I’ve been reading some really good books recently, books for which I am not, I think, the intended audience. Okay, don’t judge me: I’ve been reading Young Adult girl’s fiction. Specifically, I’ve been reading YA sci-fi/fantasy fiction, in which teenage girls try to survive in a dystopic future. Even more specifically, they’re about imagined futures in which young women don’t get to choose who they will be with, who they will marry.
I want to say right up front here that I am not an expert in YA fiction. Nor am I in any sense an expert in contemporary sci-fi/fantasy. I have a few authors I like to read, but more at the level of ‘casual interest’ than ‘raving fan.’
Here’s what I’ve read:
The three books of the Hunger Games trilogy: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay. Author: Suzanne Collins. Protagonist: Katniss Everdeen. Situation: basically the Games of ancient Rome. A future society in which each ‘district’ annually has to provide two teenaged tributes, one male, one female, who fight to the death in a televised spectacle. Love triangle: Katniss has grown up with, and is really into Gale, a hunting partner. But her fellow tribute, Peeta, is a really good guy who has a crush on her. You all know these books: they’re the ones that got me started on this project.
The first two books of the Delirium trilogy: Delirium, Pandemonium. The third book of the trilogy is set to be published in 2013. Author: Lauren Oliver. Protagonist: Lena Holoway. Situation: a future in which love is seen as a deadly communicable disease. When people turn eighteen, they receive ‘the treatment,’ a surgical procedure which renders them incapable of love, or really any strong emotion. A couple of months before her treatment, Lena falls in love, with Alex. Love triangle: she and Alex try to escape into The Wilds, to join other ‘invalids,’ who are rebelling against the government; she thinks Alex is killed, though she survives and escapes. In Pandemonium, she meets a new guy, Julian, and though she initially despises him, she falls for him in the end. Only to learn, of course, that Alex is still alive. That’s the sitch at the end of the second book.
The first two books of the Matched trilogy: Matched, Crossed. The third book, Reached, comes out this month. Author: Ally Condie. Protagonist: Cassia Reyes. Situation: a super oppressive Society where people are matched by computer with their jobs, where they’re going to live, and of course, who they’re going to marry. All diseases have been eliminated, and Citizens die peacefully at the age of eighty–murdered, it turns out. Art is discouraged, and new art prohibited; the Society allows for a Hundred authorized poems, paintings, novels, movies. Cassia’s rebellion begins when her grandfather gives her a banned poem: Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Love triangle: Cassia is Matched with her childhood friend, Xander, and is thrilled; she really likes him. But then there’s Ky, classified as an Aberration and off-limits maritally. She falls for Ky, and when he’s arrested and sent away, she goes looking for him. Ky and Cassia have just joined The Rising, a revolutionary army, as the second book ends.
As you can tell, these three trilogies have a lot in common. Female protagonists, love triangles, oppressive societies, revolutionary movements which our heroines join. They’re all told in first person, from the heroines p.o.v., except for every other chapter of Crossed, which alternate between Cassia’s perspective and Ky’s. The trilogies are also all exceptionally well-written, with compelling and believable dystopic settings, rounded and interesting characters, narratives full of interest and intrigue, and exceptional story-telling skill. They’re real page-turners, and I mean that as a compliment. I tended to read them late at night, couldn’t go to sleep until I finished ‘em, and dreamed about them all night. And of course, I have yet to read the concluding volume in two of the trilogies, and can’t wait to get my hands on ‘em.
They’re sensually written. I don’t mean they’re sexy, I mean that all three authors are exceptionally gifted at evoking the textures and sounds and flavors of their worlds. That’s particularly true of Condie, who brings a poet’s ear, a painter’s eye, and a psychologist’s insight into her novels. They’re also really good at conveying how it feels to be a girl and fall in love with a guy. That’s a new insight for me.
There are some rather odd similarities between the books. For one thing, the guys who don’t get the girl, the hypotenueses, so to speak, in their respective love triangles, they’re very similar. They’re not jerks, for one thing. They’re really good guys, natural leaders, jocks. There’s not much difference, frankly, between Xander, in Matched, and Gale, in The Hunger Games; they’re both athletic, strong, natural leaders, but really decent guys. The love triangle in Delirium is less satisfying, because it’s accidental; she falls for two guys sequentially, not at the same time. Having love triangles is clearly de rigueur, and easily my least favorite aspect to the books; I frankly couldn’t care less if Katniss ends up with Gale or Peeta, for example. They’re both good guys; pick one. It doesn’t matter. But I’m not, as I have to keep reminding myself, the target audience for these books. (I say that, but I have read seven of them, and intend to read two more; I like ‘em a lot).
The main characters are all girls, and I think it’s awesome that they’re all strong, brave and capable. Katniss is a kick-butt archer, Lena’s a cross-country runner, and Cassia meets Ky on the school hiking team; they’re able to talk because they’re the two fastest kids in the school at going up a hill. I think that’s awesome. To heck with wimpy wait-for-the-boy-to-rescue-you heroines; I have a teenaged daughter, and I think strong smart independent women rock.
But the main thing I love about these books is the politics. They’re very political books, obviously, all about tyranny and rebels against it. In Delirium and Matched, the girls are initially not rebels at all; they’re perfectly successful and obedient members of their successive societies, looking forward to being either ‘cured’ or ‘matched.’ We readers may be horrified for them and to some extent by them, but it takes awhile for the protagonists to become uncomfortable with their oh-so-comfortable worlds. There are fun comedic touches, too; the preposterous Effie Trinket in Hunger Games, the quotations from the Delirium bible, the Book of Shhh (An acronym for Safety, Health, Happiness Handbook). These are tales of rebellion against oppressive authority, perfectly well suited for adolescent readers. They’re probably not trying to make a larger point than that.
But they might be. And that’s interesting to me. The two greatest dystopic novels in history would have to be Orwell’s 1984, and Huxley’s Brave New World, both of which I read in high school and both of which I have loved my entire life. And they both clearly reflected failed utopias of Orwell’s and Huxley’s time. Orwell describes with freakish accuracy what would become of communism. Huxley’s imagined world is less spot-on, but it conflates the lack of individuality sought by China’s Mao, and the blissed-out conformity Western society was on its way towards.
These books owe much more to Brave New World than to 1984, except maybe The Hunger Games, which has some of Orwell’s grit and toughness. So what’s going on today? Why are these three very clever, exceedingly insightful writers all writing about a dystopia in which ordinary human love is the thing that’s either outlawed or codified or warped? Are young women today really afraid that they won’t be allowed to just fall in love? Is there something in today’s politics that has led to this specific anxiety?
I talked to my teenaged daughter about this, asked her if this was a genuine fear girls her age really have. She said she didn’t think so. She said, hey, teenaged girls like love stories, so this is just a new trend, a fad, stories in which love is treated this way, as something to be controlled and regulated by authorities. And that’s horrifying, and so it becomes the focus of revolution. I get that.
But we’re also in the middle of a big important Presidential election, and one in which apocalyptic rhetoric has flourished. If President Obama is re-elected, it’s the End of Days! At least, Chuck Norris seems to think so. And the rhetoric on the right seems driven by the fear that we are losing our freedoms. On the left too, where the fear is that we’re losing our reproductive freedom. Well, what freedom could be more fundamental than the freedom to love? So is it possible that these books reflect either right-wing or left-wing paranoia?
But I have a hard time imagining that could be the case. These books are just so well written. Maybe my own prejudices are showing, but I can’t help but believe that crazy extremist political paranoia cannot co-exist with prose this good. I don’t know anything at all about Suzanne Collins, or Lauren Oliver, or Allie Condie (I have heard that Condie’s LDS), except this: they’re scary good writers. They’re terrific. And I may not be the intended audience for the books, but I also couldn’t put them down.