A conversation on Goodreads gave rise to a brilliant idea for a new YA dystopia. Just watch, someone will actually write it some day.

Sane. In a terrifyingly plausible near-future, sanity is banned and the government controls mental illness. Taylor, a 17-year-old privileged Mad with social anxiety, has never imagined that the world could be any other way. Her life is a peaceful routine of attending online school and emailing her Mad boyfriend, the handsome Zack, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder.

But her life changes when she meets the dangerous, sexy Jayden, who is one of the forbidden Sanes. Taylor has always been told that Sanes are dangerous and must be locked up for their own good. But now, with everything she has always believed to be true crumbling around her, will Taylor dare to breach the barriers between Madness and Sanity?

[Totally literal barrier. Everyone is living in Domes with Sane or Mad painted on them in big red letters. The Mad Domes are painted green and white, like Prozac.]
Dystopia is a society based on personality quizzes.

In Chicago of the future, society is divided up by virtues: Dauntless (courage), Erudite (intelligence), Candor (honesty), Abnegation (self-sacrifice), and Amity (peacefulness.) All sixteen-year-olds must take an unimaginative virtual reality test, whose scenarios consist of choosing a knife or a piece of cheese, seeing a girl threatened by a dog, and being accosted by a creepy guy on a train. They are then told which faction they’re suited for, but have the option of picking a different one. Once they join a faction, they must pass a series of tests or be kicked out and join the factionless underclass.

Beatrice is born into Abnegation, who wear gray and eat boring food and take the stairs rather than elevators. As is typical in these sorts of dystopias, no one ever has hobbies or interests or does or says anything unrelated to the subject of the dystopia, unless they are the spunky rebel heroine, in which case they can think rebellious thoughts and obsess about the handsome, distant jerk they love. It's also the standard "everyone is heterosexual, no one has a culture, and everyone is white except for one supporting character" contemporary YA dystopia.

Beatrice tests as Divergent – the rare person whose personality is not defined by a single trait. She is warned that she’ll be killed if this is discovered. (Being Divergent turns out to be somewhat less stupid than initially stated, I should note.)

She picks Dauntless. They turn out to be a bunch of idiots with no apparent social function, who spend their time beating each other up a la Fight Club, leaping off the trains which circle the city seven stories up for no apparent purpose and with no apparent power source, getting tattoos and piercings, and playing paintball. Yes. Paintball, the ultimate pursuit of the brave!

The heroine, now named Tris because that’s way cooler and edgier, becomes a perfect shot and a bad-ass fighter in one month of practicing without, as far as I could tell, being trained in any specific techniques. (Getting beaten into unconsciousness on a daily basis does not, in my opinion, constitute useful training.) She’s bullied because she’s cooler and braver than anyone, and she falls for one of her trainers, a boy named Four, even though they don’t interact much.

To me, the appeal of romance is interaction, not staring at the hero and then going off to contemplate him in solitude. The interaction they do have is underwhelming. For instance, Four is overcome with admiration at Tris’s intelligence when they’re playing paintball and it occurs to her to… climb a tall structure to spot the other team. Genius!

Ender’s Game, though flawed, kept coming to my mind as a novel which did a lot of these tropes better. “Maybe I should look for the enemy” is not convincing evidence of brilliance. “The enemy’s gate is down” does work as an example of thinking outside of the box. Also, while Card’s book too was heavily paintball-based, it was at least spiffed-up zero-g paintball, not the real thing. Why would I need to read a dystopia to get my fix of the exact same game I could walk outside and play for real?

Much of the plot of Divergent made no sense. Early on, Tris makes a shocking discovery about her mother. About 200 pages later, she makes the same shocking discovery all over again. Either this novel was never edited at all, or it was severely over-edited, to the point where no one could keep track of what had or hadn’t been cut or added. My guess is the latter. That sort of continuity glitch happens a lot in TV when there’s excessive interference by the network.

The whole book was full of similar glitches and holes:

If everyone can choose their faction, what’s the point of the tests?

How does this society function? Does it have an economy? What do the factionless do? Since Dauntless doesn’t seem to produce cops or soldiers, who does? If no one does, who’s keeping the factionless down?

What does Candor do other than tell people their new dress makes them look fat?

What’s the trial for Amity, the nice faction? Endurance Kumbaya?

Spoilery plot holes )

My biggest issue, though, was that the novel didn’t follow through on its own premise. If I buy a book about a personality quiz society, I want to find out how each society does its tests and organizes itself. And I want to have some means of sorting myself. We learn barely anything about the other factions, and the initial test is ludicrous.

The idea of being sorted into a category has enormous appeal. I too love online personality quizzes. (I am a Gryffindor and an INFP, and the character I most resemble on A Game of Thrones is Arya Stark.)

But these factions not only have no appeal (which, to be fair, is part of the point that Sorting Is Bad), but you can't even use the book to amuse yourself by figuring out in which one you belong. Without context, choosing a knife over a piece of cheese is the equivalent of choosing a triangle over a square. It's like that online test going around a while back which gave completely random personality diagnoses on the basis of questions like "Which hexagon is watching you?" But without the hilariously paranoia-inducing questions and images.

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.
rachelmanija: (Fishes: I do not see why the sex)
( May. 31st, 2011 07:50 am)
I would never be a crazed sex-teen!

Someone could write a good teen dystopia based on the screwed-up messages that modern American society sends to teenage girls: If you have sex with boys, you’re a slut. If you don’t, you’re a prude, a lesbian, or a reject. If you dress fashionably, you’re a slut. If you dress conservatively, you’re a prude. If you really are a lesbian, you don’t exist, unless you proclaim your identity, in which case you’re shoving your sexuality on innocent heterosexual victims. If you use contraception, you’re a slut. If you don’t and you get pregnant, you’re a stupid bitch who’s ruining society.

XVI was clearly inspired by some of those messages, but it’s not good. Its problems begin with the phrase that undoubtedly sold the book, “sex-teen.” That is an inherently ridiculous word. It might work in a satire, but in a work intended to be serious, it can only produce unintentional comedy. Luckily for me, the book had lots of that.

Meet Nina, the heroine. Ginnie is her idolized mom, and Sandy is her sex-crazy “best friend.” The quote marks are because… well, judge for yourself:

Ginnie always taught us that thinking for yourself is the most important thing. When I see how Sandy blindly follows whatever the latest Media-induced frenzy is - I know my mom is right. But it's hard being the only person who thinks like me. Sometimes I wish I could just be like everyone else my age and not think at all.


Her clothes fit her a lot better than mine fit me. As Gran would say, "She's built like an MK lunar pod." Which I'm sure is why her stepdad looks at her the way he does.


Sandy’s Saturn blue plether pants were so tight there was no way she could have gotten them on over underwear – and it was obvious she hadn’t. […] The outfit made me cringe. I sincerely hoped the Sandy I knew and loved was under the Media-hyped crap she was wearing.

Isn’t Nina charming? Wouldn’t you love to spend an entire book with her?

When I was sexsixteen, I too was judgmental and looked down on many of my peers and thought I was more special than you. But I didn’t despise my friends! I loved my friends! And that, I think, made me merely self-centered rather than awful.

Here’s Nina again, rescuing an apparently homeless person and being more compassionate than anyone ever:

I should have gone. Anyone else would have left him. […] It seemed like the older I got the more I believed that everyone, homeless or not, deserved to be treated at least like a human.

Her friends, of course, are baffled and horrified that she would help a homeless person. But it turns out that he’s actually upper-class and only dresses like he’s homeless so he can sneak around being rebellious, so he is acceptable boyfriend material for Nina. (There is an official ten-tier class structure.) While Nina is currently low-class, she came from a high class and her mother voluntarily demoted herself for political reasons. All the sympathetic characters in the book are high-class or formerly high-class. Only Sandy the wannabe-slut is genuinely low-class.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I plunge into the plot, here’s the background:

Girls who turn sixteen are tattooed with the number XVI and called sex-teens. They are then legally able to have sex. I think that while they aren’t legally required to have sex on demand, they are assumed to be sex-crazy and so they are treated as fair game, and while they could theoretically press charges if they’re raped, those cases will invariably be dismissed. But it’s not very clear. They may or may not also become legal adults in other ways.

I couldn’t tell whether or not boys were tattooed, or if they were tattooed at the same age. I also have no idea why the government was so obsessed with making sixteen-year-old girls available for sex, especially since it turns out that the government also collects sixteen-year-old virgins. Given how central the sex-teen concept is, it’s oddly under-explained.

While modern teenage girls are also under a lot of pressure to have sex, may be called sluts, and can often be raped with impunity, there’s no enormous mystique about how since eighteen is the legal age to have sex, you can only have sex once you turn eighteen and absolutely have to have sex the instant you turn eighteen OMG. If a modern girl under eighteen wants to have sex, she… has sex. Since the XVI society doesn’t strictly penalize underage sex, I don’t buy the way that everyone acts like no one ever has sex before sixteen, and everyone must have it the instant they turn sixteen.

Don’t ask me what the ramifications are for non-heterosexual girls. Only straight sexuality exists in this world. (Only straight sexuality exists in all of the recent teen dystopias I’ve read, but it’s a particularly weird omission for the one which is entirely about teen sex.)

In further implausibilities, there’s an organization called FeLS, which I kept reading as FeLV (Feline Leukemia Virus), a diplomatic corps made up entirely of low-class virgin teenage girls. All sixteen-year-old low-class virgin girls must be available to be selected for it, unless they can buy their way out. Almost none of them ever come back even though the term of service is only two years, but nonetheless it’s supposed to be wonderful and glamorous and all the sixteen-year-olds who are still virgins are dying to become part of it.

I have no idea how the virginity test works, other than that it’s “physical.” I guess they check for a hymen. There are many factors which make this a dubious method of virginity testing. The hymen can be broken in other ways. Some hymens stretch rather than breaking. More significantly, and as I believe most modern American girls know, you can have oral, anal, manual, and intercrural sex without damaging the hymen. (Okay, most modern American girls probably don’t know the word intercrural, but I bet they know the concept.) So the virginity test is meaningless. They’d be better off borrowing King Math's magic broomstick from the Mabinogion and having the girls step over it to see if a baby falls out of them.

The utterly non-shocking twist at the end is that FeLS is actually a sex slavery ring run by and for the government. When Nina finds this out, and her “friend” Sandy is about to join FeLS, Nina tells Sandy what’s really going on so Sandy can make her own informed decision.

Just kidding! Like that would ever happen. Nina actually decides to make sure Sandy fails the physical virginity test by giving her a large, vibrating, brand-name, sparkly pink dildo, the “Sex-teen Sizzler,” which she knows Sandy will be unable to resist.

Nope, kidding again! This is not a book in which girls enjoy their sexuality without men around. What really happens is that Nina doesn’t tell Sandy anything, but decides to get her to have sex with a boy so she’ll fail the virginity test. Cue ridiculous angsting over whether Nina should offer Sandy her own boyfriend for this purpose.

Nina, of course, never has sex, and her boyfriend doesn’t want to have sex either. Her actual best friend, Wei, is sex-teen but still a virgin. All the positively portrayed teens want to stay virgins, while the only teenager who wants to have sex, Sandy, is a dumb slut.

There is a hint of a promising story in this mess of a book, which is that Nina has good reasons to hate and fear the thought of sex and romantic relationships – her mother is in an abusive relationship – and that creates a conflict between her increasingly undeniable sexual impulses, and her desire to both stay safe and rebel against social expectations by avoiding sex and romance.

Unfortunately, all that consists of about fifteen pages total. The rest of the book is taken up by a largely nonsensical mystery plot. Ginnie, Nina’s mom, is murdered, and with her dying breath tells Nina that her supposedly dead father is still alive. Nina and her younger sister Dee, who was fathered by the abusive Ed, are sent to live with their grandparents.

(Ed is a member of another evil government agency, B.O.S.S. I am not kidding. I immediately guessed that Ed killed Ginnie (no else is even presented as a plausible suspect), that he’s not really Dee’s father, and that the only reason Ginnie was with Ed was some idiotic revolutionary plan, because an intelligent woman would never stay in an abusive relationship unless she had a master plan that requires it. Right on all counts!)

At her new home, Nina learns that not only was the “homeless” boy she rescued coincidentally the son of one of the revolutionaries her father was involved with, but the only girl she befriends from her new apartment building is coincidentally the daughter of some more of them. This conveniently allows other people to step in periodically and give Nina bits of information, a little at a time, even though there are at least four people who could have told Nina the entire story at any time.

But aimless plotting, incoherent worldbuilding, an unlikable heroine, clunky prose, and preachiness is not all that’s wrong with this book. There is also the very, very bad decision to attempt future slang by calling vehicles “trannies.” Not only is it a real-life pejorative term, but just picture the mental image I got every time there was a line like, A trannie came out of nowhere, nearly knocking me down. Not to mention lines of dialogue like, “I told him you really like trannies,” “Girly trannie,” and “Sal’s cool. His brother has all those great trannies.”

I also laughed at every use of the word “sex-teen.” Never not funny!

But what bugged me the most were the anti-sex, anti-female desire, and anti-sexy clothing messages, mostly directed at poor authorial punching bag Sandy. Nina is constantly obsessing about the slutty way Sandy dresses and how it will tempt men to rape her. Here’s Gran on the same topic: “Why, two years ago she was as sweet and innocent as can be. Now she’s on the verge of becoming a wild sex-teen!”

Sandy, unsurprisingly, is raped and murdered at the end. At the casket, Nina muses, For all her sex-teen ways, she’d been so naïve and trusting. Victim-blaming to the very literal end!

Terrible. Terrible. Terrible. And there are many terrible aspects I didn’t even mention. Other intrepid readers, should any step up to the plate, will find unspoiled depths of awfulness to plumb.

Scariest of all, judging by the lack of closure to several major plot points, there will probably be a sequel or two. I eagerly anticipate XVII (Semen-teen), and the conclusion, XVIII (Ate-teen).

Thank you very much to the sponsors who made this post happen! If you enjoyed reading this review, please consider making a donation to the organization this review was written to benefit, The Virginia Avenue Project. ("Using the arts to help kids discover their full potential! 100% of Project kids graduate from high school. 95% go to college. 98% are the first in their families to do so!"

If you do donate, feel free to say that Rachel Manija Brown sent you. Please don't say, "I'm here because of sex-teen!" Given the nature of the Project, that could cause some unfortunate confusion. ;)

Bate your breath! I have been informed that XVI (Sexteen), the winner of the YA dystopia poll, is winging its way to me through the LA library system, and will probably arrive tomorrow.

Payment instructions will be individually posted to your comments once I write the review.
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]
[personal profile] telophase has created an online YA dystopia generator!

Thrill: Nudity has been banned and the government controls darkness.

Bounce: Heterosexuality has been banned and the government controls popsicles.

Leap: Roads have been banned and the government controls gravity.

I'm sure she's still adding to it, so feel free to suggest titles and things which could be banned or controlled.
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.
Across the Universe, by Beth Revis: Kindle Sample (first four chapters)

Old-school science fiction, the sort a lot of old-school sf fans think teenagers ought to be reading: Amy and her parents are cryogenically frozen to board a generation ship; generations later, the ship has formed its own, undoubtedly dystopian, society. The old-fashioned impression is solidified by the dialogue in the first chapter, which could have been written thirty years ago.

I was initially put off by the dialogue and clunky exposition of the first chapter, not to mention the author’s apparent misunderstanding of the word “impartial.” But the believable emotions and the unexpected dilemma presented to Amy sucked me in, and the next chapter, which picks up with a teenage boy who has lived his whole life on the ship, also presents a compelling moral choice and some potentially interesting characters.

I am pretty sure I know exactly where the story is going, but I might well enjoy the journey. I’m not quite grabbed enough to buy it, but I’ll try it from the library.

Across the Universe

Delirium, by Lauren Oliver: Kindle Sample (First four chapters)

Yet another hard-to-swallow, thought-experiment, high-concept, single-idea-runs-everything dystopia: love has been declared a disease, and everyone is cured when they turn eighteen. Before then, physical contact is forbidden between people of the opposite sex. (Also, yet another book in which gay people apparently don’t exist.)

And yet another book which has marriages arranged by the government! The government also decides how many children you should have, what your major will be, and no doubt the color of the jumpsuit you wear.

The prose is not bad at all, but the concept and execution are so incredibly heavy-handed that I had trouble even getting through the sample. Love causes pain, eliminate love and you’ll be free from pain. Message: no gain without pain, savor the agony along with the ecstasy. Also, nanny government is bad. I can’t imagine reading an entire book of this.


I'm not really appreciating the high-concept, the government regulates the color of your shoelaces, everything in society is geared toward a single theme, heavy-handed dystopia. There's something inherently boring about them. I can think of good examples, but they're tough to pull off.

I nominate an end to that YA sf trend, to be replaced with massive trends for space opera with lots of aliens, multicultural steampunk, military academies in spaaaaace, biotech, mecha, and schools for mutant kids. If we must have dystopias, I'd prefer chaotic dystopias where everyone's scrabbling to survive and rebuild/preserve civilization in an unhospitable landscape, but without rape gangs or cannibalism and with hope - emphasis on survival and regrouping.

I am particularly done with the "[blank] has been banned" and "the government controls [blank]" dystopias. They're starting to seem like they were created by online dystopia generators. Here, have a few ideas, make a mint:

Vibrate: Sex has been banned and the government controls masturbation.

Go: Travel has been banned and the government controls pets.

Ouch: Sickness has been banned and the government controls pain.

Sweat: Sports have been banned and the government controls water.
Divergent, by Veronica Roth, is an extremely high-concept YA with yet another absurdly orderly society. In this one, everyone is divided by virtue: Abnegation, Amity, Dauntless, Candor, and Erudite. Though the groups (and the unfortunate, oppressed factionless) live together, every single thing each individual does expresses their chosen virtue and only that chosen virtue. This leads to some moments of (probably) unintentional comedy, such as when the Dauntless kids all leap off a moving train. (“If all your friends jumped off a bridge…”) They fear nothing but peer pressure!

Beatrice, born into Abnegation, takes the aptitude tests which suggest which faction she should choose. (The selection method is weirdly cumbersome: first you get tested, then you select a faction (even if it doesn’t match the test results), then the faction puts you through more extensive testing.) After going through some very basic virtual reality scenarios testing courage, honesty, self-sacrifice, intelligence, and niceness, she is told that she is one of the very, very, very rare Divergents: people with multiple aptitudes. Shock! Horror! She must tell no one!!!

Even apart from the inherently implausible premise, I find it very difficult to believe that most people would not possess more than one quality, especially very common ones like intelligence and niceness. Maybe later there will be the shocking reveal that pretty much everyone has multiple traits but is told to tell no one.

Though ridiculous, the concept of social division by personality traits has enormous appeal, and I expect the book to sell quite well. It’s a novel-length version of an online personality quiz, and who doesn’t love online personality quizzes?

Well – I love them, but not enough to buy the book. It was too simple and implausible to grab me. And in a story where the fun is the personality-trait testing, the entrance tests were way too unimaginative and unrevealing to make me want to read more of them. In total, they consisted of picking a piece of cheese or a knife, being confronted by a hostile dog which then attacks a little girl, and being challenged by a creepy guy on a bus. They seemed especially flat when compared to more evocative, psychologically revealing, or fun fictional tests, like the humanity test in Blade Runner, the Giant’s Drink in Ender’s Game, the entrance to Roke in A Wizard of Earthsea, or Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat.

See comments to the SEX-teen book post: I will eventually do a review-for-charity poll to determine which of these I will read and review in full.
I love my Kindle. And I love being able to download the first chapter or few as a free sample. I’ve bought several books I otherwise might not have taken a chance on, based on the quality of the first few chapters, and been warned off others. (Best purchase based on sample chapter so far: Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City. Warning: dark. Further warning: get the print edition. The e-book has annoying formatting errors.)

For your amusement, I’m going to write up a couple recent Kindle samples I downloaded while recovering from food poisoning. They are all YA sff and mostly dystopian, partly because there’s lots of dystopian YA out there now and partly because it cheered me to contemplate places more awful than my bathroom floor at 3:00 AM.

XVI, by Julia Karr. XVI = sixteen = SEX-teen = sexting = sending sexy text messages. When teenage girls (only girls?) turn sixteen, they are forced to get a tattoo labeling them sex-teens – legally available for sex. How this is different from places in the world now in which sixteen is indeed the age of legal consent, other than the tattoo, I am not sure. Unless they are forced to be sexually available to any man who asks? It’s not made clear in the part I read.

The setting is a generic near-future dystopia in which government is oppressive, media is evil, and religion has gone the way of the dodo: Gran even reads the Bible. But everyone knows that’s mythology. Although sometimes when I see how good it seems to make Gran feel, I have to wonder if there’s some truth to it.

Worst pro-religion argument ever! Lots of things make you feel good, such as drugs, bacon, and sex. “It feels good” has little to do with “it’s good for you,” let alone “it’s the truth.” And I speak as one who enjoys both bacon and sex.

The three chapters I read were bland, obvious, and tin-eared, combining clunky info-dumping with clunkier slang. I am surprised that no editor knew or cared that “trannie,” here used to mean “motor vehicle,” is, in the real world, generally-offensive slang for “transgender person.” There’s a Resistance movement, imaginatively known as “the Resistance.” To my amusement, members of the Resistance are known as NonCons, which in fanfic circles means non-consensual, ie, rape fantasy. Very appropriate!

The heroine is preachy and judgmental, conveying what I suspect is the author’s horror at the thought of teenage girls having sex. The chapters I read, and the entire concept, reminded me of the infamous Rainbow Party, a book written to capitalize on media-generated horror over “rainbow parties,” in which teenage girls supposedly all wore different colors of lipstick and boys competed to see who could get the most colors on their dick. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be an urban legend. (Sexual Urban Legends: Penis Captivus, Vagina Dentata, Soggy Biscuit, Gerbilling, Mars Bar Party, Sex Parties & Rainbow Parties)

I will not be reading this one. Unless, I suppose, enough people think they’d be amused by a full review that they’d be willing to pony up some charitable donation money for one.


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