Wednesday 30 June 2010


Laura Miller's review of Suzanne Collin's Hunger Games trilogy in a recent New Yorker has got me thinking.

Miller writes:

Collins’s trilogy is only the most visible example of a recent boom in dystopian fiction for young people. Many of these books come in series, spinning out extended narratives in intricately imagined worlds. In Scott Westerfeld’s popular “Uglies” series, for example, all sixteen-year-olds undergo surgery to conform to a universal standard of prettiness determined by evolutionary biology; in James Dashner’s “The Maze Runner,” teen-age boys awaken, all memories of their previous lives wiped clean, in a walled compound surrounded by a monster-filled labyrinth. The books tend to end in cliff-hangers that provoke their readers to post half-mocking protestations of agony (“SUZANNE, ARE YOU PURPOSELY TOURTURING YOUR FANS!?!?!?”) on Internet discussion boards.

I read the first in Westerfeld's Uglies series, and wasn't that taken - I much preferred his more recent Leviathan, written for slightly younger readers. But while I'd disagree that the dystopian theme is a recent phenomenon (and Miller herself points to a number of earlier books that show that this is a consistently popular genre - and leaves out terrific examples like Melvyn Burgess's Bloodtide) I can't help but admit I've been sucked in.

I have about 12 YA titles on order at the moment - half through the Children's Bookshop in Kilbirnie, and half through Amazon.

Among my Amazon orders are the impulse buy of the Hunger Games trilogy. This breaks my own rule of only buying books I've read and loved. But I've heard so much the trilogy that I couldn't resist it (Miller's review isn't altogetherly positive, but at the same time I'm not sure I agree with her take on some contemporary YA fiction). In the same way, with the friendly nudge of a voucher, I bought the first two books of Mandy Hager's Blood of the Lamb trilogy on the recommendation of a trusted reader.

Part of the reason for buying the two series is to compare them to two others - Maurice Gee's Salt/Gool/Limping Man, and Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy (yes, it appears I am getting a wee bit serious about this YA caper). All four series have similarities of adventure, danger, social collapse, and the struggle of young people, who are affected by the society that they live in, but are largely unable to affect society back. Not to mention the spun-out narrative that has to hit two crescendos before resolution in the third volume. (Mind you, Gee's 'Salt' stand alone nicely.)

For a totally different take on dystopian future society however, there's New Zealand author Bernard Beckett's Genesis. It's a coolly told, taut little story, that bucks many of the trends described above. Here's what I wrote after finishing it a few weeks ago:

Years ago I did a research contract which included digging out a Cold War-era government report detailing plans to stockpile iodine tablets in the events of a nuclear disaster. The theory was that New Zealand was sufficiently distant from international events that our major concern would be nuclear fall-out, and taking iodine tablets would protect the population (yes, I had flashbacks during the Tamiflu debacle too).

Distance has been a defining part of the Pakeha conception of Aotearoa New Zealand. Bernard Beckett takes this is the leaping off point for a story that could have easily been written as a thriller, but is instead told in a measured, dispassionate tone that is nonetheless gripping.

The first decades of the 21st century have not gone well. Plague sweeps the world. A wealthy business-man - who styles himself Plato - removes himself to the islands of Aotearoa, building an enormous sea fence around what becomes known as the Republic, freezing out the rest of the planet from the 2030s.

The action (if that's the right word for Genesis) takes place an undefined number of years later. Anaximander is a citizen of the Republic. In her late teens, Anaximander has been rigorously preparing for the entrance examination for The Academy - a 5-hour interrogation by three examiners on her chosen topic.

Anaximander's topic is Adam Forde, a young man who died in the early decades of the new Republic, and has become something of a folk hero. Adam is a member of the Philosopher class, the top level of the Republic's society, who effectively govern the state. Adam's rebellious nature sees him demoted to Soldier class, and he is sent to man one of the towers overlooking the Sea Fence, with orders to destroy on sight any vessels or people he sees approaching the Republic's sea borders, to keep the threat of plague at bay. Until one day a small boat carrying a teenage girl floats over the horizon ...

The rest of Adam's story could easily be told as a typical futuristic dystopian thriller, centred on the struggle of one clear-sighted individual against the State to which almost all have blindly or gratefully subsumed themselves. However, Anaximander's tells her story as a scholar, albeit a scholar with strong views and personal attachment to her theory and her subject. As she is grilled by the examiners on points about the Republic's history and social structure, and her explanations for Adam's behaviour, the tension is relocated to Anaximander's attempts to second-guess the increasingly bewildering actions of her examiners.

Genesis might be a slim book, but its ideas are weighty. Like Jostein Gaardner's Sophie's World it introduces philosophical questions about how society should be ordered, and in particular, what makes us human, through the form of a central character who is constantly prodded to answer and explain situations. Modelled - unsurprisingly - on the Socratic method of reaching understanding through slow questioning and answering, Beckett achieves an effect which is almost like watching a play compared to sitting through a blockbuster. I have no idea whether teens would enjoy this, and I don't think it's a book I *love* as such. But it deserves a lot of respect.


Unknown said...

Just to say that I'm enjoying the diversions into YA fiction. Some of the finest sci-fi / fantasy / alt worlds writing is in this genre, I think. Wish I had something wonderful to recommend that you've not heard of yet, but no such luck. At least, on the assumption that there's no way you haven't read Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy? Oh - wait - fractionally less famous, just as good, are: the Garth Nix 'Old Kingdoms' series; Diane Wynne Jones' 'Dalemark Quartet' (or almost anything else she has written), and Meg Rosoff, especially 'How I Live Now'.

(not really anonymous, just can't recall my google account log-in, which goes to show my deeply sporadic blog commenting) Rachel

Courtney Johnston said...

Hi Rachel

Nice to know the tangents aren't too off-putting! I've read & enjoyed the Pullmans, and read and *loved* 'How I Live Now' - one of the few books I've finished and then read right through again straight-away.

I haven't tried Garth Nix, and I guess in that vein there's also John Marsden. I'm really enjoying catching up on all the stuff I missed over the past 15 years - thanks for the recommendations