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Random Dystopia Generator; a journey through genre fatigue and what happens when the market becomes oversaturated (a not a book review)

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.

Gennifer Albin talks Crewel world, which is sometimes a cruel world – especially if you’re a girl

Crewel by Gennifer Albin is a unique look at a world where women should have more power than they do, but men still rule supreme.  In this world Adelice has the power to spin the web of life.  If you’ve ever read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, you’ll recognize the power in reading about an alternate science fiction world to help us contemplate and discuss the issues that face us here in our real world.  Sometimes the best way to come at an issue is sideways, hence the function of parables and stories in education.  Crewel is one of my favorites of this year because it really examines close to my heart: what it means to be a woman in a world where women don’t get the respect that they deserve.  Today, author Gennifer Albin shares the her insight into writing the world of Crewel (it’s a Crewel world, get it – ha!).


What a tangled world Gennifer Albin weaves . . . 

Hi everyone! I’m so excited to be on TLT today, showing you some exclusive notes that I’ve only shared with my editor and agent before. Sometimes when you are editing a book, you can choose not to change something, but my editor asks, very nicely, to know why. So last year when I was working on edits for Crewel I wrote a 5 page paper, detailing how certain elements functioned and why I made specific decisions. Lucky for you, I’m only going to show you highlights.
Suffice it to say, I was an academic in a past life.
Regarding cosmetics:
“Beauty as a means of control has been achieved by making cosmetics and beauty treatments only available to girls past the age of testing. Sold as a right of passage, girls look forward to being assigned and being allowed to use cosmetics and begin courtship appointments. Since these things are taboo before that age, naturally young girls idealize these experiences and eagerly anticipate them, ensuring they fall into the role of woman as an object of the male gaze easily after testing has ended. Beauty is thus esoteric.”
The idea of woman and beauty comes up a lot lately in ya fantasy.  It is a big part of Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardguo.  And in the world of Crewel, beauty standards are used to entice and control women.  Not that today’s modern woman would no anything about that.  We are bombarded with images and messages 365 days a that let us know we need to be young, thin and beautiful to have worth – genetics and life circumstance be damned. But what if we broke free from this message and learned to embrace who we are and seek out fulfillment?  What is we broke free of societal conventions and pursued our own path?  That is part of the discussion that comes up in Crewel.
Regarding Adelice and beauty:
“Adelice’s background growing up with parents who did not wish her to become a powerful Spinster, a mother who disliked the obvious chauvinism in her workplace, and a father who clearly loved and respected his wife, allow her to have a more balanced approach to her own life. She is not dissuaded by cosmetics, clothing, and parties, because she has more self-respect than most girls her age. Her parents showing that they valued each other as well as her and her sister, helped to create this anomalous attitude, which filters into her personality. Whereas someone like Pryana has been groomed to be an ideal Eligible to the point of fostering ruthless ambition in her, Adelice sees herself as an equal to those around her. This causes her problems in interactions with people like Maela and Cormac, who don’t share this belief, but it also enables her easy interactions with boys, whom she doesn’t fear or idolize.”
Regarding Men at the Coventry:
“…It simply comes down to one thing: the Guild could never leave a group of women to their own devices.”
On Adelice’s family:
“Likewise we will continue to see more information regarding her family and the strange circumstances of their failed escape. Where were they running to? Why were her parents so anti-Guild but seemingly pacifist until the end? What were her parents really up to? Adelice’s need to ensure her own safety takes precedence over the need to figure out these questions, although she is clearly concerned with them, and until she is out of the Guild’s clutches, she can’t seek these answers.”
I think my editor just wanted to make sure I had a reason to do these things and that I had thought ahead through plot issues. Instead she got a dissertation. Once an academic, always an academic.
Karen says: I think that Crewel is a well-written, fascinating look at a society that is like ours, but different.  This book will be great for book discussion groups, classes, and for all of us who are striving day by day to make the world just a little bit more accepting of girls today.  Remember, for all the strides we have made over the last few hundred years, even our legislators recently vetoed bills stating that woman should be paid the same amount for the same positions as men claiming it would be too much of a hardship on businesses.  In many ways we live in a world that is still not friendly to people with lady bits and we must continue to be in dialogue about it so that we can change the messages we send to our little girls. Read my review of Crewel here.
Other resources I recommend you check out:
Libba Bray
YA Lit and Body Image: A Discussion

· Gennifer Albin is part of the Fall 2012 Fierce Reads campaign:https://www.facebook.com/FierceReads
· Gennifer Albin is going on tour October 15th through October 21stwith Marie Rutkoski, Caragh M. O’Brien, and Leigh Bardugo
o Details can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/CrewelWorld/events
· Watch the Crewel Book Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQT1k69a_io
· Become a fan of Crewel and the series on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/CrewelWorld
· Read the short story prequel, entitled “The Department of Alterations”:http://www.tor.com/stories/2012/09/the-department-of-alterations
· Follow Gennifer Albin on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GenniferAlbin
· Check out Gennifer Albin’s Website: http://genniferalbin.com/

Book Review: Crewel by Gennifer Albin

“They came in the night.  Once, families fought them, neighbors coming to their aid. But now that peace has been established, and the looms proven, girls pray to be retried. They still come at night, but now it’s to avoid the masses with eager hands.  It’s a blessing to touch a Spinster as she passes. That’s what they tell us.” (Opening paragraph, Crewel by Gennifer Albin)

I first found out about the book Crewel from Margot Wood, the Real Fauxtographer.  I had no idea at the time that she did her photograph that Crewel was not yet published and was confused because I hadn’t heard of it.  Then, when we asked Gennifer Albin to be a part of the It Came from a Book contest, I thought I should try and read the book.  I had no idea what to expect and had little knowledge of the plot, but I dove right in.

Let me start right now by saying this: I love science fiction.  Not just dystopian, but complex world building science fiction that defies imagination – and I have been waiting all year for some amazing science fiction.  Not just good science fiction, but holy crap jaw dropping intricately developed science fiction.  And in Crewel, I have finally found this year’s masterpiece.

Crewel is a little bit Lois Lowry’s Giver and Gathering Blue, with some Margaret Atwood let’s examine the role of women and a dash of Orson Scott Card thrown in, in this instance The Tales of Alvin Maker series.  I read the Tales of Alvin Maker years ago and the part that has stayed with me is the concept he puts out there of these weavers.  Here, these women sit at looms and weaves people’s threads together.  When the threads are drawn to each other and cross, their lives become a part of one another’s story.  It was such hauntingly beautiful imagery and made sense in the context of his fantasy series as a way to explain how people’s lives came together and apart.

Crewel takes the concept of weaving and expands on it to the nth degree.  In Crewel, some women are knowns as spinsters (an interesting play on words if you recall what unmarried women used to be referred to in the olden days) and they literally spin the fabric of space and time and people.  Their skills, their talent, help keep the world of Arras going.  Without them, the world would cease to exist.  You would think that with such incredible power women would be respected, but that is not the case in this world that is ruled by the Guild, a group of power hungry men.

Adelice has been trained her whole life to fail the Spinster testing when it comes, but she seems to have a natural gift.  She has a higher calling than she can ever imagine, but what if she doesn’t want it?  This is one of the overriding themes in the world of Crewel: should you get to choose your own destiny?  Self-will is a major theme in a lot of ya fiction out there right now, and rightly so given where teens are at developmentally, and given the slippery slope you see happening in our country for the last 10 years.  And if you have been paying any attention in the news lately, you know that we are once again having disturbing dialogues about the rights and role of women in our country.  While as a nation we are once again discussing whether or not women should stay in abusive marriage and have access to birth control to determine their own reproductive fate, Adelice finds herself living in a world ruled by men in ways we hope to never see happen.

In this world, the sexes are segregated.  Women are given menial tasks, assigned based on their perceived skills.  It is only the role of Spinster, one who sits at the looms and weaves, that has any type of honor to go with it.  But if you are called to be a Spinster, you are taken in the middle of the night to the Coventry where you are never to see your family again.  There are too many secrets there, secrets the Guild doesn’t want the public to know, so there is no turning back.

Adelice is a wonderful female character in a world that wants to control her.  She is intelligent, quick witted, silver tongued, and assertive.  She uses all of these skills to try and assess her situation and play the game to stay alive while still maintain the essence of who she is and what she believes.  Albin writes Adelice in such a way that even when she bats her eyelashes and snuggles up to the bad guy, the reader clearly knows that she is in control of the situation and using their own weaknesses against them.  Not that she has complete knowledge or power of the situation, she does in fact have a huge learning curve.  Thankfully, she makes some allies along the way to help her suss out the situation.  And in this world, she needs allies because she has some pretty powerful enemies.

The world of Arras is in and of itself a rich, fully developed construct.  Yet Albin takes this sci fi novel a step further when she pulls back the magic curtain and reveals that all is not right in the land of Oz.  Here we have some jaw dropping reveals that just amp up the sci fi elements and take Crewel to the next level of awesome.  There are so many questions to be answered, not just about the fate of Adelice and her love (there is a nice little love story in there), but about the world of Crewel itself both past, present and future.

This is some sophisticated science fiction that requires a sophisticated reader. The world of Crewel is unique and it takes a while to get some of the terminology and constructs down in your head.  And it is teeming under the surface with rich discussions about things like responsibility to society, free will, the role of women, revolution, and more.  Although there are elements of the story that will make you go “this seems familiar” (and how can it not with the overabundance of dystopian fiction out there right now), in the end this is a really unique world with an interesting reveal.  And depending on how Albin develops the story, Crewel could very well be this generation’s The Handmaid’s Tale. 5 out of 5 stars.

Crewel by Gennifer Albin will be published in October of 2012 by Farrar, Struas, and Giroux. ISBN 9780374316419.  This review refers to an unpublished arc and there may be changes before publishing.