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What Is The Appeal Of Teen Dystopian Novels? by Sam Hawksmoor

Dystopian stories are fashionable. It’s not just The Hunger Games. They can be set in the ruins of society or even deliberately created. Michael Coleman’s The Cure takes us back to year zero in his novel. In the Uglies and Pretties series by Scott Westerfeld he explores the obsession with perfection, a whole society warped by plastic surgery. We are attracted to dystopian stories because they offer an alternative to this world and perhaps point the way to a better life than the one we have.  (Bleak and harsh they may be, the success of Final Destination series demonstrates the endless flexibility of the great fight against oppression.) Add Divergent, Blood Red Road, and yes many seem to have strong female gladiators in the lead who can be trained to kill and maim and not seem to suffer any emotional trauma. So many are published now they all tend to merge into one, but some have a unique twist. Here are two dystopic novels to consider.

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Lauren Oliver is on a journey through a well-trodden future – where love and feelings are illegal.  Writers such as Philip K Dick, Kurt Vonnegut and even Jean Luc Goddard were thinking about totalitarian worlds where passion and poetry were forbidden for the sake of peace and humanity way back in fifties and sixties.  George Orwell also used sex and love as a rebellion against dictatorship in 1984.  There is also the movie Equilibrium where Christian Bale’s job is to kill anyone who feels anything and eradicate art or poetry that might inspire ‘rebellion’.

In Delirium we live in a future United States where love is a disease in need of a cure.  Reading Delirium the tone and feel of the text is a lot like the beginning of the amazing ‘Forest of Hands and Teeth’ but this is no zombie novel.  It is a very real world where a seventeen-year-old girl Lena is just 95 days away from the ‘cure’ and to be honest she can’t wait.  First she has to be evaluated (a very tense time where they test your psychological state and wellbeing and then depending on your score, match you with a boy with whom you will spend the rest of your life in a loveless marriage) A bit like a face to face eharmony moment and you get just five choices of who they think you are most compatible with.

Lena is nervous, not because, as you would expect in this kind of novel, she wants to rebel and experience love, but because she so totally believes in this ‘cure’. Lena, along with her best friend and running partner the beautiful, Hana, are on the countdown to ‘freedom’ from pain.  The cure is a surgical procedure that will remove all longing – give them the emotional range of a Stepford Wife.  Superficially, it might seem attractive to any heartbroken teen to have a cure that will stop the pain.  The same idea was also used in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where you can have memories of your last relationship erased.  But what would it be like to live in a society where boys and girls at the age of 18 are psychologically neutered?  What is there to live for if there isn’t love?  Where do you go if you don’t want the procedure? Life in Maine seems to go on to be sure, but unlike Ms Oliver, I am not absolutely convinced it would be so normal or that people would be motivated to carry on. This is just an observation mind. It seems to be a life without hope and anticipation and that’s kind of hard to live with. 
There are the wilds beyond the border (electrified fences keep people in) and the beyond that the bombed out ruins of towns and cities that would not succumb to this loveless dictat.  America is safe (at peace) but beyond its borders all is chaos and pain because they allow ‘passion’ to rule.

It’s not all peace in Portland, Maine where Lena lives with her aunt and uncle and their two kids. (Grace and Jenny.  Grace is mute – rebelling in her own way about what life has dealt her).  If you rebel in any way, listen to unauthorised music or read a banned love poem, the regulators and enforcers will hunt you down, club you unconscious or even kill you or throw you in jail and throw away the key.

This is not the kind of America you’d like to live in.  Romeo and Juliet is a compulsory read as a warning to just what can go wrong if you stray from the norm. Why is Lena so keen to be ‘cured’?  Look no further than her mother who committed suicide rather than submit to the cure.  She suffered so much, they had to treat her three times to try to ‘cure’ her of love, but it failed.  Lena fears that she has inherited the ‘disease’ from her mother and does not want that much pain.  That is until she meets Alex, part time student, security guard, not yet matched.  Alex is cured, so should be ‘safe’, but Alex has a secret and clearly likes her. 
What is this terrible feeling she has for this golden boy with a killer smile. It can’t be?  But it is. A heart doesn’t lie. 
Keeping secrets in a totalitarian society is tough and every day she gets one closer to the cure.  Delirium is an intense portrait of a militaristic Amish America – a love story to savour with characters you can believe in.

Pastworld by Ian Beck

Lose yourself in Old London – delight in the antics of adorable urchins begging for change

It had to happen; some bright spark decided to write Westworld for kids. (If you don’t know what Westworld is, it’s a cowboy resort where you can experience the Wild West – see a lawless life in the raw, witness real gunfights and death and go home again to your modern, safe world afterwards. (Only something goes wrong… and the cowboys aren’t quite what they seem).

That said, PastWorld by Ian Beck is a great yarn and will impress young readers.  
It is set in 2050; London has been converted into a giant, lawless Victorian theme park complete with Dickensian beggars, thieves and murderers, séances and airships that glide over the city. There are authentic smells, fogs, steam trains and yes you can meet the muffin man, experience the murder trail and if you are very unlucky be eviscerated by the Fantom who will literally rip your head off and steal your heart.

The children who live there don’t even know this is a resort and, like the Truman Show, believe it all to be real. 

Eve, a young beautiful girl with piercing blue eyes lives in this world, has grown up here, guarded by the blind man Jack who is very protective of her.  She is a virtual prisoner, cooking and cleaning for her Jack. She has no knowledge of her parents and sees only this damp foggy world.  She longs for more and keeps a diary recording her thoughts.

Meet strange blue eyed Caleb, visiting with his father from the outside to Pastworld for the first time.  He is excited to be wearing period costume to fit in, little suspecting that his father knows much more about the workings of this world than he has let on. Caleb is scared and thrilled and they have been invited to the great Halloween party by the owner of the resort, the mysterious Mr. Buckland. 

 But someone is looking for Eve.  An evil man who wants to do her great harm and she, unsuspecting of the terrible fate that awaits her and unable to take the boring confines of her world anymore, has fled to the circus and is training to be a tight-rope walker. 

 Then there’s Bible J, who is a tea-leaf and works for the fake medium Mr. Leighton and in the streets lie the evil ragged men who work under a spell of the Fantom.

Eve discovers she has a special talent. Caleb watches his father be kidnapped, the blind man killed and he is suddenly wanted for murder. Bible J has fallen for Eve, and the cat lady knows her secret.  Eve thinks she is safe hidden in the world of the circus people but she will be betrayed by her very talent.

Ian Beck has conjured up a convincing and very detailed Victorian world populated by lifers (the ones who belong there) and gawkers, (the ones pay for thrills). 

 The plot is very Phantom of the Opera and even harks back to Metropolis.  Perhaps there are no new plots in dystopia.  Nevertheless spending time with Caleb, Eve, Bible J and Sergeant Catchpole of Scotland Yard whose job it is to find Eve before the Fantom does is a lot of fun and there are many surprises along the way.


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The RepossessionThe Hunting     Delirium (Delirium Trilogy)Pastworld: A Mystery of the Near FutureGenesisMy Brother's ShadowThe Puzzle Ring

Writing Teen Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. simondillon #

    For me, dystopian stories should always culminate in an act of rebellion. That is one of the reasons I didn’t care for Never Let Me Go, but I loved The Hunger Games. Perhaps the YA readership is naturally more sympathetic to such themes.

    My own novel George goes to Mars has a few dystopian elements in the opening stretches, involving a horrific rich/poor divide after an atomic war. But this setting is more used as a kind of absurdist Roald-Dahl-esque poverty device to set up the main character a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s had some nice reviews already, so check it out if you’re interested.

    January 23, 2013
  2. Think I’ll have to try Pastworld; it sounds great! Thanks for the recommendations.

    January 27, 2013

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