What Makes a Good Dystopian Novel?

Last night, I finished a dystopian novel that didn’t quite work for me as a dystopian novel. I can’t stress enough, though, that it was a good novel and kept me reading. However, that got me thinking: What makes a good dystopian novel?

My own idea of a good dystopian novel comes from something my then-teenage son said after reading Feed, by M. T. Anderson. Josh said that it was disturbing to read a dystopian novel during the time it was commenting on. He had to read 1984 for school, and it hadn’t hit him as hard as Feed, which talked about our consumer culture taken to the extreme.

Josh said, and I agree, that dystopian novels are written about the present, even when they are set in the future. Or at least I agree that this is true of the best dystopian novels.

Thinking about other dystopian novels I’ve read, I think there’s something of a continuum. Some are written with a dystopian setting because a dystopian setting makes an intriguing setting to place your characters in and see how they react. You can say things about human nature by putting your characters in an extreme setting.

For me, the best dystopian novels do say something about human nature in an extreme setting, but they also present a situation that mirrors present-day trends taken to the extreme. They present a warning about what could happen if things go on as they are right now.

Feed is a prime example of this kind of brilliant dystopian novel. In it, people have gotten a chip in their brain for constant internet access. The Feed knows what they like and what they want to buy and provides personalized shopping experiences. They don’t have to learn as much, because they can just look facts up on the Feed. But we quickly see in the book that this does not work out so perfectly.

The classic dystopian novel, 1984, is another example of a dystopian novel that commented on the time in which it was written. You can judge how well a book does this by how easily you can imagine our own society ending up like this. The propaganda and surveillance in 1984 is all too easy to imagine.

Part of the success of The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, comes from how it plays on the current fascination with reality TV shows. It shows that maybe we aren’t so different from ancient Rome. It’s easy to believe that if there ever were fight-to-the-death games, that they would indeed become a national obsession and be fully televised. The part about why there were fight-to-the-death games was not quite as hard-hitting, but the whole media circus around the Hunger Games was all too believable.

Another recent dystopian novel, Candor, by Pam Bachorz, didn’t quite have me believing in the technology. Sure, I believed that subliminal messages could completely affect people’s behavior, just not that withdrawal could result in death. However, I did believe that parents would be happy about living in a city where subliminal messages would make their teens behave perfectly. That aspect (and the main premise of the book) was indeed hard-hitting. I have seen many many “Tiger Mom” type parents in Northern Virginia who would embrace that sort of technology without batting an eye. And the dystopian novel Candor, taking current trends to the extreme, is a perfect way of examining that sort of parenting.

I have not yet read Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, but I believe it also speaks about current trends of giving up our privacy and shows where they can lead.

When I look at the dystopian novels that don’t succeed as well for me, they are still good stories. And the dystopian setting does add an intriguing twist. However, they don’t hit home, because I’m not at all worried about them coming to pass in my lifetime. They make good stories, but don’t disturb me. And my idea of a great dystopian novel is one that disturbs me, that makes me think about my life today.

Matched, by Ally Condie, presents a situation where the Society chooses what your life should be like and who you should marry. The intriguing premise is what happens when a mistake is made and Cassia sees the face of a second boy on her microcard, a boy who is an Aberration and is not supposed to be matched. It’s a good story about not letting your life be controlled by others. However, bottom line, I can’t really imagine that ever happening in America — we are too much individualists. I don’t think we ever would be willing to give that much faith to authorities. Now, it does make an intriguing story, but it doesn’t hit home like some dystopian novels. I’m simply not worried that our society will ever go there.

Among the Hidden, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, was like that for me, too. Although it makes an intriguing story — what would you do if you were the third child in your family in a society that only allows couples to have two children — I can’t quite imagine American society ever submitting to that kind of law. Now, Margaret Peterson Haddix puts in a past crisis so that food is scarce, which makes it more believable, but it’s not something I see as a natural result of today’s trends. So it does make a fascinating story, but I don’t think of it as a hard-hitting commentary about today’s society.

After, by Francine Prose, was closer on the continuum to a dystopian novel that talks about today. I could imagine people giving up their freedom in exchange for safety, but the book didn’t make clear why they were doing that, which made it a little less believable, a little harder to imagine it actually happening.

Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld, is toward the hard-hitting end of that continuum, too. We are obsessed with how people look, so it is possible to imagine everyone getting an operation when they turn sixteen to make them beautiful. They’ve abolished prejudice by making sure everyone looks beautiful. Now, the downside to that ends up being not so much about the operation as about its side-effects and the other things the society is doing to control the people. So it ends up not so much a commentary on our obsession with looks as an intriguing story about what Tally will do in extreme circumstances. The whole thing ends up feeling pretty far removed from our life today, though it is a gripping and exciting story, and it does make you think. But this is more toward the end of examining human nature in extreme circumstances than a warning about where society is going.

What do you think? Do you agree with me that a truly great dystopian novel comments on our society today, or is that just a nice bonus added on top? Is it more important as a device to examine human nature in an extreme setting, or just as a plot technique to increase suspense?

What dystopian novels have I left out? Where do they fall on the continuum of commenting-on-today as opposed to just-an-intriguing-setting? I’d love to hear some reactions in the comments.

Review of Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

by Suzanne Collins

Scholastic Press, New York, 2010. 398 pages.
Starred Review
2010 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #9, Teen Fantasy and Science Fiction

If you’ve read Hunger Games and Catching Fire, it definitely won’t take my review to get you to read the third book in the trilogy. In Mockingjay, the rebellion against the Capitol is in full swing, and Katniss once again finds herself the focus of people’s passions and hopes.

Thank goodness there are no Hunger Games in this book. However, the Capitol has some traps that are extremely similar to things that would be faced in the arena….

Normally, when I was this eager to read a book, I would have bought myself a copy. However, in the case of The Hunger Games trilogy, although they are brilliant and powerful and outstanding books — I rather doubt I will much want to read them again, at least not any time soon. Katniss faces some horrible situations. The psychological warfare used against her is horrifying. Although the book is powerful, it’s not exactly pleasant reading.

I still loved the book. It’s exciting, gripping, edge-of-the seat reading. I’ve come to care about Katniss, and I was very pleased that finally she can live happily ever after at the end of this book. With nightmares, but still.

I also think that Mockingjay contained the best love triangle I have ever read. I honestly didn’t know who she’d end up with until the last several pages. And I didn’t have a gut-level preference. I could see how she truly loved each of them, and how they each satisfied a different part of her. What’s more, Suzanne Collins resolved the love triangle in a satisfying way, which arose from the characters of the three people involved. She could have so easily killed one of them off! But instead, Katniss made a choice, and it was a choice the readers believed and sympathized with.

The author included some surprising moral dilemmas, and resolved them in a subtle way. She writes with power and depth. You can call this action-adventure in a dystopian setting. Exciting reading.

Links: www.suzannecollinsbooks.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, read by Alan Cumming


by Scott Westerfeld

read by Alan Cumming

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2009. 7 CDs. 8.5 hours.
Starred Review.

I blame this book for making me late to a meeting last week. I set off in my car, popped the next CD in the player, and got enthralled in the story. I was halfway to my usual workplace when I realized I should have driven to the government center!

I was reluctant to read this book. Even though I liked the series that began with Uglies, and respected the level of the writing and world-building, I’d gotten rather tired of them. It only took a few minutes of listening to Leviathan to realize that this book had an altogether different flavor and that I wouldn’t get tired of it any time soon.

Leviathan is in the relatively new steampunk genre, which, as the author explains in a note at the end, combines a vision of the future with an alternate version of the past.

The book tackles the beginning of World War I from the perspectives of a boy in Austria and a girl in Britain. But events unfold very differently than they did in our world.

The boy is Aleksandar, the fictional son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose death sparked the Great War. The book opens with a loyal count and a small company escaping with Alek after his parents’ death, because now he is heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and the people who killed his father want him dead.

They make their escape in a giant Stormwalker, a powerful war machine created by the German-speaking powers in this alternate world where they had an advanced understanding of technology. Alek had been wanting to learn to pilot one, but he never imagined learning to steer one at night, and in secrecy.

Meanwhile, in England, commoner Deryn Sharp from Glasgow is pretending to be a boy so she can enlist in the Air Corps. However, in her world Darwin changed everything, by not only discovering evolution, but also unlocking the secrets of DNA. Deryn lives in a world of fabricated beasts, living machines that can do anything you can imagine, but that also manufacture their own fuel (using digestion) and heal themselves.

On Deryn’s first day in the service, on her solo flight, she gets caught in a storm and manages to save her own neck, but gets picked up by the great airbeast Leviathan. The Leviathan has a crew of hundreds and is a cross between a whale and many other species, with innards that breathe hydrogen to keep it afloat.

The Leviathan is headed for a secret mission in Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire. But war breaks out around them, and Deryn’s path crosses with Alek. Can Darwinists work with Clankers to save both sets of lives?

This audiobook is full of exciting escapes and adventures from start to finish. As you would expect in a book involving a world at war, there are many different accents involved, and Alan Cumming does a superb job differentiating the characters by their accents and voices. I found myself starting to exclaim “Barking Spiders!” like Deryn after listening to this book for awhile.

And Scott Westerfeld has a complicated and strange world to present, but he pulls it off beautifully, never letting the action lull as he lets the characters describe their new experiences, such as Deryn flying over a London swarming with fabricated beasts and Alek learning to make a Stormwalker run. Alan Cumming manages to keep the excitement in his voice for the entire audiobook, as there are almost always exciting things going on. I hope he took lots of breaks while recording!

The one thing I didn’t like about this book is that it is definitely not a stand-alone story. It ends when they’ve gotten out of one narrow escape and have revealed some of the secrets, but the story and the war are definitely just beginning. And who knows how long it will be before the next installment comes out? Not fair!

One thing’s for sure, when the next book is published, I will want to read it just as soon as it comes out. This one was excellent on audio, but if the audio version doesn’t come out the same time as the print version, I may not be able to wait.

Leviathan made fantastic commuting-time listening, except for being too interesting to listen to when I wanted to go somewhere other than my normal workplace. It also was one of those books that made me want to sit in the car in my parking place until I got to a good stopping place — but a good stopping place never came.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey

The Road to High Saffron

by Jasper Fforde

Viking, 2009. 389 pages.
Starred Review

Nobody writes such bizarre books as Jasper Fforde. No, I need to revise that: Few people write such bizarre books as Jasper Fforde. The back cover mentions Douglas Adams, and I have to admit that Shades of Grey does remind me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with the same sense of all the normal rules of reality being suspended or bent in bizarre ways.

The first three paragraphs set the stage pretty well and will give you a feel for the book:

It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and ended up with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant. It wasn’t really what I’d planned for myself — I’d hoped to marry into the Oxbloods and join their dynastic string empire. But that was four days ago, before I met Jane, retrieved the Caravaggio and explored High Saffron. So instead of enjoying aspirations of Chromatic advancement, I was wholly immersed within the digestive soup of a yateveo tree. It was all frightfully inconvenient.

But it wasn’t all bad, for the following reasons: First, I was lucky to have landed upside down. I would drown in under a minute, which was far, far preferable to being dissolved alive over the space of a few weeks. Second, and more important, I wasn’t going to die ignorant. I had discovered something that no amount of merits can buy you: the truth. Not the whole truth, but a pretty big part of it. And that was why this was all frightfully inconvenient. I wouldn’t get to do anything with it. And this truth was too big and too terrible to ignore. Still, at least I’d held it in my hands for a full hour and understood what it meant.

I didn’t set out to discover a truth. I was actually sent to the Outer Fringes to conduct a chair census and learn some humility. But the truth inevitably found me, as important truths often do, like a lost thought in need of a mind. I found Jane, too, or perhaps she found me. It doesn’t really matter. We found each other. And although she was Grey and I was Red, we shared a common thirst for justice that transcended Chromatic politics. I loved her, and what’s more, I was beginning to think that she loved me. After all, she did apologize before she pushed me into the leafless expanse below the spread of the yateveo, and she wouldn’t have done that if she’d felt nothing.

Eddie Russett is the narrator, soon before he undergoes his Ishihara to discover what colors he can see and become a full-fledged adult. Eddie lives in a society centuries after Something That Happened and drastically changed the world. In Eddie’s world, your social position is determined by how much and what colors you can see. Marriage is tremendously important, in hopes of having children with higher color perception. Greys are the lowest level, the working class.

Eddie’s father is a healer, a “swatchman.” He shows people swatches of color to heal them. At the start of the book, he saves a man’s life before “eye death” occurs. Eddie’s father is also going to the Outer Fringes to replace East Carmine’s former swatchman who died under suspicious circumstances.

Their society lives according to the Rules of the wise Munsell who lived centuries before. Unfortunately, Munsell did not see fit to allow the manufacture of spoons, so spoons are extremely rare and highly valued. In the Outer Fringes, people are a little looser with the Rules, but people like Eddie who ask questions and think about how to improve queues are still regarded with suspicion and live in danger of reboot.

Eddie meets some interesting characters in East Carmine. There’s Jane with the incredibly cute nose who once tore off someone’s eyebrow when he asked her out. There’s Tommo who would sell his own grandmother for merits. There’s Courtland, the son of the yellow prefect who will probably be the yellow prefect himself some day. And then there’s Violet, who needs to marry a strong Red like Eddie in order to be sure that her children will still be Purple. And when Violet wants something, Violet gets it.

But there are some sinister and some odd undercurrents in East Carmine. The Apocryphal Man lives upstairs, but no one can speak about him because the Rules say he doesn’t exist. And Eddie first saw Jane in Vermilion, but she wasn’t on the train, so how did she get to East Carmine? And why does no one ever come back from High Saffron?

I confess that it took me quite a long time to get into this book, and I almost decided not to finish it. I checked it out when my hold came in, and I wasn’t necessarily ready for something that is more of a cerebral exercise in oddity than an emotional story. But I did keep going, and by the end of the book, I was charmed. Eddie does learn the truth, and now I very much want to read the upcoming sequels to find out what he is able to do about it.

Like all of Jasper Fforde’s books, this one is extremely clever and very funny, once you’re engaged in the story. My sons are Douglas Adams fans, and I’m definitely going to recommend it to them.

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Review of Candor, by Pam Bachorz


by Pam Bachorz

Egmont USA, New York, 2009. 249 pages.
Starred Review.

Candor is a town full of perfect teenagers. They do their homework. They study for their SATs. They respect their parents. They don’t lie. They don’t stay out late. They don’t use drugs or alcohol.

Oscar Banks is the model teen for them all, the proof that his father’s Messages work. Except his father doesn’t know that Oscar has learned how to thwart the Messages.

Oscar’s father founded Candor, and desperate parents pay top dollar to live there — where night and day, ever-present speakers play music full of subliminal messages. Telling them how to think and what to do.

The book opens when Oscar meets a new girl, a girl who can still think for herself.

“Not that she’ll make it past two weeks. Nobody does.

“Not unless I get them out. That’s my business. I get new kids out of Candor before they’ve changed. Back to the real world. It’s not cheap, but it’s the best deal of their lives.”

The girl, Nia, is an artist. Oscar knows that will change if he doesn’t save her from Candor. Somehow, he finds himself not wanting that to happen. But does he want her to leave Candor? And if not, couldn’t he use some of his own messages to catch her interest? But then he can’t really tell her about them, can he?

Candor is an excellent first novel, full of tension and thought-provoking ideas. I didn’t quite believe that people would go crazy if suddenly deprived of the Messages, but the basic scenario is pretty easy to imagine happening, given the right technology. And if it did, there would be sure to be some teens who would find a way to rebel.

This is a fun and engaging story, though like most dystopian novels, a bit depressing in the end. It will get you thinking about Art and Individuality and what is important about you as a person.

This review is based on an Advance Readers’ Copy I received at the Kidlitosphere conference.

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Review of A Wrinkle in Time Audiobook, Performed by Madeleine L’Engle

wrinkle_in_time_audioA Wrinkle in Time

by Madeleine L’Engle

Performance by the Author

Listening Library (Random House), An Unabridged Production on 5 compact discs, 5 hours, 17 minutes.
Text copyright 1962, performance copyright 1993 Tesser Tracks, Inc.
Newbery Medal Winner 1963.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: Wonderful Rereads

In the online Newbery Medal class I took, we were all asked what was our favorite Newbery Medal winner, and no book was mentioned more than Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. (For me, it’s second only to The Hero and the Crown.) Imagine my delight as I was taking the class when I discovered that our library had a version of the book on CD read by the author herself!

Madeleine L’Engle spent some time in the theater, and she’s not a bad reader at all, besides knowing how she meant certain things to be pronounced. I wrote a review of A Wrinkle in Time way back when I first started writing Sonderbooks, in August 2001, in only my third “issue.” I find it amusing that I complained that it was hard to read it aloud because I couldn’t figure out how to read Mrs Which. Because when I listened to this production, and Mrs Which’s voice was done with a reverberating echo, I immediately thought, “Oh! That’s how she meant it to be read!” (I also thought it was a little unfair, because you can’t add that when you read it aloud to your own kids without special equipment!)

Listening to Madeleine L’Engle read the book herself was like hearing a friend coming back from the grave to tell a story, and a warm and loving story. Madeleine expresses all Meg’s peevishness in her voice. She’s an imperfect, flawed kid — but she saves the day.

Listening to A Wrinkle in Time inspired me afresh. I may have to purchase my own copy and make a new tradition of not only reading A Wrinkle in Time every few years, as I used to do, but now listening to it every few years, read to me by Madeleine L’Engle herself.

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Review of Mothstorm, by Philip Reeve


The Horror from Beyond Uranus Georgium Sidus!

by Philip Reeve

narrated by Greg Steinbruner

Recorded Books, 2009. Unabridged. 7 CDs, 8.25 hours.

Here’s a third rollicking tale of the adventures of the Mumby family, subjects of Queen Victoria in an alternate reality where Britannia rules outer space.

As with the others, this book is full of narrow escapes and deadly peril. Now Art and Myrtle go beyond Uranus (which they know as Georgium Sidus) and encounter a powerful Shaper. This Shaper has created a world of giant space moths, intent on making a new home in our solar system. Jack Havock and his crew are back, and we even find out the surprising story of Cilissa’s origins.

I’m still hooked on Greg Steinbruner’s narration, clearly delineating the voices of the different characters coming from such a wide variety of species.

These books will be much more fun when read in order. They’re full of humor, adventure, wild imagination, and wondrous doses of British pluck. This series would be fantastic listening for an entire family, and definitely provided diverting listening for my daily commute. Huzzah for another adventure!

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Review of Robot Zot! by Jon Scieszka and David Shannon

robot_zotRobot Zot!

by Jon Scieszka
illustrated by David Shannon

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York, 2009. 40 pages.
Starred Review

Here’s another book I got to hear the authors themselves read at the National Book Festival. Okay, Jon Scieszka did the reading, but David Shannon did some awesome sound effects.


Jon Scieszka enjoyed reading the book so much, I can’t help but like it. When I brought it home, I still enjoyed it, and I think it will be an outstanding pick for Storytime — plenty of great sound effects, nice drama, and inside jokes to point out in the illustrations.

The book opens with Robot Zot in his spaceship looking out at earth, ready to conquer.

“No one stop Robot Zot.
Robot Zot crush lot!”

But then as Robot Zot enters an earth building, ready to conquer, we see in the pictures that he turns out to be only a few inches tall.

He enters an earth kitchen and believes the appliances are enemy robots which he must conquer. Indeed, he conquers them.

But then a large sinister monster (the television set) offers a challenge in the next room. And in the children’s room he sees the bot of his dreams — a little girl’s toy cellphone. He must save her from the evil guardians (dolls).

Throughout the book, we hear of Zot’s bold conquests from his perspective, while the big, bold pictures tell another story of a suburban household with plenty of appliances and a curious dog, who ends up getting blamed.

Tremendous fun, and will definitely be featured at my next Storytime.

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Review of Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

catching_fireCatching Fire

by Suzanne Collins

Scholastic Press, New York, 2009. 391 pages.
Starred Review

Wow. The Hunger Games was gripping, heart-wrenching drama, but in this sequel Suzanne Collins has turned things up a notch.

Katniss’ troubles and her family’s troubles should have been over at the end of The Hunger Games, but she challenged the power of the Capitol, and those in power were not pleased with her.

What’s more, Katniss has become a symbol of rebellion. Could that rebellion be spreading? One thing is sure — if it is, it will be brutally squelched. And if Katniss can’t convincingly quiet the uproar she started, she knows her own loved ones will suffer.

This is definitely not light, cheery reading. As if all this weren’t enough, we’re stuck reading about the next year’s Hunger Games, this time a Quarter Quell, for the 75th year of the games, with its own fresh horror.

The story is not complete with this volume. I will definitely be one of the people clamoring for the third book. I do join with my friend Farida to say that it had just better offer some happiness and hope for these people!

Even though the topic is unpleasant — a future repressive and brutal government — the story is transcendent and definitely worth reading. The story has a love triangle, life-and-death drama, and people risking their lives for freedom and justice. The book will keep you reading and then stick with you when you have to put it down.

The only awful thing about this book is how long we’re going to have to wait before we can find out what happens next.

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Review of The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Scholastic Press, New York, 2008. 374 pages.
Starred Review.

When this book first came out, I wasn’t interested. I don’t like reality shows, and I don’t like reading about violence. This book is about reality shows taken to the extreme in a future society where two young people from each district participate in the annual Hunger Games, with only one survivor at the end.

However, the book kept getting rave reviews. When it won School Library Journal’s Battle of the Books, I decided I definitely should read it, and the commentators convinced me it would be worth my time. The final straw, which made me decide to read it right away, was when bloggers began bragging about getting advance readers’ copies of the sequel, Catching Fire. It felt funny to not even want the sequel because I’d never read the first book. So I finally remedied that situation.

The book definitely captured my interest and concern, and kept me reading far into the night. Suzanne Collins does a good job making you care about Katniss, who at the beginning of the book spends time hunting illegally outside the fence, in order to provide for her family.

We’re quickly presented with a world where life is hard and life isn’t fair. When Katniss’s young sister’s name is called to be the district’s tribute to the Hunger Games, we have no trouble believing that Katniss would volunteer to go in her place. We know that Katniss has survival skills to cope, and understand her unwillingness to trust Peeta, the other representative from District 12. After all, even in the very best result, only one of them can survive.

The games are brutal, but the author finds ways for Katniss to show compassion and humanity, as well as courage and resourcefulness. The games are more of a survival contest than a gladiator combat, as the contestants are in an enormous arena with a landscape prepared with challenges. They must find food and water, and evade natural predators as well as each other.

This book is exciting and compelling. Now I find myself as eager as everyone else to get my hands on a copy of the sequel.

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