A sleepy California town is enclosed in a mysterious barrier at the same instant that, pop! Everyone over the age of 14 vanishes. And some kids get psychic powers. (Actually, some got their powers several months before the pop - no word yet on why.) And animals mutate.

Flying rattlesnakes! Talking coyotes! Kids running around with tentacle arms and telekinesis!

This would be utterly and completely up my alley... except for the non-existent characterization.

The characters are either good kids trying to do right, with maybe one or two other traits, like "leadership abilities" or "bulimic," or complete psychopaths, with maybe one or two other traits like "intelligent" or "seductive." Speaking of which, I don't love the stock character of the sociopathic manipulative seductress in general, but it is about 500% more skeevy when she's fourteen.

Cool mutant animals. Cool mutant powers. But, alas, I didn't care about any of it.

I also disliked the disjunct between the flat emotional tone (probably due to the paper-thin characterization) and the amount of horrific stuff happening to children, and by that I mean kids way younger than 14.

Spoiler for child harm.

Read more... )

Also could have benefited from characters I cared about. And less retro gender roles. Girls run the daycare and infirmary, boys run law enforcement and government.

There are three girls with powers that could be used in a fight. Two are not introduced till near the end, and the third dies on the same page she's introduced. The main boys' powers are very strong telekinesis, super-strength, laser beams, teleportation, monster-type physical alterations accompanied by super-strength, and altering reality. The main girls' powers are healing, sensing how powerful other mutants are, and sensing how awesome the hero is.

I am not kidding about the last one. Astrid, the love interest, has the power to sense how awesome people are. She's not sure what this literally corresponds to, except that it doesn't seem to just be about who has the most bad-ass power. (The latter is a power another girl has.) But she assures the hero that her mutant power has detected that he is objectively the most important person she has ever met.

A really fun premise and some intriguing mysteries, but not enough to make me continue the series.

rachelmanija: (Godchild: flapping embryo)
( Oct. 3rd, 2012 11:31 am)
I found a fascinating blog entry by Rahul Kanakia, the guy who wrote the bedbugs-and-squatters story, with a gay teenage Indian hero (yay!), for Diverse Energies. (I see elsewhere on the site that "I'm currently shopping a gay-themed YA novel -- set in a dystopian Washington, D.C. -- to agents." I hope it sells. Depressing or not, I would read it.)

The sly humor in his story also comes through in his post, but that's not why I'm linking it. It's about how he got into the anthology in the first place. He was not solicited for a dystopian story, but for "an action-oriented SF story with a teen protagonist who had some kind of diversity."

He adds, "Actually, no one ever told me (when I was writing a story for it) that it was going to be marketed as an anthology of dystopian stories. I wonder if that’s because they just assumed my story would be dystopian (which it was, of course) or if everyone else also turned in dystopian stories and they just decided to roll with it, marketing-wise."

In comments, anthology editor Tobias Buckell notes, "In the YA market they’ve decided anything that looks SF is ‘dystopian’ because ‘SF’ is like a bad word, so if there is a way to shoehorn the word dystopian on the cover it seems to end up there."

Regarding Diverse Energies, it intrigues me that, when given the guidelines Kanakia quotes, almost every single author wrote a genuinely dystopian story - a story in which the world is objectively awful, oppressive, and/or doomed. (Exception: Tempest Bradford. The other two non-quite-dystopian stories were reprints, not stories written for that prompt.)

This is not just about marketing, but about perception. Buckell could have just as easily received a bunch of non-dystopian stories, in which the world was not horrible, and slapped "dystopian" on the cover to satisfy the demands of marketing.

But in fact, not a single author read the prompt "action-oriented sf with a teen hero and diversity" and wrote a space opera, a story about teens meeting aliens, a non-horrific future world like Nnedi Okorafor's biotech wonderland, a story about mutant or psychic or uploaded or immortal or robot or alien teens, or anything that could not be very easily and accurately classified as a dystopia. (Again, exception for Bradford, who wrote an intriguing alternate realities story with dystopian elements.)

I see some circularity going on here, not merely regarding this particular anthology, but perhaps in YA as a whole. All science fiction is labeled "dystopia," whether it is or not. Actual dystopian fiction is popular. Writers begin to assume that "science fiction" means "dystopia," so when they get a request for science fiction, they write a dystopia. Non-dystopian stories are harder to sell, and so don't make as many appearances.

And so, the fictional future, at least as far as teen sf is concerned, is incredibly bleak.

Too bad! I don't much like dystopias, or the sort of post-apocalyptic stories that are about cannibal rape gangs and mass slaughter. I like post-apocalyptics that are about a transformed and marvelous and terrible landscape (like Railsea or Nnedi Okorafor's books), space opera, other planets with different cultures and aliens, and mutants. I like to think that the future will be different rather than doomed.

As far as my own personal tastes go, the future of my YA sf reading looks dystopian indeed.
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
Lugh got born first. On Midwinter Day when the sun hangs low in the sky.

Then me. Two hours later.

That pretty much says it all.

Lugh goes first, always first, an I follow on behind.

An that’s fine. That’s right. That’s how it’s meant to be.

While there are eventually entire paragraphs, the whole book is like this. It’s narrated by the illiterate heroine Saba, in dialect and without quotation marks. Though that usually annoys me, I could hear the rhythms of her accent as I read, and the stylized, poetic, stripped-down style was my favorite part of the book.

When Saba and her idolized twin brother Lugh are 18 and living in apparent isolation in the post-apocalyptic desert, mysterious people kidnap Lugh and kill her father. Saba ditches Emmi, the little sister she’s never much cared for, on her one surviving relative, and sets off to find Lugh. To Saba’s annoyance, Emmi follows her. (I very much liked the relationship between Saba and Emmi – it was by far the most convincing and well-developed one in the book.) Saba and Emmi are promptly kidnapped by traders and sold into slavery, and Saba is forced to become a cage fighter. So far, so good: atmospheric, well-written, and compelling. The worldbuilding is more opportunities for cool set-pieces than anything that hangs together as a whole, but at this point I didn’t really mind.

Things start to go downhill when Saba begins cage-fighting. Though it’s never stated whether or not she’s ever fought before or been trained by anyone, she is instantly the greatest female cage fighter ever by virtue of sheer animal raaaaaage. I don’t buy this. How hard would it have been for to give the readers some plausible explanation? Like, “I nevvir knew why, but Pa, he trained me to fight. Allus said I might need it some day. Evry day after sundown, we fit till there was no more light. It all come back to me now…”

More unnecessary implausibilities appear with Saba’s magic soulmate-finding jewel. Her aunt gave her a necklace that supposedly gets hot when your heart’s desire appears. Saba sees a hot male cage-fighter… and it gets hot! This was ridiculous and unnecessary. Their relationship would have gone the exact same way if there had been no silly magic jewel, since Saba spends the entire book denying that the jewel is valid anyway. Jack, the hot dude, is a charming rogue. He’s not really characterized more than that, but I did appreciate that he was a rogue rather than the standard brooder. I also appreciated that he and Saba, while first bonding in 30 seconds from across the cage yard, later actually interacted and had conversations.

I’ll avoid spoilers from here on out, except to say that the second half of the novel was lively and entertaining, but extremely, extremely predictable, occasionally promising twists but never delivering them. It inspired my poll in the last entry, so if you don’t want to know who doesn’t survive the final battle, don’t go and see which characters were voted as the top two contenders to die. It also became more and more noticeable how little sense the worldbuilding and plotting made, from the classic element of the inn with no apparent population to support such a thing, to the exceptionally poorly-planned mission to take down the Big Bad.

Despite these complaints, I overall enjoyed this book. By virtue of voice and being an adventure rather than an awesomely depressing slog through gloom and cannibal rape gangs, or a tedious exploration of life under a government inexplicably devoted to controlling the wardrobes and love lives of teenagers, it was by far my favorite of the YA dystopias I’ve read this year. As a bonus, though the first of a series, it comes to a satisfying conclusion.

But while I liked it a lot while I was reading, by the time I got to writing the review, the flaws loomed larger. They were the same old flaws which have marred every single YA dystopia I’ve read recently: worldbuilding and characterization thin as tissue paper, and plot holes you could fly a 747 through.

I think I’m done with teen dystopias. Let me know if you find one that has solid characterization of more characters than just the heroine, worldbuilding that meets my rather low bar of “people have cultures of some sort, and there is at least the suggestion that there is an economy and/or means of production beyond cannibalism,” and motivations beyond “everyone who isn’t evil must help the heroine/everyone who isn't the love interest must betray the heroine."

Dustlands #01: Blood Red Road
A mediocre YA novel about the eruption of the supervolcano at Yellowstone which ticks off all the most clichéd tropes of the apocalypse novel as if working from a list: immediate formation of unashamed cannibal rape gangs, check; instant descent into suspicion and savagery by most people even if they’re not cannibal rapists, check; hero’s search for his missing family members, check; romance in the ashes, check; pointless death of pet to provide a third-act fillip of misery, check; government is evil, check; utterly unconvincing hopeful ending after absolutely nothing previous to it has suggested that there is any hope, check.

Sixteen-year-old Alex, a generic teenager with a black belt in taekwondo, is alone at home when his house is hit by a giant rock and bursts into flames. He escapes, only to find that an apocalypse has hit, and shelters with his neighbors. His martial arts skills come in handy when the obligatory post-apocalypse gang invades the house (oddly, they are seeking drugs rather than food) and slaughters his neighbor.

Alex flees to find his parents and sister, who were visiting family in another city. The rest of the book consists of his depressing journey, consisting largely of slogging through ash, searching for a good place to pee, and fighting cannibals. The peeing scenes were the only light moments of the book – they weren’t intended as such, but there were so many of them that I started to laugh every time Alex once again noted that he had a full bladder. At one point, when he is laid up with cannibal-related axe injuries, there is a bedpan peeing scene followed, about two pages later, by a stagger-to-the-bathroom peeing scene. It’s as if the author read one too many books where no one ever pees on-page and thought, “I’ll show them!”

This wasn’t a terrible book – it was competently written, though one-note and with too much repetition and heavy-handed foreshadowing – but the characters were generic and virtually every scene was predictable. Meet an overly friendly man roasting something which smells deliciously like pork only not quite like pork? There is nowhere that scene can go that doesn’t involve attempted cannibalism of the hero. Meet soldiers with machine guns just as you near your destination? There is nowhere that scene can go that doesn’t involve the government being Nazi-like.

As telophase noted, this novel would have been much more interesting with a wider scope and multiple POV characters.

The novel will be published in October. I got the ARC from netgalley.

Ashfall #01: Ashfall
I realized while chatting with [personal profile] sartorias the other day that I've disliked an unusually high percentage of the YA sf and fantasy that's come out in the last couple years. There have certainly been some novels I've adored, but compared to, say, what was coming out five years ago, it's been a lower percentage. The authors I already liked, I still like; but I've been liking the debut novels less, overall.

I suspect that part of the problem is that certain subgenres I'm not big on have become very popular. I'm a little burned out on "modern teenager meets faeries." I've never much liked "my vampire/werewolf/angel/zombie boyfriend." I have yet to really enjoy a dystopia of the Primary colors have been banned and the government controls your sexual orientation variety, and while I like post-apocalyptic novels that focus on the changed landscape of the far future, or in which people are actively trying to rebuild civilization, I am a hard sell on post-apocalyptic stories in which the focus is despair, cannibalism, and rape gangs.

1. Do you feel the same way? Or are you loving the explosion in YA paranormal romance and so forth?

2. What very recent (last three years or so) YA sf or fantasy would I like? Please rec me books which are either in different genres (space opera, high fantasy, steampunk, etc) or such absolutely stunning examples of genres I don't like that I will like them anyway. Also, PLEASE check my author tags to make sure I haven't already read and reviewed the books in question. (To head off a flood of recs, I didn't like The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. Sorry.)
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.
There are some rather interesting discrepancies between the votes in general, and the votes of sponsors who are actually ponying up some cash. In overall totals, we have Bumped (teen pregnancy is bad) in the lead, followed by VI (Sexteen) (teenage girls having sex is bad), and then Divergent (basing society on a personality quiz is bad.)

However, I'm going to prioritize the requests from sponsors, and that breaks down as follows:

Sexteen in the lead, with six sponsors for a total of $ 100 in donations.

Across the Universe follows, with three sponsors and a total of $ 40 in donations.

Only one vote each for Wither ($25) and Bumped ($20).

Right now, it looks like it will be Sexteen. But it's not too late to either vote or comment with sponsorship! Sexteen advocates, sponsor to make sure your book stays in the lead! Advocates of other books, sponsor your favorites! The link below goes to the poll, which is still open.

Bounce: Newspapers have been banned and the government controls sadness.

ETA: [personal profile] movingfinger suggested that Bumped (society encourages teen pregnancy) sounded like the sequel to Wither (everyone drops dead by 25.)

I wrote a little synopsis tying them all together into the ultimate teen dystopia!

There's not enough water to go around. First the government tries to solve this problem by banning love, in the hope that that will cause less sex and so reduce the population, so there'll be more water for the remaining people. But the Resistance resists. Then the government tries confiscating the resulting babies. When that doesn't work either, they all pile into a generation ship.

While the adults are in cold sleep, the teenage girls begin having sex, thus creating the first generation. But as we all know, generation ship societies get weird, and then end up basing society around personality quizzes. Then space radiation mutates everyone, so they all drop dead by 25. Solution? Encourage teen pregnancy!
Several of you suggested that I hold a poll so you could vote for me to read and review a YA dystopian novel, and sponsor me to do so to raise money for The Virginia Avenue Project. (Making Los Angeles less dystopic since 1992!)

Anyone may vote in the poll. However, people who make an actual pledge will have their votes very, very heavily weighted. If you're willing to pledge, please comment to say so with the amount. (Due to recurrent problems with the VAP website, if you guys trust me, this go-round I'd prefer that you Paypal the money to me, and I'll pass it to them.

If there are multiple suggestions of books not on the list, or if several books are neck-to-neck, I will hold a second poll as a YA dystopia run-off.

[Poll #1743678]
Several of you suggested that I hold a poll so you could vote for me to read and review a YA dystopian novel, and sponsor me to do so to raise money for The Virginia Avenue Project. (Making Los Angeles less dystopic since 1992!)

Anyone may vote in the poll. However, people who make an actual pledge will have their votes very, very heavily weighted. If you're willing to pledge, please comment to say so with the amount. (Due to recurrent problems with the VAP website, if you guys trust me, this go-round I'd prefer that you Paypal the money to me, and I'll pass it to them.

If there are multiple suggestions of books not on the list, or if several books are neck-to-neck, I will hold a second poll as a YA dystopia run-off.

[Poll #1743678]
I did not deliberately select my sample reading for simplistic high concepts, but wow, did I get a lot.

A high concept is a plot which can be easily and representatively summarized in a short sentence. If doing so would misrepresent the actual experience of reading the book, then the book does not have a high concept. “Snakes on a plane” gives you a good idea of Snakes on a Plane; “A bus is wired to explode if it drops below 50 mph” gives you a good idea of Speed. Those are high-concept movies. If you like the concept, you’ll probably like the movie. “Nine people go on a quest to drop a ring into a volcano,” though technically correct, does not give you a good idea of the experience of reading Lord of the Rings.

The majority of the opening chapters of YA dystopias I’ve read have been so monomaniacally focused on their high concepts that they reminded me of the panel of the “Life in Hell” comic strip about the nine types of college professors which depicted the “One Theory Explains Everything Maniac” as a rabbit shaking his cane and shouting, “The nation that controls magnesium controls the world!”

Individually, some of them show promise. Collectively, they are tedious and one-dimensional. I was not especially impressed with the worldbuilding in The Hunger Games, but the first few chapters did show a world in which people had problems and apart from the Hunger Games, committed small crimes and often got away with them, and had personalities and relationships dictated by personal concerns rather than bizarre socially mandated rules.

In most of the books I’ve sampled, the first chapters are about little but the one-note concept, the characters think about little but the concept and speak about little but the concept, and the government is absurdly fixated on peculiar things, like the food individuals eat and the colors they’re allowed to wear, and, except for the obligatory Resistance, completely effective in controlling every moment of every person’s day. The heroines are naïve but spunky girls, unconvincingly ruminating at great length about how their societies came to be and how they function. It’s a paper world, sketched on the back of a sermon.

The Water Wars, by Cameron Stracher. Dystopia is drought. Water is strictly rationed, and the Water Allocation Board runs everything. Everyone is always desperately thirsty. The heroine is fascinated by a hot boy whom she sees… shock horror! …wasting water. Not badly written, but it didn’t grab me.

Wither (The Chemical Garden Trilogy), by Lauren DeStefano. Dystopia is all the men dying at 25, and all the women at 20. (Why such exact ages?) This is attributed to a virus, though it seems more likely to come from genetic defects, as this occurred to the children of the first post-genetic engineering generation. The result, which I don’t think logically follows, is that girls are at constant risk of kidnapping and forced marriage. I would think it would be much more likely that people would simply start marrying in their mid-teens. Not badly written, but it didn’t grab me. I was also a little put off by two separate vomiting incidents in two chapters.

Bumped, by Megan McCafferty. Dystopia is enthusiastically encouraged teen pregnancy. This one is different: it’s a satire, and it’s actually kind of funny. None of the others had any deliberate humor whatsoever, so this came as a very pleasant surprise. The targets are more wide-ranging than “teen pregnancy,” which suggests that it may be able to sustain itself for the length of a book. The slang is believable, and there’s a plausible teenage voice. I’ll probably read this one eventually, as the first few chapters were nicely written and amusing.

Birthmarked (Birthmarked Trilogy), by Caragh M. O’Brien. Dystopia is the government confiscating a percentage of all babies born. In the chapter I read, about a teenage midwife, it was not made clear why, or if she even knew why. Something about the writing style and storytelling of this one did grab me – while still closely focused on baby-snatching, it allowed a small amount of breathing room for individual relationships and emotions. I’d try this from the library.
I am a connoisseur of the post-apocalypse novel. But what I like about the genre is the idea of the desperate struggle to preserve civilization and save the people you can, or, after the disaster, to re-create civilization from scratch. I am also a sucker for stories of disparate groups of people banding together and finding unsuspected heroism when faced with a situation where they must find more strength than they ever knew they had, or die. I like this, I suppose, because I figure that if I made it through the first hit, I'd be in that group, testing myself to the limit and risking everything because I've got nothing left to lose.

This is not that kind of story. It has absolutely no onstage violence, no corpses littering the streets with rats eating them or anything like that, and yet it's one of the most disturbing, plausible, and haunting apocalypse stories I've ever read.

It's the diary of Miranda, an ordinary teenage girl in a small town in Pennsylvania. One night a meteor hits the moon, knocking it into a lower orbit. Immediately, tidal waves drown coastal cities. Her mother is a writer, and when lists of the dead go up, her agent, editor, and half the writers she knows are on it, because everyone in New York City is dead. The President gets on TV to recite platitudes about the spirit of America. Gasoline goes up to ten dollars a gallon. School goes on, then gets cancelled. Everyone tries to keep life going on as usual, as much as they can, but environmental catastrophes begin to snowball...

It's the small scale of the story that makes it so easy to identify with, and the little details that make it so chilling. People start leaving, looking for a better place. A letter arrives from one of those, a month late but before all mail stops, to say that borders are closed and they're stuck in a refugee camp. Miranda tips off a friend that food is being handed out, and her mother goes into a fit of rage, screaming that she is never to do that again, that she risked her family losing food for the sake of a mere friend, and that she is only to think of her family and no one else, ever, or they're all gonna die! Two months later, they're digging up and eating tulip bulbs.

spoilers )


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