repressive, controlled state. A dystopia is often characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government. It usually features different kinds of repressive social control systems, a lack or total absence of individual freedoms and expressions and a state of constant warfare or violence. A dystopian society is also often characterized by mass poverty for most of its inhabitants.

Now, EVERNOW has some characteristics of dystopia. No one has money, because it's useless and meaningless, so technically there is 'poverty'. And there is conflict, but between humans and Fey creatures, not 'the people' and 'the government'. The restrictions and oppressions in EVERNOW are by and large, physiological and based in fear of what might happen if you said 'no, I'm going to do things this way'. It's more that people simply don't act differently because it's easier to just fit in with expectations. Which is where the main character Evernow, herself, comes in. I found, however, when I started researching this dystopia phenomenon that, at least in my mind, a much, much greater breadth of stories are being classified as dystopian, regardless of whether or not they fit the dictionary definition of the word. I've put a brief list of recent books up into several categories. Some of the categories aren't officially recognized categories, they're just how I think of the books. All of the books listed were described as 'dystopian' either on Amazon or Google.


The Hunger Games series
The Forest of Hands and Teeth series
The Shadow Children series

Techno Futuristic:

The Knife of Never Letting Go
Little Brother
The Maze Runner

Social Extremism:


YA Alternative:

The Bones of Faerie

YA Futuristic:

The Ember series
The Other Side of the Island

Now I know that you simply can't have things sub-categorized down to the smallest quibble, but when I read the descriptions of these books they differ immensely, and often the ONLY thing that joins them is that many are set 'some time in the future'. For me, personally, a book is not dystopian if there is no overbearing, controlling government entity. The entire basis of 'dystopian' is a ravaged society burdened by an overpowering government. The Hunger Games fits the bill. So does the Shadow Children series. Birthmarked and The Forest of Hands and Teeth series made it in because within those books, you're not allowed to go where you please and people can be (and are) 'black bagged' and simply disappear when they cause too much trouble.

For techno futuristic as I call them, the books are set in the future but the primary force within the story is technology itself. The government factor is replaced by technology, or non-government people using technology or high tech science.

I've never understood why the Uglies series were called dystopian. I haven't read them, and there is undoubtedly some government manipulation within them, but they come across as books containing massive forces of society, more than commanding government. 'Everyone gets surgery so they can become a Pretty' does not translate into 'I will have surgery because there is no other option, the government will kill me if I don't conform' for me. But since I haven't read the books, I might be missing something very important.

What I've called YA Alternative is pretty much where I would put my own book Evernow. These books are set in the future. Characters are taking a stand against the status quo, but that status quo is born of circumstance and society, not a controlling government. There are fantasy elements in the stories and yet they aren't overtly 'fantasy'.

I classified the last batch as YA Futuristic because really the only defining feature of them is the setting. I've read the first of the Ember series, and Incarceron. The thing that gets me about those two is that there is political intrigue, but really, theres nothing AWFUL about the settings. I mean, Incarceron is a prison, but the world beyond the prison isn't a bad place at all, and while the government is obviously covering things up, it isn't oppressing the people any more than they're happily going along with life. The same goes for Ember. Once they escape the city, the world above is different, maybe dangerous, but it isn't horrible. Although I haven't read The Other Side of the Island, it came across more as a 'railing against big business' than 'the government is killing the planet and we must rebel'.

I'm not sure, maybe I'm over thinking this whole thing. But it seems to me as if we're generalizing more and more and losing the individuality of books in the process. Just because the government is being conniving doesn't mean it's a dystopian government. Just because you feel like you're being pressured by society doesn't mean that the government will splatter you for going against society's accepted standards. Just because a book is set in the future, and 'something' has changed the world, doesn't mean that the world is an awful place to be. Just because you kiss a guy who's a werewolf doesn't mean it's a paranormal romance. Okay, did I catch you with that?

That's my other pickle with this 'dystopian has been done' thing. And I'm not crabby just because MY 'dystopian' novel hasn't been sold. I'm plain tired of seeing werewolf/zombie/vampire/demon/succubi books lining the shelves (although I tip my hat to their authors, because you know they worked like dogs to get those books on the shelves, and I respect that totally). Don't get me wrong, I have a few favs out there (no, not Twilight, not even close) but by and large, I feel like it's the same story over and over again. So how come not every book where a girl kisses something non-human isn't called a paranormal romance? Huh? Because right now there are oooodles of girls (and boys) kissing things that aren't human and many of those books are just filed under YA, not YA paranormal romance. Funny how people look at things, isn't it?

What to YOU think makes something a dystopian? Or a paranormal romance? Or just a plain old YA? Do you think that commonly accepted categories are accurate? What do you think has 'been done', for this century, anyway?


  1. Great post! I think we must explore these dystopian futures as we seek to understand the power we have so much of and the wisdom we have so little of to understand it! Dystopian fiction helps us learn.

    I posted a link to your article from our Facebook page. Please join us!

    Darryl Parker
    Dystopian Journal