Monday, June 25, 2012
Author/reviewer Trevor Agnew reports on a discussion on dystopia novels
For Christchurch booklovers a dystopia would be the Children’s Bookshop reduced to rubble, with a group of us huddled around a fire in the wreckage. By that standard, a utopia would be the Children’s Bookshop in its new daffodil yellow premises with colourful chairs dotted among the packed bookshelves. That’s where we were on Thursday night, and these notes try to give a hint of what was talked about.
To discuss dystopia novels, we had a well-informed panel:
Jillaine Johnstone, Senior Lecturer in Children’s Literature and Literacy
Joanna Orwin, author of the The Guardian of the Land, Owl and Sacrifice
Jane Higgins, Senior Research Fellow at Lincoln University, author of The Bridge
Jillaine Johnstone had produced a booklist of ‘Dystopian/ Post-Apocalyptic/ Futuristic Young Adult Literature,’ with warnings of age suitability concerns.
Introducing the ‘fashionable genre of the moment,’ Jillaine noted her own unhappiness with the term ‘dystopia’ but ran through typical aspects. ‘A bleak world where everything is pretty hopeless, people are oppressed, frightened and de-humanised.’ She mentioned that in dystopias governments are usually centralised and totalitarian, police states are often disguised as ‘good.’ A rapid development of technology is often involved. Jillaine noted that characters in dystopias tend to question what has gone before. ‘They may feel ashamed and confused as they make difficult choices in a harsh environment.’ Often they must act directly, be subversive or escape. ‘Most dystopias have strong conflicts; often violence breaks out and main characters suffer great personal cost for their involvement.’
In discussion Jillaine noted that classic dystopias, like 1984 and Brave New World, are often ‘flipped utopias.’ For many of the books now labelled dystopia, she personally favoured ‘science fiction.’ (Or for those who think they don’t like science fiction, ‘futuristic’ is a useful label.)
Jane Higgins had examined her teenage bookshelf and found many science fiction writers (e.g. Ursula K. Le Guin Dispossessed, Arthur C. Clarke Childhood’s End, Bernard Beckett, Genesis) whose works might be called dystopian. She was aware of the problems of labels creating ghettos. Jane preferred to call these books ‘dark and dangerous futures,’ and pointed out that both young adult fiction and science fiction have a long tradition of dealing with ‘dark and dangerous futures.’
In discussion all three panellists mentioned how YA dystopia novels can draw young readers to think about real issues in their world. For example The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins draws attention to the unfair distribution of wealth, aspects of TV programming, etc. Jane said that The Hunger Games, and to some extent The Bridge, takes something that is happening now and pushes it to the extreme. Jane mentioned that a ‘current concern’ that played a part in creating The Bridge was people being forced out of their home countries by war, hunger and climate change, as well as the problems they face (like being used for cheap labour) as asylum seekers without rights.
Joanna Orwin does not see Sacrifice as a dystopian novel. ‘It is partly post-apocalyptic but is based on history and enables the exploration of big ideas.’ She does not regard Sacrifice as bleak or dark. ‘It is the problem of a small, isolated community with restricted resources.’ Joanna gave the example of infanticide, which horrifies us now, but was once taken for granted as a method of population control. It eased population pressures. Another technique was sending young men out to sea as heroes. ‘We still send our young people off to war and we still glorify it.’
All three panellists agreed that the novels formerly known as dystopian really fit into the category of science fiction or speculative fiction. ‘Science fiction is about possibilities,’ said Jillaine. Jane noted that these labels are a problem for publishers, who fear sales being confined to ‘the geeky anorak crowd,’ so they nervously avoid it. ‘Futuristic fiction is a more acceptable label,’ said Jill, ‘but it’s just a label.’
From the floor, Bill Nagelkerke noted that a ‘dystopia’ is literally a sick world. ‘That’s a label that could apply to every book in this shop.’
Joanna reminded us that young people are idealistic and full of hope, and many do want to change the world. ‘Teenagers like ‘big questions’ and like to feel they have the ability to make changes. Many of these novels remove parents from the scene and leave teens to grapple with the big issues. Often these are clearer, simpler versions of problems we see in our muddled world.
Jane noted that when the New York Times complained that YA fiction was too dark, they were deluged by messages from kids saying, ‘How dare you tell us what to read. We’ll read what we enjoy.’
Note: this is only Trevor Agnew’s thumbnail sketch of what was a fascinating and informative evening of discussion and ideas. For the full story, why don’t you join us at the next Te Tai Tamariki panel discussion?
Te Tai Tamariki