Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Dystopian Discussion: Part Three

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

If you’re wondering why I decided to do three posts on this subject, I have two answers. The official one is that I had so much to say, I wanted to take enough time to deliver it properly without rushing things. The unofficial—and probably more accurate—explanation is that there are about a gazillion dystopian TRILOGIES out there, so I figured, why not go with the flow and write a trilogy of blog posts about it? Lame, I know, but I have to amuse myself somehow.

So, to sum up, last Wednesday I covered (briefly) DELIRIUM by Lauren Oliver, 1984 and ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell, DOVE ARISING by Karen Bao, BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley, WOOL by Hugh Howey, THE CITY OF EMBER by Jeanne DuPrau, FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury, and THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick  Ness. Before that I discussed THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, BATTLE ROYALE by Koushun Takami, DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth, LEGEND by Marie Lu, THE GIVER by Lois Lowry, and MATCHED by Ally Condie (which I reviewed on Monday). All in all, I’ve discussed fifteen dystopian books/trilogies, and it’s a little terrifying to consider how many more there are out there.

As I mentioned in Part One, it’s hard to be wholly original in this and any other genre. I think it’s especially difficult when you have books that seem to stand out and define the genre, like TWILIGHT for paranormal, THE LORD OF THE RINGS for fantasy, and of course, THE HUNGER GAMES and 1984 for dystopian. (I realize there are other big names as well, but these are the ones I’ve seen referenced the most.)

I’ve thought long and hard about why books like THE HUNGER GAMES stand out while others seem to languish in relative obscurity. And I have a theory, though two days from now I may change my mind entirely and decide on something else.

THE HUNGER GAMES impacted me hugely because of the frightening (yet hopeful) picture it presents. On the one hand, you have a Capitol full of people so callous they enjoy watching children fight to the death on television (which sounds a lot like the gladiator games in Ancient Rome). And on the other hand, you have a government so precarious a handful of berries can take it down. The contrast between the poor and the rich, coupled with the infectiousness of hope, along with many other nuances, make THE HUNGER GAMES more than just an entertaining story. You have those who would watch others die, and those would die to save others, and overarching the entire plot is the question, “How did we get to this point?” Strip away the dystopian elements, and the book deals heavily in humanity.

DIVERGENT also delves into human nature as it introduces the crumbling faction system: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Erudite, Dauntless—each based on a virtue, each missing the point. As Tris struggles to find her identity, she learns more and more about how it is important to be both brave and selfless, how focusing on one aspect is too narrow-minded, and how—even with the best intentions—it is impossible to escape the law of entropy which says that everything crumbles.

1984 centers on the uglier aspects of humanity—betrayal, cruelty, lies, fear, despair. But it also touches on love, hope, and wishful thinking, however futile.

I know I’m recapping a little, but only because I want to stress my point. Books that deal honestly with human nature—the good bits and the ugly bits—seem to leave a bigger impression on me (and others) than books that focus only on the coolness of a rebellion or the neatness of a despotic governmental system that no one has ever thought of before. Now this isn’t a hard and fast rule, and it isn’t the recipe for instant success. But I wonder if originality, however great an idea, is too small a goal—if depth and truth are more important.
For instance, MATCHED was too shallow, too unrealistic to stick with me—while it had decent aspects, the setup felt too contrived, put there mainly for the sake of the plot. I didn’t feel that I learned anything more about what it means to be a human—I didn’t gain anything from the story beyond the entertainment aspect. I wasn’t left with anything to ponder, any moral or psychological question to sort through. LEGEND, while interesting, lacks the emotional resonance of THE HUNGER GAMES, DIVERGENT, and 1984 because it dwells more on what the government is doing and less on the people. (And the character relationships, when viewed below surface level, are not overly realistic.)

Dystopias are tricky, and in a way I’m glad the genre is cooling off for the time being. George Orwell wrote 1984, not because he wanted to amuse people, but because he wanted to warn them about the horrors of the Socialist movement. He wanted to frighten people so much they would do anything to escape the grip of Big Brother. Now the smaller parodies seem to cling to the frightening image of an all-seeing government and miss the other aspects that were just as essential to the story—the potency of despair, the ugliness in the human heart, and tragedy of what has been lost, along with the burning questions that leave people searching for answers. And, if writers no longer focus on what made these books so big, I worry they might do more harm than good. After all, dystopias that inspire people to rise above the awfulness they have read about are great. But might it be dangerous when all a dystopia does is entertain? If the shock of evil wears off, will we become desensitized to the danger of a horrible government? Shouldn’t we work on improving our culture, rather than dwelling on the worst?

First and foremost, stories are important because they say stuff, because they point the finger at humanity and mirror our own lives to whatever extent. And you don’t have to write a dystopian novel to accomplish that. So, in my opinion, I think it’s time we start focusing on what makes books like THE HUNGER GAMES and 1984 so powerful, rather than what we think makes them cool. Hopefully literature will be all the better for it.

But hey, these are just my thoughts, so take them or leave them.


  1. I love dystopians, because they're a frightening insight on what exactly humanity can come to (who knows?) and they manage to sum up that society in such unique ways. I loved the HG and divergent both as well <3 For example, you have Delirium in which the world basically just declares love to be a disease, and they've found a cure to rid you of love.

    I haven't read 1984, but maybe I can read it, someday. It sounds great! :)

    Nirvana @ Quenching the Quill

    1. I love them for exactly the same reason. :) I think that's why they can be so disappointing, because if they aren't realistic or well-rounded or based on things humans would actually do, they aren't as frightening. Yes, Delirium was a good one too--the thought of curing love is a little bit terrifying.

      If you do read 1984, I hope you like it. :) Thanks for commenting!

  2. I love what you say here! You are right, stories that have depth and truth are what stand out from the stories that are doing it just because it sounds cool. The ones with shallow reasons, are the ones that come off as shallow. The ones with deeper reasons, are the ones that make an impact.

    That last comment, "start focusing on what makes books. . . powerful, rather than what we think makes them cool." I love that so much. Because you have no idea how many times I've heard people dismiss books like THG and Divergent as merely mainstream. They can't make an impact. They're just hyped books. I've heard people say that THG celebrates death as an entertainment, when in fact it SHOWS that and where it leads to. The message of the book does not uphold it. Some of these people, I suspect, have not really read the books. Those who have, have missed the point so much. They think it's all fiction and just YA and so they dismiss that it can have anything important to show them at all. And that just makes me so sad. That someone can be so blind to that, just because they want to look at why it's cool.

    It's not cool because of the war, or the rebellion. War is not cool. Sometimes it's necessary, but it is not cool.

    These books should be considered "cool" because of the truths they give us.

    1. Thanks! I think the deeper books, in the end, are more likely to be the cooler books anyway. :)

      I'm glad you liked that bit--thanks! It bothers me when people dismiss The Hunger Games and Divergent because of their popularity, instead of asking themselves--really and truly--WHY they are popular in the first place. Because sometimes the reasons go deeper than they seem to at first glance. I also think it's easier, and sometimes fun for people, to jump on the bash-a-book bandwagon. I know at first I heard someone say Divergent was a rip-off of THG, so I harped on that a little until I stopped, read the book again, and thought, "I am an idiot--no, it's not a rip-off." So I know how easy it can be to miss the point. But I really like what you said about The Hunger Games. :)

      I agree--war isn't cool, and that's why I liked Mockingjay so much. I didn't understand it the first time I read it, but the next time I went through it, I could relate. Katniss is all broken and crazy and nice people are dying right and left because that's war.

      And yes, the honest books are the cool books.

  3. Yes, yes, and yes. Dystopias aren't really meant to be awesome, if that makes sense. Dystopias are supposed to be frightening not only because they reflect a terrifying future, but in a way, they say something about us in the present, reading these books and pretending they are fictional. I feel this way especially about THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood, which is definitely an adult book, but says a lot about human nature and the place of religion in society. It's fascinating.

    Thanks for this insight, Liz! It's been really interesting to hear your thoughts on dystopias!

    1. It does make sense. Awesome is just a side effect of good and deep writing, anyway. And yes--good point. If we focus too much on the future, we lose sight of how it's the reflection of the present that makes dystopias so chilling. I actually haven't read THE HANDMAID'S TALE, but I really should. :)

      You're welcome! And thank you!

  4. *applauds post* YES. This is /exactly/ what makes the Hunger Games so... /amazing/. It's not that I enjoy reading about kids killing each other; it's that I love the characters and I love how the book speaks about humanity. Yes. Thank you for explaining me to me, lol.


    1. *bows deeply* I'm so glad you feel the same way! I think too many people see it only as the face-value concept and don't look at the deeper stuff that makes it so compelling and worthwhile and more than just a cool story. You're welcome, and thank you. :D