Without a doubt, Dystopian is a hot genre right now. I have read a ton - I have bought a ton - and my teens are definitely asking for them. But after a while, they are all starting to blend together. Recently I began reading The Forsaken by Lisa M. Stasse (awesome cover), and I began to realize what my problem as a reader has become. Let me take you on a trendy reading journey. (Please note, this is not a review.)
In the beginning of our book, Alenna sits at home with her family when the government comes to arrest her parents for being rebels. As I read this opening sequence, it immediately brought the beginning of Crewel by Gennifer Albin to mind. Crewel came out earlier, but I had already read it.
Then Alenna is taken to a facility to watch a live feed of lost souls that are sent to a place called The Wheel. The purpose of this feed is to demonstrate how you don't want to be a lost soul; it's all about reinforcing government control. This brings about almost every dystopian to mind, but particularly ones like Delirium by Lauren Oliver and Matched by Allie Conde.
Then Alenna is taken to a place where she has some testing done to determine whether or not she will stay in her community or be sent to The Wheel; to determine whether or not she is a Lost Soul. Again, it has the familiar ring to it. Whether they are testing you to see what your skill is or whether or not you are "Divergent", it seems the government is very much in to testing. Beware government testing.
Then we get to The Wheel. Think Katniss being placed in The Arena or kids coming up the elevator in The Maze Runner by James Dashner, or even the outer areas in Unwind by Neal Shusterman. The Wheel has a Lord of the Flies survival feel to it. If you learn one thing from reading dystopian fiction, learn this: the end of the world brings out the basest, most survivalist tendencies of mankind. It ain't pretty.
Of course, when the teens arrive at The Wheel they divide up into factions who compete for power. Think Variant by Robison Wells or Quarantine by Lex Thomas. Although some of the groups are truly bad guys, even the good guys have to resort to questionable tactics to survive - see my point above.
Don't get me wrong, this post is not meant to dismiss The Forsaken, which may or may not be a good book (I'm still in the process of reading it). What it is is a statement about the flooding of a genre market and how all the pieces start to bleed over into one another. As a reader, you begin to compare each element to all the others that have come before. Every dystopian hero gets compared in your mind's eye to Katniss. Every renegade society on the outskirts of civilization gets compared to the districts, or the maze, or the area outside the fence in Delirium. At times, it almost seems like there is a formula and a writer steps up to a row of jars and pulls an element out of them:
Jar 1 - plucky heroine (sometimes hero)
Jar 2 - intrusive government agency
Jar 3 - test for social acceptedness
Jar 4 - unique location to be banished
Jar 5 - quirky gangs fighting for power, etc.
Viola'! There's your random dystopian generator.
Thankfully, there are always those twisty element that separates it from all the other dystopian novels and keeps us coming back for more.
Don't get me wrong, many of the dystopians that I have read have truly been great. I am a huge fan of The Hunger Games, Delirium, and Crewel, to name just a few. I loved Unwind and the sequel Unwholly. And I freely admit that The Forsaken may be a good book (I am not in a position to write a review as I have not finished reading it). I understand the value of reading in our comfort zone: I went through a phase where I was reading every single Star Trek the Next Generation book because they were exactly what I needed at that time in my life and they made me happy. But there is also value in revelation, in being challenged, being stretched, and thinking. To be fair, The Forsaken may end up being that revelation for some readers, it may even end up being that for me after I finish it. But I am setting it aside for the moment to read some fantasy and science fiction that are not dystopians. In the immortal words of Ross Gellar, dystopian and I are "on a break."
I will say this about The Forsaken, the back cover has this as its blurb: "What if you were imprisoned for a crime that hasn't even happened yet?" Although this is certainly not a new concept, see Minority Report, it certainly is turning out to be a timely one in light of the Aurora, Colorado shootings. If you read any of the news on the topic, there has been a lot of discussion around the concept of trying to keep guns out of individuals who have mental illness and may be likely to snap, which definitely fits into the concept of pre-crime. That will make The Forsaken an interesting discussion. And, of course, like all dystopian novels, there is good discussion to be had around the concepts of government control and what role every day citizens play in trying to curb excessive government regimes.
So there you have it, our journey through the random dystopian generator. What are your favorite dystopian conventions (and favorite dystopian titles)? And what dystopian conventions are you ready to retire? Do you think Dystopians are finally reaching their saturation point? What do you think will be the big trends in 2013?
Random note: The word dystopian was used 12 times in this post.