Benjamin January is working at a hospital during a yellow fever epidemic. (Yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitos, and due to being endemic in Africa, many people from Africa have some level of immunity. The characters in the book are aware of the latter fact but not the former, and have no useful treatment even if they did know the cause.) Meanwhile, both free people of color and slaves are mysteriously vanishing. In more cheerful news— well, cheerful for a while— Ben meets Rose, a free woman of color running a school for girls. Rose is a great character, and their slow burn romance is lovely.

That being said, the book as a whole was awesomely depressing. Not only was it set in a yellow fever epidemic, not only did it contain a brief but absolutely horrifying torture sequence, but both the epidemic and the horrifying torture were actual historic events, ie, they really happened to real people. Also, dead children. Truly grimdark, though not gratuitously given that it’s real history. Not even Ben and Rose’s charming courtship and politicly crude policeman Abishag Shaw’s delightful way with words ("But I do think I should point out to you that even if Miss Chouteau gets cleared of Borgialatin the soup herself, it ain't gonna win her freedom,") can lift the general gloom.

I have been told that this and Sold Down the River are the darkest books in the whole series. However, I already started Graveyard Dust, and it looks like Hambly is careful to get new readers up to speed on events, so Fever Season is probably skippable if you like the characters but want to miss the awesome depressingness.

Fever Season

Spoilers: Read more... )
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. Read more... ) 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, Read more... )

“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
[Catch-up review from Goodreads; I read this ages ago, and skimmed recently while culling books. Not a keeper.]

Bleak contemporary horror-satire about a poor shlub of a teenage boy who is slowly turning into a vampire.

There's some good writing and an excellent use of an unusual tone which I can only describe as Raymond Carver meets Joss Whedon. The world is intriguing. But the emotions are just realistic enough to make it excruciatingly depressing. In fact, it concludes with my least favorite depressing trope ever:

Read more... )

M. T. Anderson is up there with Katherine Paterson for slit-your-wrists YA authors. Feed was even more depressing; it featured a variation on that same depressing trope Read more... ) and also the human race was clearly doomed and deserved to be doomed.

Thirsty
I don’t often say this, but I regret reading this book, a collection of short stories by Lindholm (aka Hobb). Not only did I dislike nearly all of them, but many of them were creepy and unpleasant, full of child abuse, animal abuse, preachiness, and despair. In particular, two stories were largely centered around cat corpses. There’s a theme I can do without!

I got the book from the library because I love Lindholm’s Ki and Vandien series, and enjoyed almost all her novels written as Lindholm. (I see cheap used copies of Harpy's Flight
here.) I also liked Hobb’s first two “Assassin” and “Ship” books enough to read most of her other novels, even though the rest ranged from okay to terrible.

But I had forgotten, or traumatically repressed, that of the two Lindholm short stories I’d previously read, one was the charming Ki and Vandien adventure “Bones for Dulath” (not reprinted in this volume, probably because it’s too much fun,) but the other was the awesomely depressing lizard messiah story (which was reprinted, probably because it’s so full of DOOM.) It also contains my new nominee for the ultimate Never befriend a person with problems story.

“Silver Lady and the Fortyish Man” is an exception to the doom parade. It’s a cute urban fantasy romance – a bit too cute for my taste.

“Finis” is a vampire story with a predictable twist ending.

“Drum Machine” is an annoying, preachy sf story about genetically engineered babies, the Horror of Sameness, and how if we eliminate mental illness, we will eliminate creativity. SIGH.

“Cut” is an annoying, preachy sf story in which the price of allowing girls to get abortions without their parents’ permission is that anyone over 15 can now make any bodily alteration without their parents’ permission, but parents can do anything to their children if they’re under 15. The heroine’s grand-daughter is going to voluntarily undergo female genital mutilation, and make her infant daughter do the same. This story was effectively manipulative, but when I’m being manipulated, I’d like it to be little less obvious. The foreword notes that “Cut” isn’t supposed to be an anti-abortion polemic, which is surprising given how exactly it reads as one.

The Inheritance

Cut for spoilers regarding DOOM, child abuse, dead cats, and the Lizard Messiah. )
rachelmanija: (Bleach: Parakeet of DOOM)
( Apr. 6th, 2011 12:42 pm)
Ages ago, when I auto-disqualified any works set during the Holocaust, slavery, etc from nomination in the YA Agony Awards, I threatened to do a second run-off based on the trashiest and most exploitative works involving real-life tragedies.

Before I go any further, I want to make it very, very clear that I am not mocking the Holocaust or any other real life atrocities! I am mocking works of fiction which make inappropriate, trashy, and/or ludicrous use of actual and horrible historical events.

("Springtime for Hitler" in The Producers is a deliberate parody of that sort of thing, and so doesn’t count. (The link goes to "I'm WET! And I'm STILL HYSTERICAL!")

I’m not sure if I’ll actually do a run-off, but a while back I had a conversation over email which I kept meaning to write up.

I wrote, “There was this whole genre of trashy Holocaust novels, popular I think in the 80s, which I kind of distilled into the cement truck Holocaust novel. [Link contains spoilers for Mockingjay.]

Some artists think of the Holocaust, and write The Devil's Arithmetic. Others think of the Holocaust, and write about traumatized telepathic lion tamer twins. Cut for somewhat disturbing content )

While Rebekka begins her hypnosis treatment, Ruda's ambition moves her to further crime; as their histories are disclosed, the twins are led to a final overwrought meeting under a Berlin bigtop.

That synopsis reminded me of the infamous Jerry Lewis movie, The Day The Clown Cried, in which he played a comedian in a death camp. You would not think that was such a great concept that it deserved to inspire not one, but three movies, but it also generated Life Is Beautiful, not to mention Jakob the Liar. I should note that lots of people thought Life Is Beautiful was a genuinely good movie. I have no opinion on the matter, because I can only stand to see one Holocaust movie every twenty years, and Schindler's List was it.

Speaking of controversial Holocaust movies, a number of parents I know were very, very ticked that Boy In The Striped Pajamas was advertised as a sweet story of friendship, with no mention of the fact that it’s a Holocaust movie and does not end happily. To say the least. All else aside, even if parents do want to take their kids to a Holocaust movie, most of them would like to know in advance that that’s what they’re doing. As it was, several family plans for ice cream after the movie had to be hastily switched to grief-and-trauma counseling after the movie.

Share with me your favorite examples of awful, exploitative, inappropriate, trashy, ridiculous, surprise!genocide or otherwise bad works of fiction attempting to springboard off of history. As in Life Is Beautiful, I realize that one person’s moving work of art is another person’s crass exploitation. Given that and the sensitivity of the subject, please be nice to each other in comments.
I read this while I was at horse camp, where I found it on the shelf and picked it up because I had enjoyed some of Friesner’s comic fantasy when I was in high school. (She is probably best-known for the “Chicks in Chained Mail” series.) This was not comic. I read it in mounting amazement, recounted plot points to a fascinated [personal profile] coraa ([personal profile] coraa: “And then they ate her?” Me: “No, the cannibals show up later.”), and then promptly forgot about it entirely until it came up in conversation recently.

It is a feminist dystopia, which is a genre which has thankfully become less popular of late, but was relatively common up to about fifteen years ago. I’m not saying that it’s a bad genre. Many examples are good. But they are nearly universally awesomely depressing, often with addition Cement Truck depressingness slapped on to an already inherently depressing set-up, and if you read too many of them in a row, you will get the impression that the future is wall-to-wall rape, broken up by cannibalism, oppressive religion, slavery, and sex with horses.

(Before I go any further, I have to note that the book with horse bestiality is not only one of the well-written ones, but is, remarkably, not awesomely depressing. (Though it’s the second in a series of four, and the first one is.) The society of hard-riding lesbian clones for whom sex with horses is necessary to make the parthenogenesis work is surprisingly functional, and the characters even sometimes have fun. But it’s impossible to have a discussion about feminist dystopias without someone saying, “And then there’s the horse cock book!”

Those books are by Suzy McKee Charnas, and if you can get past the slavery and the horse sex, they are actually quite good. The third and fourth books are about rebuilding society, which is an unusual topic and one I like quite a bit.

The Slave and The Free: Books 1 and 2 of 'The Holdfast Chronicles': 'Walk to the End of the World' and 'Motherlines'

The Furies (The Holdfast Chronicles, Book 3)

The Conqueror's Child (The Holdfast Chronicles, Book 4))

I also read I Who Have Never Known Men, in which women are locked up for no reason, then an apocalypse happens and kills all the men, and then everyone mopes around until the heroine, the last woman on earth, ironically gets cancer of the uterus that she never used, having never known men, and commits suicide, and, of course, The Handmaid's Tale (Everyman's Library). Sheri Tepper practically made a career out of writing feminist dystopias.

I read all these because at that time it was more-or-less possible to read all the sf that was published that year or at least was available where I was, and I did. They did not make me feel like the future was anything to look forward to.

On to Esther “Chicks in Chainmail” Friesner’s cannibal apocalypse rape gang book!

The Psalms of Herod

Spoilers contain rape, sacred blowjobs, rape, mutant women, rape, lost legs, rape, cannibalism, and rape, and an annual rape festival. And rape. )

These books were part of a fictional rape trend, especially in fantasy. If a female character had a dark secret, it would inevitably turn out to be rape. Even today, especially in TV and movies, a female character’s dark secret is typically rape. (If it isn’t, it’s probably child abuse or a Secret Baby.)

Why all the rape? In some novels, it's a lazy shortcut to trauma: what else bad could possibly happen to a woman other than something sexual? In a few, it's pure exploitation. But in the feminist dystopias, and in many other books, the thought behind seemed neither lazy nor sleazy. These writers are clearly deeply concerned about sexism. The ultimate expression of sexism is rape, so if you're writing a book about sexism... The problem, or one of the problems, is that while the intent of the books individuallly is to say that rape is bad, considered as a group, if practically every fantasy you read with a heroine has her getting raped, what tends to come across was that rape is inevitable.

I eventually made the conscious decision that my female characters’ dark secrets would not be rape, just so there would be some island of sexual safety in the middle of the sea of fictional rape. In my efforts to avoid it, I have resorted to everything from “my sister was killed in an accident and I blame myself” to “I killed someone in a fit of rage when we were both kids and I will never forgive myself” to “I became a cannibal to save my life (and I blame myself.)” I especially like giving female characters trauma which didn’t occur because they were female. Which is not to say that I’ll never write about rape ever. But probably not till I run out of other dark secrets.

On the other hand, Robin McKinley’s Deerskin is one of my favorite books of all time. So is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Mirror Dance (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures). I am a hard sell on fictional depictions of rape, but a soft sell on fictional depictions of trauma and healing. I’m less bothered by rape when that’s a large part of what the character’s journey is about than when it’s just lurking in the background or is a large part of what the setting is about.

One person’s deeply felt exploration of trauma and recovery is another person’s trashy exploitation, of course. But there is a place for rape in fiction so long as it exists in real life. That being said, I am rather relieved that I haven't read much written after about 1995 in which the apocalypse inevitably results in state-sanctioned rape, state-mandated rape, rape festivals, or roving rape gangs.
I didn’t love the first two books in this series – the worldbuilding is flimsy and I couldn’t help comparing them to the remarkably similar Battle Royale movie, which I like a lot more - but I liked Katniss, her narrative voice, and the energy of the story enough to keep reading. That was a mistake.

Not only is Mockingjay awesomely depressing, but the elements I enjoyed in the first two books are absent. It lacks energy, and Katniss’s character has changed radically and off-page before the book begins: the angry, determined survivor of the first two novels is gone, replaced by a clinically depressed and passive girl who spends most of the book in a despairing haze, being moved around like a pawn by authority figures.

This was such a deliberately and consistently grim novel that I ended up sorry that I read it, and I rarely feel that way. The first two books were dark in ways which logically followed from the premise: the story was about kids forced to kill in gladiatorial combat, and kids were killed in gladiatorial combat. This one is dark in ways which logically follow from the premise, but also in ways which don't. Sometimes people act out of character solely so that horrible things can happen, and a climactic scene makes absolutely no sense solely so that the most horrible thing of all can happen.

My usual example separating inherently depressing from gratuitously depressing is a Holocaust novel in which everyone dies in a concentration camp, and a Holocaust novel in which everyone dies in a concentration camp except for the protagonist's true love, who is liberated, runs joyously across the street to meet her, and is squashed by a cement truck. Not only was the cement truck not a logical consequence of genocide, but by adding implausible elements to make genocide even more depressing, the entire novel and so the genocide it contains seem less real, and so defeats the author's purpose.

Mockingjay is a cement truck novel.

It’s not necessary to write a book which is no fun in order to point out that war is bad, nor is it necessary to make the book excruciatingly depressing in order to convey that the heroine is depressed. Aristotle wrote all about the paradox of audiences getting profound enjoyment out of watching horrific tragedies unfold onstage. The emotional state of the protagonist does not have to be inflicted on the audience to make the audience to understand how the protagonist is feeling.

The first spoiler cut only describes the first sixteen pages, which is one of the most stunningly depressing openings I’ve ever read.

Spoilers trip over the skulls of loved ones )

Had I been normally browsing, I would probably have given up there. However, I was determined to stay at air-conditioned Borders to prevent heat exhaustion, so I continued, cool but depressed.

The next spoiler cut is for the rest of the book.

Spoilers fall, everybody dies )

If you haven’t started the series but you want to, I would recommend reading only the first book and possibly the second (though that one ends on a bigger cliffhanger), then writing your own ending.

The Hunger Games - Library Edition

Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games)

Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games) - Library Edition

Battle Royale: Director's Cut (Collector's Edition). Warning: very violent and disturbing, doubly so because it’s live-action and the teenagers look like (and I think are mostly played by) real teenagers, not young-looking adults.
Someone helpfully suggested Hannah Moskowitz's Break, which Publishers Weekly describes as follows:

"Seventeen-year-old Jonah is on a quest to break every bone in his body, and his best friend Naomi is there to film each attempt, as he crashes his skateboard or dives into an empty pool. His 16-year-old brother, Jesse, has deadly food allergies and their parents aren't vigilant about keeping the house safe, so that job has fallen to Jonah, who is weighed down by the responsibility. He breaks his bones so that as he heals he becomes stronger ("It's sort of a natural bionics thing. Break a leg, grow a better leg. Break a body, grow a better body"), a belief treated with almost religious reverence from some, like Naomi (who calls it a "revolution"), but that eventually results in his being institutionalized."

Deadly allergies! Institutionalization! The deadly collision of a symbolic quest with actual pavement AND, I bet, lectures about the media-driven modern world of reality TV! Since it sounds like it has everything but a monkey, I have supplied that in an icon.

Has anyone actually read this? How is it? Could I raise money for Pakistan or the Virginia Avenue Project by reading it myself?

Break

PS. Yeah, yeah, I am procrastinating like mad, hence the semi-manic posting. In ten minutes, have to go teach two lessons, then rush to the beach to cast bread upon the waters, and all the time have a career-related Sekrit Thing of Probable Unhappiness looming over my head like a large, heavy, depressing, issue-driven YA novel. In verse.
Most realistic (ie, not fantasy) YA novels with single-word titles are awesomely depressing. Moreover, they are frequently about hot-button social issues and are not uncommonly in verse.

Sold, by Patricia McCormick. Child prostitution is bad. In verse.

Cut, by Patricia McCormick. Self-mutilation is a serious issue.

Skinny, by Ibi Kaslik. Anorexia is sad.

Massive, by Julia Bell. Anorexia is still sad.

Smack, by Melvin Burgess. Heroin is bad.

Willow, by Julia Hoban. If you kill your entire family in a car crash, you will need lots of therapy.

Shooter, by Walter Dean Myers. Don't shoot up the school.

After, by Amy Efaw. Don't throw your baby in a Dumpster.

Exposed, by Susan Vaught. The internet is evil.

Trigger, by Susan Vaught. Suicide sucks.

Glimpse, by Carol Lynch Williams. Child prostitution is especially bad when your own mother pimps you out.

Crank, by Ellen Hopkins. Crystal meth is bad. In verse.

Glass, by Ellen Hopkins. Crystal meth is still bad. In verse.

Burned, by Ellen Hopkins. Mormons are sexist. In verse.

Identical, by Ellen Hopkins. Incest is wrong and creepy, especially if it involves a father and only one of his identical twin daughters. In verse.

Impulse, by Ellen Hopkins. Suicide, attempted murder, bipolar disorder, abortion, cutting, child abuse, drug addiction, an affair with your high school teacher, and prostitution are all bad, but not bad enough to provide fodder for a single book on each. In verse.

Only counter-example I can think of offhand: Prom, by Laurie Halse Anderson, about the prom.
I was talking (separately) to both [personal profile] sartorias and [profile] faithhopetricks about a peculiar YA and middle-grade genre which proliferated in the 70s, 80s, and to some extent 90s, which I think of as the "friendship is pointless" novel. This may overlap with the dog/horse/falcon/best friend/sibling/ALL the dogs die genre, but death is not essential in this genre, and many dead hamster/etc novels don't belong to it.

In this story, a young person meets a Person with a Problem: they are mentally ill, developmentally disabled, physically disabled, dying, very old, or being abused. The young person befriends them. Catastrophe ensues. The young person, sadder but wiser, learns the valuable lesson that you can't ever help anyone, and people with problems are doomed.

Crazy Lady, by Jane Leslie Conly. Perhaps the quintessential title! A kid befriends an alcoholic woman and her developmentally disabled son. She turns out to be abusive and the son is taken away, never to be seen again.

Afternoon of the Elves, Janet Taylor Lisle. A girl's new friend is mentally ill and being abused; when she does the right thing and tells, the friend is taken away, never to be seen her again. Also, elves aren't real.

The Sunflower Forest, by Torey Hayden. (Yes, the nonfiction writer.) A girl tries to help and understand her mom, a Holocaust survivor. But while the daughter is off losing your virginity, the mom has a psychotic flashback, murders the neighbor's child, and is shot by the cops.

The Pigman, by Paul Zindel. Two teenagers befriend a lonely old man who loves a baboon at the zoo. Then the baboon dies before his eyes, and the old man drops dead of sorrow.

The Man Without A Face, by Isabelle Holland. A boy befriends a man whose face is scarred. Then the boy is emotionally scarred when the man makes a pass at him.

I feel like I read a hundred of these books, some of which won awards. To be fair, some of them were quite good. Margaret Mahy's Memory, about a teenage boy who meets a woman with Alzheimers, is excellent and much less reductionist and pat than most.

But the sheer mass of these stories sent out collective messages which, in retrospect, were absolute poison:

- People with disabilities lead lives of utter wretched misery. If you have a physical disability or mental illness, you will neither recover (if it's the sort of thing where recovery is possible) nor lead a regular happy life while taking meds/using a wheelchair/etc. Nope! There is only dooooooooom, death, and the asylum.

- It is impossible to ever help another person, and you shouldn't even try.

- Befriending people whose lives and bodies aren't perfect leads to disaster.

And additional toxic sub-messages: people with disabilities need fixing; it's impossible to ever actually ask anyone what they want or if they want fixing or what they might like help with; compassion leads to disaster; disabled people don't get to tell their own stories; etc.

I can't help feeling that internalizing all that "mental illness is forever (until merciful death)" stuff was the opposite of helpful for me. Now, I don't blame the books per se. The books were an expression of the ideas floating around at the time they were written. But still.

Does anyone else remember this genre? What are your favorite examples? And has the genre died a deserved death, or does an example still occasionally lurch up, zombie-like, to win awards?

(I see there is at least one recent Newbery Honor book which seems to fit this pattern, A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin. Hattie loves her mentally ill uncle. Until he commits suicide.)
A classic sf novel about a Jesuit whose faith is tested by aliens who, to his shock and horror, seem to get along perfectly well without religion. They must be a plant by Satan to make humans think that a society can function without religion!

While I normally don’t have trouble setting aside my atheism in order to sympathize with religious characters’ crises of faith, this particular dilemma struck me as so profoundly non-troubling and the conclusion he draws from it so remarkably stupid, that I ended up reading the book feeling morally and intellectually superior to the hero. That is not actually an enjoyable experience. Surely the Problem of the Righteous Heathen is one which an intellectual priest would have encountered before?

I'm not quite getting the "classic" nature of this, though the aliens are pretty cool. Was it that most sf didn't tackle religion at all other than via made-up alien religions?

View on Amazon: A Case of Conscience (Del Rey Impact)

In which there is awesome depressingness )
I was very taken with this novel when I was in high school, and so recently obtained it to see if it was really as good as I recalled. It wasn't.

It opens with one of the most fat-phobic scenes I've ever read, which is saying a lot. The college-age heroine is on a train next to a smelly fat woman, whom, the narrative frequently reminds us, is fat. Yes, fat! Fat fat fat. She's also a sadistic, violent, paranoid, greedy cheat who enjoys watching animals die. And fat. Very fat.

A few pages in, it becomes clear that we're in a dystopian future in which 95% of the population is stoned 75% of the time (actual statistic, not a joke), religion doesn't exist, casual sex and violence abound, and everything sucks in a manner very reminiscent of hysterical magazine articles about how teenagers are going to hell in an online handbasket.

What's most interesting about the book, and what I liked so much in high school, is hugely spoilery despite being revealed fairly early on, as the reveal itself is pretty cool. What I had not recalled was a jaw-dropping scene right at the end which makes it an awesomely depressing book!

Read more... )

Some used copies are available from Amazon: Unicorns in the Rain (An Argo Book)
While going through old LJ entries, I found this hilarious excerpt from a locked post. I was in Tokyo at the time, and having a lousy time for reasons having nothing to do with Japan:

Yesterday, rather than lurking miserably etc, I went to an English used bookshop in Ebisu on the theory that that would surely cheer me up. I immediately headed for children's/YA, hoping it would have lots of Bristish fantasy like the last time I was there. The first book I picked up was about a teen football player who becomes a quadriplegic. Just what I wanted to read. Nix! Then a book about a boy with a hawk. I flipped to the end. Someone shoots it. Next, race problems. Child labor in a coal mining town. Dead dogs. More race problems. Holocaust. Homeless teens. Holocaust. Homeless teens during the Holocaust. Race problems. Dead otters. Dead aborigines. Dead Jews.
Overwhelmingly, the winner of the YA Agony Award is Susan Beth Pfeffer's depressingly realistic apocalypse novel Life As We Knew It. I am not sure that actually reading it was a moredepressing experience than reading my other personal top contenders, Out of the Dust (you burned your mother to death) and Taylor Five (your brother is dead and your family failed to save the orangutans), but it's certainly in my top three as well.

I think it won for the combination of scope of catastrophe (entire world), personal element (your own mother asks you to commit suicide), and, for people who actually read it, realism and plausibility (it feels like it really could happen-- and it would be depressing.)

Regarding the runner-up, highlight to read spoilers for what it was and also more depressing details. Though actually, I am pretty sure there's more than one YA novel with that plot. Guy Burt's The Hole. Several teenagers tell their parents they're taking a trip somewhere else, but actually hold a slumber party in a WWII bunker. One of them locks the others in. This seems to be told retrospectively, after they've all escaped, but it turns out that they all horribly starved to death in the cold and dark, except for the narrator, who was the sole survivor after two weeks of torture and horror locked in with corpses as her friends died one by one, and is now understandably insane in an asylum. Since the boy she blames for locking them in turns out to not exist, either she did it herself or she is still so terrified of him that she disguised his identity-- so he's still out there. The real murderer and motive can never be known. Oh, and one of the boys raped her while they were all locked in. Cheery!

But all that made me think: what is the difference between depressing and angsty? They are not measures of quality! Good and bad books can be angsty or depressing, or both. Though in my opinion, depression beats angst: a book which is both angsty and depressing produces an overall feeling of depression.

To me, depressing books are ones which you put down feeling miserable, and do not return to unless truly stellar writing draws you back-- and even then you have to brace yourself. And you keep hoping the hero will suffer less, because you don't want to read about all that suffering.

Angsty books are ones in which you finish feeling wrung out but exhilarated, or pleasurably sad, or just plain pleased. You return whenever you feel like it. And while you may want the hero to suffer less, you probably also want them to suffer more so you can see them react to it. "Beautiful suffering" is often a feature of angsty books. Perhaps the best illustration of the search for angst was the person who posted to a Supernatural fanfic-finding community, "I'm looking for stories where Dean gets beat up. Or tortured. I mean more than he does canonically. I just love Dean."

There are other factors which tend to give the impression of "angsty" or "depressing," but are not surefire signifiers.

Depressing books are more likely to involve current or historical social problems or tragedies. The historic weight of truth adds to the reader's depression. A writer intending angst must swim against the tide to not make a book about historic tragedies or contemporary injustice depressing-- and it may feel cheap and trashy if they succeed.

Factors which may be used either way: realism, believable characters, stock or archetypal characters, happy or unhappy endings, focusing on or not focusing on the hero's emotional reactions, the hero being active or passive, the hero as a victim of circumstances or the hero as the maker of their own agony, misery, or woe.

I don't think I've ever read a book where I felt that a dead pet produced more angst than depression, either in the characters or me.

How do you draw the line between depressing and angsty?

Please use examples from any media-- but clearly label them for spoilers in the subject heading!

Put any relevant spoilers behind spoiler code, as not everyone has watched or read everything. Sample code to cut and paste-- which I can't get to show up, damn. You can find it and copy it from this post: http://rilina.livejournal.com/429684.html

Sample code:

Spoilers here.

Spoilers here.
We're down to the final agonizing round... and proof that the majority of you believe that the ruination of your own life and the death of humans is more agonizing than the death of pets, which is not what I expected when I began the poll.

It's also interesting to note that neither contender is a realistic "problem novel," which is the genre which comes in for the most criticism for depressingness. One is sf-- the genre many of us fled to in the hope of something more cheery-- and the other, whose identity I have hidden due to spoilers, is a psychological horror/thriller.

Which encounter with death by starvation in a cold dark place is more agonizing?

[Poll #1140422]
All the "shoot your pet" choices have failed to make it to the semi-finalists! It was a tough round, but Alan's euthanized animal kingdom beat Old Yeller's rabies.

Regarding the first question, not to tip the scales, but I recalled two pieces of information that might be useful: the cat is one of the few characters who does not starve to death in the apocalypse; when Sounder's face gets shot off, the boy puts part of his ear under his pillow and prays for him to recover.

Incidentally, it's already out of the competition, but I found an excerpt from the Scottish dog-on-dog massacre. And Hoppin's young dog, who three hours before had been the children's tender playmate, now fiendish to look on, dragged after the huddle up the hill. Back the mob rolled on her. When it was passed, she lay quite still, grinning; a handful of tawny hair and flesh in her dead mouth.

Have fun, folks!

Dead pets, dead parents, and evil institutions )
The battle of Orangutan vs. Apocalypse was very, very tough. I'm not sure the current results were really statistically significant. Nevertheless, Apocalypse wins and goes on to the next round.

Once I shook up the brackets, "shoot your rabid dog" easily trounced "shoot your veggie-eating deer."

Because I added a new contestant in the last round and so ended up with an odd number of finalists, the winner of the Paterson entry is now going up against another newbie which I forgot to add last time, Sounder.

Death, death, mutilation, madness, and more death, but no blindness unless you count Sounder losing an eye along with half his face to a shotgun blast )
I meant to do standard "winner of # 1 faces winner of # 2" bracketing, but was forced to shake it up as the contenders in the "You have to shoot your beloved pet" category tied. Also, I added a couple that I forgot last time. Katherine Paterson now has her own category!

Dead kittens, blind ponies, and evil puppeteers )
rachelmanija: (Emo Award: Shinji agony)
( Feb. 14th, 2008 12:59 pm)
In honor of The Anime Ewo Awards, I present the YA Agony Awards! Voting by rounds. Expect spoilers, though honestly these books are not exactly surprising, ie, the dog dies.

Please argue for your favorites or nominate others in comments.

Dead dogs, dead moms, and the death of the universe )
1. The dog always dies.

1a. Unless the dog is a minor supporting character. But if the bond between the kid and the dog is a major part of the book, the dog will die. The more gorily, the better! Torn apart by wild animals is good. Rabies is good too. But contracting rabies from being torn apart by wild animals, and then having to be shot by the kid's father or, better yet, the kid himself, is best.

1b. Unless Gordon Korman wrote the book.

1c. This applies to any animal that forms a strong bond with the protagonist, ie, a hawk, a red pony, a fawn, etc. And goes double if the protagonist is already miserable due to racism, the Dust Bowl, being a miner in Scotland, etc.

2. If a boy is torn between a sexy girl and a sexually unaware/uninterested girl, the sexy girl will turn out to be evil, or at the very least selfish and not the right choice. That goes double if the sexy girl is also rich.

3. After about 1950, if the heroine's sibling dies, the entire book has to be about that. Before about 1950, it could be a sad interlude in a book that's about something else entirely.

4. In the eighties and nineties, the YA novel plot was "Teenager meets dying/mentally ill/emotionally scarred/physically or mentally disabled person/child of said person, and learns the important lesson that you can't fix other people's lives." Thank God, that plot seems to have fallen out of popularity.

5. Pinwheels make good memorials.
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