Warning the First: The following views are those of a disgruntled person. Long-term conclusions may be more moderate with hindsight.
Warning the Second: Spoilers for All The Things.
Internets, I have finally snapped on the subject of YA dystopias.
Half an hour ago, I ran myself a bath and settled in with Fever, the sequel to Lauren DeStefano’s Wither, which I read last year and particularly enjoyed. Rather than recap the story so far, I’ll refer you to Goodreads should you require a detailed plot summary, but in brief, the setting is a romantic/sexual dystopia, and at the end of Wither, protagonist-narrator Rhine had just escaped her forced marriage with the help of her love-interest Gabriel. Fever picks up their story immediately after this point, with our two young lovers scrambling out of the ocean to – they imagine – freedom. Heading inland, they encounter a carnival and are quick-smart captured by Madame, the proprietor, for whom this title is also a job description. Within about ten seconds, Madame has given Rhine a new name – Goldenrod – and taken her up in the still-operational Ferris wheel to talk about becoming one of her girls, where, despite her fear, Rhine can’t help but marvel at the beauty of the world seen from on high:
The seat rocks a little as I settle into it. Madame sits beside me and pulls the overhead bar down so that it locks us in. We start to move, and I’m breathless for an instant as we ascend forward and into the sky.
The earth gets father and farther away. The tents look like bright round candles. The girls move about them, shadows.
I can’t help myself; I lean forward, astounded. This wheel is five, ten, fifteen times taller than the lighthouse I climbed in the hurricane. Higher even than the fence that kept me trapped as Linden’s bride…
Even my brother, who is all practicality, would have his breath taken away by this height, these lights, the clarity of this night sky.
And that’s when I stopped reading.*
Because all of a sudden, it hit me: I’d seen this device before. In the opening scenes of Carrie Ryan’s The Dead-Tossed Waves, the second volume in her YA zombie dystopia series, protagonist Gabry and her love-interest Catcher defy the rules to enter a zombie-infested amusement park. Not unsurprisingly, things go wrong pretty quickly; nonetheless, there’s still time for some opening nostalgia about carnivals:
The story goes that even after the Return they tried to keep the roller coasters going. They said it reminded them of the before time. When they didn’t have to worry about people rising from the dead, when they didn’t have to build fences and walls and barriers to protect themselves…
Even after the Forest was shut off, one last gasp at sequestering the infection and containing the Mudo, the carousel kept turning, the coasters kept rumbling, the teacups kept spinning. Though my town of Vista was far away from the core of the Protectorate, they hoped people would come fly along the coasters. Would still want to forget.
More recently still, a decaying carnival appeared in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, another YA dystopia about which I had very mixed feelings. Midway through, heroine Tris and her love-interest Four climb an abandoned Ferris wheel to use it as a vantage point during a wargame:
Four sits down on the edge of the carousel, leaning against a plastic horse’s foot. His eyes lift to the sky, where there are no stars, only a round moon peeking through a thin layer of clouds…
When I stare up at the Ferris wheel from the ground, my throat feels tighter. It is taller than I thought, so tall I can barely see the cars swinging at the top. The only good thing about its height is that it is built to support weight. If I climb it, it won’t collapse beneath me…
When I look at the city again, the building isn’t in my way. I’m high enough to see the skyline. Most of the buildings are black against a navy sky, but the red lights at the top of the Hub are lit up. They blink half as fast as my heartbeat.
On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with three separate YA dystopias all including amusement parks. After all, they’re dystopias! It makes sense that the characters would encounter the ruined edifices of modern times, and from an aesthetic point of view, there’s something particularly powerful and haunting about the imagery of an abandoned Ferris wheel. But what jerked me out of Fever was less the presence of a repeated motif than what its usage seemed to represent: the romanticising of our present, and therefore a softening of the pertinent social criticism that ought to be an inherent part of dystopian fiction.
That’s a big claim, I know. But before I go on to defend it, I’d like to present a fourth except in contrast to the previous three, taken from yet another YA dystopia: Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies. Here, protagonist Tally and her friend Shay are hoverboarding along the tracks of an old roller coaster – something Shay has done before, but which Tally has not.
It was like a hoverboard course made solid, complete with tight, banked turns, sharp climbs followed by long drops, even loops that took Tally upside down, her crash bracelets activating to keep her on board. It was amazing what good shape it was in. The Rusties must have built it out of something special, just as Shay had said…
Tally followed at top speed, rocketing up the spindly track. She could see the ruins in the distance: broken, black spires against the trees. And behind them, a moonlight glimmer that might have been the sea. This really was high!…
Suddenly, the board dropped out from under her. It simply fell away from her feet, leaving her flying through midair. The track below her had disappeared…
Then Tally saw the framework of the roller coaster ahead. Only a short segment was missing… Her momentum had carried her to the other side of the gap! The board must have sailed along with her, just below her feet for those terrifying seconds of free fall.
She found herself cruising down the track, to where Shay was waiting at the bottom. “You’re insane!” she shouted.
“Pretty cool, huh?”
“No!” Tally yelled. “Why didn’t you tell me it was broken?”
Shay shrugged. “More fun that way?”
“More fun?” Her heart was beating fast, her vision strangely clear. She was full of anger and relief and… joy. “Well, kind of. But you suck!”
At first glance, it might seem fairly arbitrary as to why I’ve chosen this final scene as a contrast to the others. All four excerpts show female protagonists either experiencing or thinking about the decaying rides of modern-day theme parks; all four mention the height and the view – which is understandable – and all four ladies are in places they shouldn’t be: Rhine has been captured by Madame for trespassing, Gabry is going into a forbidden area, Tris is risking her neck to climb a rickety structure and Tally is breaking multiple laws to follow Shay’s lead. Stylistically, there’s an obvious divide in that DeStefano, Ryan and Roth are all writing in the immediate first person, while Westerfeld uses omniscient third, but that’s vastly less important than the subtext of each scene. Neither is it divided along romantic lines. True, Tally is the only one not thinking about or travelling with a boy, but that’s only because she hasn’t met her love-interest yet, and this is a long-game point.
No: it’s that Westerfeld’s characters are the only ones to find a new use for their carnival, and whose appropriation therefore makes us critique its original purpose. Tally and Shay are the only ones having fun.
Rhine rides her wheel passively – she’s been forced onto it, after all – but takes the chance to reflect on how carefree our world used to be, before it broke into hers. Gabry’s thoughts run down similar paths, despite the fact that she never actually makes it onto a ride. Tris and Four turn their own wheel into a vantage point, true, and there’s a moment prior to their ascension when another character jokes about what a present-day version would entail - “A Dauntless Ferris wheel wouldn’t have cars. You would just hang on tight with your hands, and good luck to you.” - but this introspection ultimately goes nowhere: the scene is about Tris’s bravery and her relationship with Four, not a commentary on funfairs, and though their climb is dangerous, the Ferris wheel is not forbidden territory.
But in Uglies, there’s a double subversion to Shay and Tally’s scene. Not only have they broken the rules by visiting the ruin, but their use of the tracks as a hoverboard route is much more dangerous than if they’d found and ridden a still-functional roller coaster. Where the original ride was safety masquerading as danger, Shay turns the tables on Tally, tricking her into doing something genuinely risky: jumping an unknown gap. And while Tally’s first reaction is anger, she’s also a bit elated, too – her success is thrilling, empowering, and all the more so because the threat of mishap was real. While DeStefano and Ryan invoke a deliberate nostalgia for the present day through the inner thoughts of their characters, and where Roth’s narration makes us consider the image of a decaying past without offering hope for the future, Westerfeld makes his audience realise that, compared to Shay and Tally’s world, our own is safe – but perhaps, in some fundamental way, less satisfying because of it.
As a subgenre, dystopia has its roots in social criticism. The big adult classics – Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – all end bleakly for the protagonists: their purported futures are warnings, and at least part of their purpose is to make us wonder what horrors our own bad, real-world decisions could ultimately engender. This is not to say that all adult dystopias are concerned with social what-ifs: Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning The Road is unremittingly bleak, devoid of human society – an apocalyptic vision more than a twisted take on human folly – while William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a study of children breaking down into violence, barbarism and anarchy in the absence of any higher moral guidance. By contrast, the archetypal YA dystopia – Lois Lowry’s The Giver - ends on an ambiguous note, leaving its young protagonist, Jonas, hovering somewhere between death and salvation; either way, though, he is free. While Orwell’s Winston is crushed into conformity, Huxley’s savage driven to suicide and McCarthy’s nameless father murdered, Jonas’s story ends on a vision of hope. The closest comparison is with Atwood’s Offred – we don’t see whether her escape succeeds, though the epilogue assures us of her world’s eventual recuperation - but even then, this knowledge is divorced from Offred’s voice. If the job of adult dystopia is to caution, therefore, it seems fair to suggest that the role of YA dystopia is to reassure: not, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, because they tell us that broken societies are survivable, but because they tell us broken societies can be changed.
Which tradition is now upheld by Fever, The Dead-Tossed Waves, Divergent and Uglies alike: even in the case of any as-yet incomplete series, the narrative arc is such that progress is definitely on the agenda. And yet, for all that, there’s a maddening dearth of danger and consequence both in the bulk of YA dystopias – danger, which is here distinct from action, and consequence, which is here distinct from loss. Battle scenes and dead companions are staples of YA dystopia, and yet they tend to feel like punches pulled, potential roundhouse blows swerving away from successive protagonists and into their nearest and dearest. Loss is the moment when Divergent’s Tris loses both her parents and keeps on fighting; consequence, though, is where Katniss Everdeen – the battle-scarred heroine of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy – is left to live with PTSD, irrevocably haunted by the catastrophe of war. Loss, to draw a comparison with another recent bugbear of mine, hints at romanticised damage; consequence does not. Similarly, action is successive protagonists being thrown into battles where the stakes are either death, which seldom afflicts main characters, or the sort of coercion that leaves no marks (and which, when combined with loss, is typified by an absence of psychological scarring). Danger is when the risks involve actual physical and/or mental change – and when the protagonist doesn’t emerge unscathed.
For reasons which are complex and fascinating enough to merit an essay of their own, a staggering number of YA dystopias with female protagonists are concerned with sexuality and romance. In these stories, partners are chosen by higher powers (Matched and Crossed, Ally Condie), love is branded a disease (Delirium and Pandemonium, Lauren Oliver), teenage pregnancy is a way of life (Bumped and Thumped, Megan McCafferty), and brides are stolen freely (Wither and Fever, Lauren DeStefano). At the other end of the scale are female warriors: gladiators-turned-revolutionaries (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins), questing cage-fighters (Blood Red Road, Moira Young), face-changing dissidents (Uglies, Pretties, Specials and Extras, Scott Westerfeld), soldiers-in-training (Divergent and Insurgent, Veronica Roth) and zombie-fighting survivors (The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Dead-Tossed Waves and The Dark and Hollow Places, Carrie Ryan). All of these books provoke questions about identity and agency; all of them, too, relate to ongoing political discourse about the role of women in society, whether in terms of sexual freedom or women as front line fighters. But while some of them actively embrace this critical aspect – seeking, in the spirit of dystopia, to make us question both the real world and the fictional – others instead provoke only a sense of gratitude for our distance from their settings. They might still be reflective of current issues, but they shy away from making us make the connection, because their ultimate purpose isn’t to encourage questions.
And this, to return to my opening statement, is why I’ve finally snapped. It’s the Ferris wheel effect: a nostalgia for the present day rooted in being grateful for what we have, rather than in asking where we’re headed. It’s dystopia with the safeties on - and that is, to me, an alarming inversion of how the genre should work. I have nothing against stories being written purely for escapist purposes, but dystopia is not the ideal genre for it. Of course, as in all things, your mileage may vary, in which case you’re wholly entitled to disagree. Yet I’d ask that you ask yourself: what, exactly, is escapist about an uncritical dystopia? While critical protagonists set out to change society, allowing us the fantasy of being world-altering revolutionaries, uncritical protagonists remain wrapped up in themselves, dealing with immediate, personal obstacles rather than tackling their root causes. Such characters can still change the world, of course – or rather, be instrumental in its change – but the difference is one of intention: their rebellion stems from a desire to be left alone, not to combat injustice, and this difference shows in how the story treats them. They are kept safer than their critical counterparts – exposed to action and loss, rather than danger and consequence – because if something sufficiently bad were to happen or be realistically threatened, then their stories would no longer stand as purely escapist fictions: the audience would no longer want to share in their experiences.
Trigger warning for this paragraph, because we’re going to talk about rape and sexual assault – which are, for me, the crashing, trumpeting elephants in the room in far too many dystopias. On the one hand: these are big issues that ought not be treated lightly. I can understand entirely why authors shy away from mentioning them. They are dark themes, frightening and raw, capable of completely transforming the tone and scope of a book. On the other hand, though: if you build a dystopian society based around the capture, sale and slavery of women – and particularly if the reason for this is tied to pregnancy – then you are automatically inviting this threat to exist. More, if your protagonist is female and she’s trying to escape this world, then you have guaranteed the relevance of this threat. This doesn’t mean your character must be assaulted. It does mean, however, that you need a convincing explanation as to why. Not mentioning it at all, even in passing, strikes me as a form of erasure; a denial of consequence, and a dismissal of the very real trauma suffered by millions of women. If the audience can reasonably infer that rape is a thing that happens in your dystopia, then you are doing a disservice both to us and to the intelligence of your heroine to keep it hidden. The real world has a vile enough culture of silencing without extending a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to fiction, too.
To be absolutely, brutally clear: I am in no way saying that what YA dystopias need is for more teenage girls to be raped. I am saying that in instances where the plots of YA dystopias are heavily concerned with the control of women’s bodies and female sexuality, failing to even mention rape or assault as part of those societies is not only unrealistic, but an undermining of discourse.
In Delirium, Lauren Oliver does an excellent job of pointing out the perils of her society – all save one. In a world where everyone is effectively lobotomised at eighteen to ‘cure’ them of amor deliria nervosa – love – it makes perfect sense that kindness, hugging, casual touching, kissing and other such tactile displays of affection would all be taboo, reclassified as symptoms of the disease. She mentions, too, the reality of cured parents sometimes killing their children out of anger or exasperation, unable to form the usual parental bond, while married couples – forbidden to choose each other for emotional reasons – consent to be matched by the state. The book is beautifully written and world-built, exquisitely characterised and absolutely compelling. Yet there’s a hole in the heart of it, a question I can’t quite shake: the cure erases love, yes, but what about sexual desire? The two are not synonymous, and though there’s some overlap in which areas of the brain control them – both involve the anterior cingulate cortex, which is connected to the amygdala – sexual brain-mapping lights up multiple other regions. Which begs the question: in a world without love and greatly reduced compassion, where emotions are muted but where – we assume, given that people still reproduce the traditional way – human beings continue to experience sexual arousal, what sort of horrors go on behind closed doors?
Oliver’s world is totalitarian. Its military forces are cold and unyielding, freed from the usual human compassion for their charges. Love might be impossible among the populace, but as the story continually demonstrates, violence is not – and at least for me, that opens the door for a society rife with sexual abuse. Incorporating that possibility into the story, however, would have radically changed its scope. I understand why Oliver chose instead to tacitly infer that the cure, as well as erasing love, also eliminated rape. Delirium is still one of the best dystopias I’ve read in years, and a book I heartily recommend. For all that it doesn’t treat with societal sexuality, it nonetheless counts as a critical dystopia, commenting powerfully on freedom of choice, totalitarianism, propagandising, religion and individualism, inviting direct contrast with present day issues. Yet it, like far too many of its fellows, shrinks from discussing institutionalised misogyny and the specific issues of female oppression.
And this is a problem for me, because it seems to cut to the heart of a different discussion: the perennial questing after strong and varied female characters in SFF. I dislike the oft-floated image of YA books didactically Teaching Lessons To Teenagers; dislike, too, the inference that writing for young adults inherently entails a greater moral responsibility than writing for adults. The primary point of fiction – any fiction – is not preaching. But the lack of a moral burden is not the same as an absence of critical thought, and it strikes me that maybe one of the reasons we’re still having this conversation about the merits of various female characters is because, despite our best efforts, we’re still stuck in a mindset of gender protectiveness, particularly in YA. By which I mean: if you consider the image of a little boy hitting a little girl to be inherently worse than if he were hitting another boy, then we have a problem.
To be clear: targeted physical violence against women is still as much of a global epidemic as sexual violence. It would be hypocritical to suggest that YA dystopias ought to tackle the latter but ignore the former, especially given their penchant for producing physically aggressive heroines who are just as strong or stronger than men, and seemingly without effort. Quite the opposite: I’m actually starting to wonder if, rather than representing an idealised physical equality, such warrior-heroines are really gifted with strength in order to keep them safe, in much the same way that their romance-seeking counterparts are protected from sexual violence by the pretense that it doesn’t exist. In both cases, it seems like the fictional solution to two of the biggest women’s issues going – our physical and sexual vulnerability – is not to confront them, but to erase the reason they exist. That’s what I mean by protectionism: we’re afraid to have our heroines suffer the same dangers as real-world women, and so we keep them safe, bestowing on them unnatural strength if they’re going to fight battles, or removing the threat of rape if they’re going to encounter sexual prejudice. This is by no means a problem exclusive to YA or even dystopia, but my suspicion is that this combination of genres in particular serves to magnify it.
Under such circumstances, then, is it any surprise that we’re still asking ourselves how best to write a wide and gorgeous range of women? It’s not that we don’t understand female versatility – it’s that deep down, we still shy away from having our female characters confront real danger and consequence. Fearful of writing victims, we pretend that victimisation doesn’t exist, and so disengage from the dialogue about how such victimisation might be halted; but of all genres, dystopia shouldn’t shrink from ugly truths – regardless of the age of the audience.
By the end of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, Tally Youngblood has undergone multiple transformations: from her natural self to a cosmetically enhanced Pretty, and last to a fearsome Special. Offered the chance to return to who she originally was, she refuses and finds herself imprisoned: her allies want to indoctrinate her into thinking such a reversal is for the best. But Tally is stubborn. As dangerous as she’s become, the only way forward is for her to rewire herself, alone: to become something new, no matter how uncomfortable her self-acceptance makes other people.
And if YA dystopias are serious about offering social criticism – if they really want to discuss the role of women in society – then they need to do the same.
* For now. I do plan to finish the book!