Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Dystopian Discussion: Part One

Disclaimer: I do not necessarily recommend every book I discuss.

I could be wrong, but it seems that when dystopian literature is mentioned, the first example that comes to mind for many people would be THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins. Even almost seven years after its publication, I still find it stocked in the highly selective Walmart book sections. But there are so many other dystopian novels out there, the market has become flooded, and publishers are less willing to buy these works unless they stand out above the rest. Let’s face it—it’s a small subgenre with only a limited amount of room to breathe—even the most creative specimen is going to share traits with its fellows. So the goal, for writers, is to give their work a fresh twist that makes it unique.

In THE HUNGER GAMES, every year the government mandates that twenty-four kids (a boy and a girl from each of the twelve districts) must be forced to fight to death in an arena until one survivor remains. These Hunger Games are televised for all to see—both to entertain those in the free capitol, and to intimidate those who live in the oppressed districts (in order to prevent another uprising).

I have heard and seen many people speak of THE HUNGER GAMES as though it is the end all be all of dystopian literature. I agree that it is a remarkable piece, and I have read it multiple times. I’m desperately in love with the feel of it, especially the arena itself. However, staunch supporters of the HUNGER GAMES trilogy who claim that Veronica Roth borrowed from the series when she wrote DIVERGENT, INSURGENT, and ALLEGIANT, might want to pause and think before complaining too loudly. Because, unfortunately for Suzanne Collins, fans of Koushun Takami’s BATTLE ROYALE may have the same thing to say about THE HUNGER GAMES. And rightly so.
While BATTLE ROYALE is much gorier (and I’m going on summaries here, like this one, because I haven’t read the book yet), and while it is set in Japan rather than North America, the basic premises are shockingly similar. After all, BATTLE ROYALE centers around a bunch of school children forced to fight to the death in an arena—a fight that is eventually televised in order to intimidate those who might have considered rebelling. Sound familiar?

Now, Collins claims she had never heard of BATTLE ROYALE before she turned in her own story to the publishers, and I know that it is very easy to rip off another writer’s work without realizing it. After all, we’re swimming in a vat of idea stew, and there’s more than one chunk of potato floating in here with us, so let’s not hit each other over the head with our soup spoons until we find the facts. Personally, I have no opinion on whether Collins is being perfectly forthright or not, because it really isn’t any of my business, and I’m not sure we’ll ever know for certain either way. I’m only mentioning this because it annoys me when people call DIVERGENT a rip-off and act as if THE HUNGER GAMES is the last word in dystopian originality.

Speaking of DIVERGENT.

In the world of Veronica Roth’s DIVERGENT, we don’t have the Big Mean Government breathing down everyone’s necks. Instead, we have a system devised by flawed individuals in an attempt to fix the human race. By splitting society into five factions, each based on an important virtue, people believe they can maintain peace and harmony. Unfortunately, human nature has begun to exert itself.

What I like about DIVERGENT is that, while it’s based in a dystopian setting, that isn’t the main point. Boiled down, the story is really just about a girl trying to find her place and discover who she is. And I appreciate Roth’s originality in not succumbing to the Big Brother theme. While I enjoy novels that delve into the repercussions of a Socialistic construct, I dislike the tunnel vision of so limited a focus. There are hundreds of ways for us go wrong, and Socialism is only one of them.

Another set that came out around the same time as the DIVERGENT trilogy is the LEGEND trilogy by Marie Lu.
LEGEND centers around a boy accused of murder and the girl assigned to track him down. Both are horrendously smart, and both are on different sides of the law. Though I felt the LEGEND trilogy shared too many themes with some of its forebears regarding the construct of the government itself, I appreciated the whole LES MISERABLES vibe I got from the first book, as well as the inclusion of the plague (because I like stories that feature some sort of plague). Also, I expected the sequels to leap onto the “let’s take down the government” train that seems to wend its way through many dystopian novels (see what I did there?). But instead, Lu threw me when she took a different direction altogether (but I won’t tell you what happens because that would ruin the surprise). So, while I would only give that trilogy three stars over all for various reasons I won’t go into for lack of space, I wouldn’t say LEGEND was a cheap knock off.

But now let’s look at Lois Lowry’s THE GIVER and Ally Condie’s MATCHED.
In THE GIVER, we have a different sort of dystopian construct, one I find even more delightfully disturbing than the Roman-inspired gladiator-style fights of THE HUNGER GAMES and the Big Brother style government of LEGEND and the faction system of DIVERGENT. In the GIVER, the evil of tyranny is masked as kindness. In blatant dystopian governments, it’s all out there; you know, for the most part, who your enemy is. But at first the characters of THE GIVER don’t even know they have an enemy. In fact, from the outside looking in, this close-knit society could be viewed as a virtual paradise. Until you look closer, that is. Rather than rebellions and massacres, we’re dealing with things like euthanasia, emotional control, etc. While the higher ups are always watching, people don’t necessarily live in fear since they have been led to believe this is for their own good. (Also, they can’t see color, so now you know you HAVE to read the book. See, I can be very persuasive.)

Unfortunately, it would seem Ally Condie decided to paint a strikingly similar portrait when she wrote MATCHED. While the idea of arranged marriages as a way of life is interesting, it’s hardly original. Aside from the love-triangle, MATCHED uses multiple themes from THE GIVER, it would seem, including euthanasia and constant surveillance—not to mention, the bad guys appear nice, and the society looks the picture of perfection. (Too much happy!) There are other parallels, I realize, and other reasons why MATCHED didn’t feel fresh and exciting, but I’ll get into them later when I actually review the book.


So there you have it. I’ve covered the first five books/trilogies on my list, and next week I’ll discuss the next bunch (plus, if all goes well, I’d like to share a few more thoughts concerning dystopian literature in general). Also, just as a heads up, I can’t promise anything but I expect to be a little less busy starting in late July/early August, and I hope to write a bunch of book reviews during that time (my regular content won’t change; you’ll just get to read my yammering more often).
All book photos from Goodreads.


  1. I don't think I'm a super dystopian fan, now that I look at everything. I mean, I LOVE The Giver, quite a bit, actually (the movie was lovely, in my opinion), but I really either didn't like or haven't read most of the other books you've mentioned. Your ideas are totally valid, though, and I agree that regardless of my personal feelings, The Hunger Games shouldn't be considered the end-all series of anything. Although there are some books like Matched that I would find disappointing to read again, some of your other recommendations sound like they'd be a bigger improvement, especially for people who are in love with the genre.

    1. I'm glad you love The Giver! It's one of my favorites--and I thought the movie was lovely too. :) It's funny, because I hadn't actually realized how many dystopian books I've read (much less own) until I started taking stock of them all. I hadn't thought I was that much of a fan, but apparently I am.

      And though The Hunger Games isn't the end-all-be-all, I totally respect those who still consider it their favorite, and who think it's better than the others. It's one of my favorites after all (though I am curious to read Battle Royale now). But I'm one of those people who doesn't like to pick one dystopian book/trilogy--there's room on my shelves for all of them (actually, that's a lie, because I've been officially out of shelving space for ages). :)

      And yes, while I doubt I'd reread Matched, I'll probably reread the others a bunch.

  2. I used to be such a massive fan of dystopian. I mean, I still AM. But it takes soooo much to impress me now. >_< I LOVE The Hunger Games and Divergent and The Giver! It doesn't really surprise me when books copy anymore...because seriously, there's nothing new in the universe, is there? But I never could quite move past Matched borrowing quite that heavily from The Giver. :| I'm too much of a fan of The Giver, tbh. And I agree! That world is super interesting and scary. But all that order and direction...hehe. If I had to chose a dystopian world,I'd live in that one. Though I'd probably be offed for being too weird. hehe.

    1. I hear you--I still enjoy new dystopians like Dove Arising, but I probably won't shout their praises from precarious rooftops like I would for The Hunger Games and Divergent and The Giver and Fahrenheit 451 (which I will cover a bit in my next post). As for creativity and originality, I've basically decided that I'm okay with similarities as long as the author has added their unique touch, rather than just parroting. And I felt Matched did a lot of parroting. (Side note: I just bought Battle Royale so when it comes in the mail, I shall know how similar The Hunger Games really is. Muahahaha.)

      Yes! I would love to live in the world of The Giver--scary as it is, I think I would get in less trouble there than I would in, say, the faction system. Or the arena.

  3. The Hunger Games is pretty much like Twilight - it may not be the first dystopian out there, but it IS the dystopian that started the trend, just like how Twilight started the paranormal/were- trend. It's far from being my favorite dystopia, but I am thankful that it somehow encouraged a lot of people, especially the younger ones, to start reading and seeking more stories like it. To be honest, unless it's so obviously copied, I don't really mind stories bearing resemblance to each other. Originality is hard to come by these days with so many stories being churned out every day. These days, it's the execution I look for! I used to be a BIG dystopian fan, but now, seeing as a lot of recent ones have been quite lackluster, I've moved on to Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I'll still read them though, as long as the premise interests me! I used to read them blindly and mindlessly and let's just say I crashed and burned too many times to count!

    Faye at The Social Potato

    1. That's actually a really good comparison. I'm glad that it got people started reading dystopian--I know it got me started. And you're right--originality is hard to come by. I still liked Dove Arising even though it was so similar to Divergent (which I loved)--and in some ways I liked the similarities because they reminded me of Divergent. But with Matched, it was too similar and to poorly executed for my taste.

      Yeah, I've slowed down on reading dystopian lately (though I've been thinking about it a lot), and I'm with you on the crossover to other genres. Maybe in a few years dystopian will revive and we'll get great new stories.

      Thanks for stopping by! :)

  4. LOL, I love your idea stew analogy! :D

    Interesting post! I've read just about every book on this list (except Battle Royale) and I really enjoyed most of them when I read them (except The Giver. Sorry!). It's definitely becoming a swamped genre, but I think that just makes it that much more awesome when you find a truly unique one (and it really pushes writers like me to make mine truly unique.)


    1. Aww, thanks! *bows deeply*

      I'm glad you liked it. :) That's okay--not everyone is going to like all the same stuff, so it's fine that you didn't like The Giver (although I'd be curious as to your reasons for disliking it). Yes, that's so true--a swamped market forces you to sink or swim. I hope you succeed in making your manuscript fabulous and unique and something publishers will fight each other for.

      Thanks for commenting! :)