An anthology of dystopian YA short stories with a focus on diversity, ie, most of the protagonists are not white.

As a whole, this anthology is not much like most current YA dystopian novels, which are generally about naïve privileged white girls slowly coming to realize that their “the government controls everything” society actually sucks, while navigating a love triangle. The characters in this anthology are often aware from the get-go that everything sucks, and the central problem is generally not an over-controlling government, but a devastated environment, poverty, and the haves grinding the have-nots beneath their feet.

The result is more realistic and less paper-thin, but also quite depressing. Few of these teenagers are trying to save their world, but only to scratch out a few more days for themselves and their loved ones in a world which is clearly already doomed. With two possible exceptions, no one makes any difference at all to anyone beyond themselves or a handful of people in their immediate surroundings. (I say “possible” because there are two stories in which characters make an effort, but the story ends before we learn whether or not they succeed in terms of the larger picture.)

Sure, it wouldn’t be realistic for teenagers to save the world singlehandedly… but I don’t read science fiction for realism. Also, in real life people do make large changes collectively. A few more stories in which the protagonist is part of a larger effort to save or even improve the world would have been nice. (There is one story in which that's the case, Tempest Bradford's.)

I did really like some of the stories. But I would recommend reading a story or two here and there, as you feel like it. If you read the entire anthology from start to finish, the grimdark is overwhelming.

“The Last Day” by Ellen Oh. An alternate history of WWII set in Japan comes out… extremely similar to real history, so far as the main characters are concerned. Maybe the point was that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Otherwise, it’s a straightforward “war is bad and children suffer horribly” story, all the way down to its awesomely depressing conclusion. If you’re disturbed by graphic atom bomb scenes (I am) this might be one to skip. I would not have selected this as the story to open the anthology – it’s the darkest in the whole batch, and that's saying a lot.

“Freshee’s Frogurt” by Daniel H. Wilson. Oral history of robots run amuck, much along the lines of World War Z. A robot attacks two employees in a frozen yogurt shop, and there’s a bloody battle. That’s it. This was an excerpt from the novel Robopocalypse, which may explain how slight and unfinished it felt, but on the other hand it didn’t leave me wanting more. On the positive side, it’s only depressing in the sense that its space could have been given to a better story. In fact, it’s probably supposed to be funny in a hipster-ironic mode. (I did not find it funny.)

“Uncertainty Principle” by K. Tempest Bradford. A young girl notices reality shifting around her, but nobody else does. Over the years, the President changes, wars break out and are erased from time, and her best friend vanishes as if she had never existed. This extremely intense and existentially horrifying set-up turns into a more standard action-based science fiction story about halfway through. The whole thing is well-written but I liked the first half much more. It probably needed to be longer to give the second half the same emotional weight as the first. This one is more bittersweet than depressing.

“Pattern Recognition” by Ken Liu. Kids in an orphanage are told that they’ve been rescued from a hellish world outside, and are made to play video games all day. Very good prose; plausible but predictable story. There’s a really jarring, confusing transition right before the climax, possibly exacerbated by the poor formatting of the version I read (an e-book via Netgalley.) Moderately depressing.

“Gods of Dimming Light” by Greg van Eekhout. Alone among the stories, this is fantasy, not science fiction, and so reads more oddly than it probably would have in a more fantasy-geared anthology. In a doomed and dying world, a boy of Indonesian descent finds a connection to the other side of his heritage – his descent from Odin! The ancient Norse theme of the brave fight against inevitable doom meshes powerfully with the modern apocalyptic setting.

This was one of my favorites, mostly because of the ending. The kid turns his back on the good fight as the Valkyrie explains it to him, fighting gloriously in a war his side is doomed to lose. He goes back to his family to eke out his money to feed them and keep the lights on until the last darkness descends – different details, but still a heroic battle against inevitable doom: a quiet little Ragnarok. I didn't find this one depressing, but that was purely because the tone was heroic/tragic. Everyone's still doomed.

“Next Door” by Rahul Kanakia. The haves have gotten so plugged in to VR that they barely notice squatters living in their houses. A boy and his boyfriend search for a squat that isn’t bedbug-infested, and tangle with a family of haves that aren’t as out of touch as most. This story made me itch. Literally. It’s a black comedy and quite clever. And yes. Everyone is probably doomed. Including, quite possibly, the heroes immediately following the last scene, from insecticide poisoning.

“Good Girl” by Malinda Lo. Alone in the collection, this was an X has been banned and the government controls X story. (Interracial procreation is banned and the government controls marriage.) Ironically, it was my favorite of the original stories in the collection – sexy, well-written, well-paced, believable, and even with a somewhat hopeful ending. A biracial girl who can pass meets another biracial girl who’s living underground – literally and metaphorically. Lo is fantastic at depicting sexual attraction in a hot but non-cheesy way. The characterization is good, too. Great last line. I would read a whole book of this.

“A Pocket Full of Dharma” by Paolo Bacigalupi. A scarred, disabled, half-starved plague survivor leaves his village to become a beggar in a future Chinese city in the hope that things will be better there. Spoiler: they aren’t. Lots of colorful details of the setting, but I have a low gross-out threshold for descriptions of bodily fluids, and I ended up unable to finish this one.

“Blue Skies” by Cindy Pon. A have-not boy kidnaps a have girl in an environmentally devastated future Taiwan, in the hope of getting her wealthy family to pay a ransom. Very well-observed details, and a poignant relationship given just enough room to breathe. In another world, those two might have been lovers or friends… but this is not that world. The tone is more wistful than depressing, but the world as a whole is probably doomed.

“What Arms to Hold” by Rajan Khanna. Indian children are slave labor in a mine… and the details are even more grim than one would expect from that thumbnail description. Well-written and with a surprisingly hopeful ending, but most of the story is excruciatingly depressing. Appropriately so, given the subject matter. But still.

“Solitude” by Ursula K. Le Guin. A reprint from The Birthday of the World. A fantastic, non-grim story – there’s even some funny lines – about a future anthropologist who goes to a planet with her two young children to study the ways of a culture that seems to have no community. The mother and older son learn a lot about the culture; the young daughter becomes part of it. Can a culture really be based on solitude? A fascinating, moving, beautifully written, well-characterized work of anthropological science fiction.

I was puzzled at first as to why it was in this collection, as I would have never thought of that culture as a dystopia. Then I realized that while the daughter sees it as her home, and sees all the positive aspects (as well as the negative ones – she’s only naïve when she’s very young), the mother sees it as a dystopia. The idea that the same place can be utopia for one person and a dystopia for another is unique to this story, in this collection: it’s the only one set in a world that isn’t objectively, unequivocally horrible. No wonder it’s the only story that, while it has some sad and dark moments, isn’t depressing at all. No one is doomed! It was such a relief!

There are some excellent stories in the anthology, and not every single one is depressing. But the cumulative effect is awfully grim. This is purely my personal preference, and I do realize that dystopian sf is not a cheery genre, but I would love to see a diversity-focused YA anthology that’s a bit more fun.

Diverse Energies
skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (elizabeth book)

From: [personal profile] skygiants


Thank you for reminding me about this book, I meant to buy it and have not yet!
skygiants: Anthy from Revolutionary Girl Utena holding a red rose (i'm the witch)

From: [personal profile] skygiants


If nothing else, the WHBBWL* scale certainly applies here.

(*invented many years ago by I think [personal profile] schiarire, the key to this scale is:
WHBBWL - would have been better with lesbians
WNHBBWL(BIAHL) - would not have been better with lesbians (because it already has lesbians)
SGICEBIBL - so good it cannot be improved with lesbians, but I might be mis-remembering the way this particular acronym goes, because I have never yet had an opportunity to use it)

From: [identity profile] thecityofdis.livejournal.com


As a whole, this anthology is not much like most current YA dystopian novels, which are generally about naïve privileged white girls slowly coming to realize that their “the government controls everything” society actually sucks, while navigating a love triangle.

For the record, this and the entire paragraph that birthed it sum up so very well why we're friends.

From: [identity profile] janni.livejournal.com


The idea that the same place can be utopia for one person and a dystopia for another is unique to this story

Which is strange when one thinks about it, because this has probably been true for nearly every actual historical dystopia(including our own), because you can't make a dystopia happen if no one at all wants or benefits from it.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Maybe partly a matter of POV - we only get POVs from the disenfranchised. But it doesn't seem like the rich folk are that much happier, given that they're also, eventually doomed too.

In a perfect little reflection of American society, the YA novels with the white protagonists are dystopias of control, and the protagonists are privileged girls who discover that their society is corrupt. These stories, with protagonists of color, are dystopias of poverty, and the protagonists are disprivileged teens who discover that things were even worse/more hopeless (or, occasionally, less hopeless) than they thought.

What you say is interesting. I can think of very few societies that even come close to being true dystopias in the sense that no one benefits. In most societies, some benefit at the expense of others, AND some simply fit in better and like the society better than others.

From: [identity profile] oracne.livejournal.com


In a perfect little reflection of American society, the YA novels with the white protagonists are dystopias of control, and the protagonists are privileged girls who discover that their society is corrupt. These stories, with protagonists of color, are dystopias of poverty, and the protagonists are disprivileged teens who discover that things were even worse/more hopeless (or, occasionally, less hopeless) than they thought.

Yes! I must now retreat and have thinky thoughts about this idea.

From: [identity profile] marzipan-pig.livejournal.com


Yeah, this is super interesting to think about.

Being kind of a plucky/priviledged whitegirl myself I can find 'traditional' dystopias satisfying, especially ones with some future for the rebellious whitegirl to leave home for college and a queer community find a place for herself/her loved ones.

But what about LESS black-and-white dystopias, where some people find one solution and others find others and some people (who aren't total jerks really) do OK under the repressive structure? Or would that be too real-life-solutiony to be sf/fantasy?


From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


That would be Le Guin's The Dispossessed: great for some, terrible for others, just in some ways but not others; the "solution" is ambiguous.


From: [identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com


because you can't make a dystopia happen if no one at all wants or benefits from it

Yes, *lots* of people actually have to want it or at least be neutral toward it. Even when the people actually benefiting or flourishing are small in number, they have to have the cooperation of, say, the army if they are to keep the others in their place--and for the army to cooperate, it has to be getting something out of the situation.

From: [identity profile] mikeda.livejournal.com


Possibly one could have a situation where everyone agrees the current situation is miserable and has to be changed but nothing gets done because the various factions can't agree on what changes to make.

However, that would seem to be a very unstable and short-lived equilibrium under just about any plausible circumstances.

From: [identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com


That's true too. Basically, all we have to do is look at real life and see when, why, and to what degree dystopic societies flourish. I mean, with dystopic sf or fantasy, part of what the genre promises to do is exaggerate some characteristics... but the more the dynamics seem true to life, the more believable it is.

From: [identity profile] klwilliams.livejournal.com


I would probably love this book if I were still a teenager, since "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" was one of my favorites as a teenager. There was nothing like gloom and pain to really cheer me up back then. Now, not so much.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


That was my favorite story of all time when I was in high school. I remember explaining to a librarian that it perfectly captured the experience of being imprisoned and tortured by a sadistic computer, which was exactly what high school felt like to me.

As you say, now, not so much.

From: [identity profile] londonbard.livejournal.com


Thank you for the warning about most of them recommendation of "The Birthday of the World". I can't think how I missed that. "Next Door" seems interesting, too.

From: [identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com


Fascinating and stimulating review--I really appreciated this. I can't read half of what I want, and yet I like knowing about stories, and your review does exactly that, plus gives me the impression of talking with you about them.

"Next Door" sounds like the successful execution of an idea that I've played around with but never written up for lack of a gripping plot.

I liked the spoiler-reveal you described for "Gods of Dimming Light," though I'm not sure I could get into the Odin-and-Norse-gods side of things. Oh well!

And I very much liked your insights into "Solitude"--I'd like more stories in which impressions of the society vary like that.

Atom bomb stories--no, I have a very, very low threshold for that too.
ext_7025: (Default)

From: [identity profile] buymeaclue.livejournal.com


Wow, that sounds like a whole bunch of stories that I would really enjoy as individuals and find crushing as a whole!

Will seek out the Le Guin post-haste, and ponder how to ration out the rest.

From: [identity profile] nipernaadiagain.livejournal.com


Thank you for an interesting review! And I see online that the local library has "The Birthday of the World", so I am going there after work.

Also, it has made me a bit depressed - why, oh why am I not a writer, so that I could write about growing up in the Dystopian society of late Soviet Union.

The irony I love most about my childhood is that I have such an easy way of shedding my past of growing up as a naïve privileged white girl - I just have to look at my childhood with, for example, American eyes where naïve privileged white girls did not eat tree buds in spring from winter lack of vitamins and did not spend parts of their childhood in state institutions, as their mothers had to be working and ... (but I must stop here, as it sounds boring TMI)

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I don't find that boring at all! I would love to hear more about that, either here or on your own LJ.

From: [identity profile] nipernaadiagain.livejournal.com


There is a problem, though. When I love talking about past, it always comes back to bite me if I tell.

I am not aware of any readers just walking off, but what HAS happened is that the same people who say they enjoy hearing about different kind of experience, then use that same experience as an excuse to refuse to give me any support, advice, recommendations: "You are too different/ you have too different background"

Hence - if I want to fit in, I must be silent and deny my past, upbringing and culture.

From: [identity profile] poilass.livejournal.com


Jesus. I feel depressed just reading about these stories.
.

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