I was recently pointed to a new YA dystopia straight out of the YA dystopia generator.

Caffeine has been banned and the government controls water.

I have no idea what that book is actually like (unfortunately, it looks like it isn't a comedy) but my problem with a lot of recent YA dystopias is that they do didacticism badly: bluntly, to the detriment of other artistic functions, and in the service of a message that everyone already believes: it's bad for government to control every aspect of life. Love is good. Destroying the environment is bad.

Didactic art is art which intends to teach, and while we tend to use the word to mean “teach morality,” it can also simply be educational. Most nonfiction is didactic. Fiction too teaches facts (often wrong), about history or work or nature; it shades into morality when the lessons are about human nature.

While didactic fiction of the moral/political variety is so hard to do well, and so easily to do so badly that it invites reviewers like me to point and laugh, it’s nearly impossible to write a work of any length which avoids didacticism altogether. Every story has facts and beliefs embedded in it. If the intent was entirely to entertain and not at all to teach, all that means is that the facts and beliefs will be some amalgam of those held by the characters, those held by the author, and those held by the author’s society.

We label works “didactic” when they are either unsubtle or when the beliefs being promulgated go contrary to our own. When the beliefs are those we or our societies hold ourselves, they have to be pretty damn unsubtle for us to even notice them. This is why a cozy mystery with a lesbian protagonist gets labeled “pro-homosexual propaganda,” even though it contains not one word about gay rights, while the same mystery with a heterosexual heroine who gets married at the end in a flurry of rejoicing at this exquisitely happy conclusion will never be labeled “pro-heterosexuality propaganda.”

I’m not interested in writing fiction whose primary purpose is to teach moral or any other type of lesson. But I confess, there are some messages I do try to send, and not through Western Union.

When I grew up, it was very noticeable, just by the preponderance of books in which the heroes were boys and girls barely even appeared or appeared only as secondary characters, that American society, in general, didn’t believe that girls could be heroes. (I did not get this impression about Indian society, by the way, since the literature I had access to did not erase the historical presence of some amazingly bad-ass women.) It didn’t have to consciously try to send the message that girls weren’t heroes, or that the main importance of Jews was that most of us died in the Holocaust. Those messages were sent by our absence and the overwhelming presence of everyone else.

Another message, unintentionally sent loud and clear, was that people with mental illnesses and physical disabilities not only don’t get to be heroes, but exist only to teach those of perfectly sound body and mind not to try to help them out, because they will only pull you down. And also, people with mental illnesses are doomed. DOOMED, I tell you!

On the flip side, quite a few books sent messages which were much more encouraging and positive, and which I clung to for dear life: If you’re a misfit and bullied and don’t fit in where you are, you can leave and find a place where people will appreciate you. (I know lots of adults hate books with that message, because they are often blatant wish-fulfullment, are unfair to the original society, have protagonists who suffer for no reason and then are rewarded without effort, etc. But when you’re a bullied, depressed, misfit kid, they are an absolute lifeline. And also, quite often true, especially if your problem is something like being gay in a small, homophobic town.) Another message I benefited a lot from was that you can go through absolutely horrible stuff, but survive to find a happy ending.

I have no interest in convincing anyone through my writing that, say, global warming is real. (I don’t know why, but environmentalism ranks with libertarianism as the didacticisms most likely to be obnoxious in fictional form.) But I do try to suggest that trauma doesn’t have to break you forever, that hope and redemption are always there for the taking, and that anyone can be a hero.

Talk to me about messages: good ones, bad ones, the ones you send, the ones you receive, the ones you’re sick of, and the ones you wish you’d see more.
ext_3386: (Default)

From: [identity profile] vito-excalibur.livejournal.com

Change that to "all people", and you have my major issue with Bujold's oeuvre.
ext_12512: Hinoe from Natsume Yuujinchou, elegant and smirky (Sanzo: HEADACHE)

From: [identity profile] smillaraaq.livejournal.com

I am now thinking it may be a good thing I have never picked up Bujold...

From: [identity profile] lenora-rose.livejournal.com

I have to say, I didn't see that particular trait in Bujold. She's shamelessly fond of romances, and yes, many of her characters want kids as well as SOs, but I thought part of the problem Miles had was that he wanted marriage and kids and met/admired/dated several women who didn't.

From: [identity profile] anglerfish07.livejournal.com

Ivan Vorpatril is miserable about being single and not coincidentally, he doesn't like children. People treat him as being slow sometimes and order him around (Lady Alys, Miles).

Vassily Vorsiosson doesn't have children of his own and doesn't want any. He's portrayed as being callous and stupid in attempting to forcibly remove Nikolai from his mother Ekaterin.

I like children. But it would be good for Bujold to acknowledge that not all childless people (or people who don't want children) are immature, single and lonely, stupid or callous.

From: [identity profile] lenora-rose.livejournal.com

I think you may be seeing correlation, not causation, there. But since I never read Bujold with an eye to attitudes about children, I can't say for sure. It didn't jump out at me, but the worst I've been about wanting children is ambivalent, so I might have blithely skipped over that unawares. If
I reread her anytime soon, I'll probably be thinking about it and looking for it.

(and Ivan isn't stupid by any normal measure, and no less immature than Miles. He's just in the wrong family.)

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