I’ve always loved dystopian worlds, for as long as I remember. It’s intriguing to see the world redrafting to an “ideal” state… and then watch it fall apart. Over the years I’ve fallen in love with dystopian novels (Fahrenheit 451, Feed, The Hunger Games) and movies (The Island is my absolute favorite, but themes from The Matrix have stuck with me just as strongly) and as I get older, I find… I’m still not sick of this genre.
I’m not sick of it… but to my tastes, I’ve learned there are some plots that pull me in more than others.
In January, I finished the Matteo Alacran duology. For those who have never heard of it, The House of the Scorpion and The Lord of Opium are a two-book story of Matteo Alacran as he grows up in a dystopian future where Mexico is now simply “Opium” and the drug lords have significant power in the world. There’s not just Opium – other kingpins have taken control of poorer countries and regions and built their own kingdoms. In this world, immigrants are captured and enslaved using nanotechnology that prohibits free will. Tyrannical overlords live forever by cloning themselves and replacing their organs as they fail. The science is fascinating and this possible future is terrifying.
The House of the Scorpion is a YA dystopia.
I found myself listening to the interview between Nancy Farmer and Raul Esparza (the audiobook narrator) discussing the characters and themes of these books and wondering to myself why there aren’t more dystopian books with such serious undertones. Then I realized – of course there are! They’re just not as mainstream.
With the success of The Hunger Games in 2008, many people began to focus on the one item in the genre I thought was least interesting – the love triangle. In fact, as far as love triangles go, this one was not very fiery. The romance in The Hunger Games always took a back seat for me as a reader – and I’ve read the books half a dozen times. Unfortunately, publishing didn’t see it that way. Following The Hunger Games, we god Delirium and Divergent and Matched and Eve and any number of other dystopias that not only had a romance, but brought the romance to the forefront of the story. The dystopian worlds were there but they were largely around the same themes. Mostly, the freedom to choose who to love.
This is fine, but it doesn’t have the fear and fascination of the best dystopias, in my opinion. Books like the House of the Scorpion spend time looking at possible paths into the future, and paint the picture of everything going wrong because someone (usually a governing body) has decided to “fix” something. There’s always a fallout – nuclear war, plague, etc.
In my opinion, the best dystopias are the ones that make you go “Oh no. That could really happen!” and then they pull you in that way. Love stories are all well and good in their place, and I think that love stories in dystopias are fine as well… but I have never understood how they become some of the most popular science fiction books. When you look at the environmental fallout in Oryx and Crake or the epidemic in Station Eleven, or the rise of technology in Feed… there are so many dystopian worlds that carry the story without the romance overcoming that main theme – the fallout of society as we know it. Both Oryx and Crake and Feed have pretty important romantic subplots, but I never thought they overwhelmed the story.
I guess maybe this means I’m old fashioned. I’d say I’m in the wrong genre (YA) if it wasn’t for books like The Giver or The House of the Scorpion or Feed… but there are plenty of examples of YA dystopias that have complicated plots addressing concerns such as the environment, personal freedom, elitism, and equality. For the most part, it remains that some of the most interesting dystopian concepts come in older books, like 1984 or Logan’s Run. While these books leave a lot to be desired in some of the derogatory language and depictions they use (products of their time – published in 1949 and 1967 respectively), the dystopian ideas driving them are the sorts of things that can initiate philosophical conversations and that is the exact kind of dystopia I want to read.
Give me a good moral dilemma in a science fiction novel any day and I’m pretty much ready to add that book to my TBR in a heartbeat. And a good dystopian novel should be filled with moral and ethical debates not only at an individual level, but at a societal one. In may ways, dystopias are modern fables – warning us of the futures that could come if we are not conscientious enough to do better.
If you read dystopias – what type of plot is your favorite? Are you like me and enjoy the ethical conversations? Or are you more interested in individual-level stories, like falling in love in a messed up world? Let me know your favorites in the comments!