What's Your Genre? Week: Caragh M. O’Brien on Dystopian

“Dystopia” sounds like a kind of near-sighted vertigo, but actually it’s worse. In essence, a dystopia is the opposite of a utopia, an ideal society. It’s a society where something has gone very wrong. If you ever read Orwell’s 1984, Rand’s Anthem, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Lowry’s The Giver or more recently McCarthy’s The Road, Collins’s The Hunger Games or Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go, you’ve read a dystopian novel.

Beyond that definition--the opposite of an ideal society--the parameters are pretty wide open. What makes a dystopian novel (often simply called “a dystopia,” or “a dystopian”) interesting is that it calls into question what makes a society work at all, and it holds up a twisted mirror to our own society so that we’re likely to squirm at a freshly seen truth, even if it’s extreme in the novel. Cloning, climate change, plastic surgery, suburbia, and child warriors are all fair game. The action can take place in the future or in an alternative reality, and because of this, dystopian novels often are categorized with Sci-fi.

Dystopian novels have conflict inherently built in, because any self-respecting protagonist is certain to start resisting the warped society sooner or later. Even a small, private action like keeping a diary or a list of baby names becomes political, with bigger repercussions. Such novels are fun to write for this reason, and at the moment, popular to read as well.

In the recent surge of middle grade and young adult dystopian novels, gutsy young protagonists abound. They’re smart. Like Katniss Everdeen, they’re survivors, even if they aren’t literally fighting for their lives in a deadly arena. Under pressure, these survivors discover what matters to them: the people they love, their own morals, and what’s worth living for. They often laugh and act like regular kids along the way, so it’s easy to love them.

In short, a dystopia brings out the best in us. Maybe we should try living in one. Just kidding.

Are you already a dystopia fan? Can you match the following mini summaries to the titles further below? This is an eclectic compilation of some of my favorite middle grade and young adult dystopian novels, recent and classic.

1. A boy clone exists to provide genetically matching organ transplants for El Patron.
2. A teen midwife from outside the wall tries to save her parents arrested by the Enclave.
3. Twelve districts each donate two children who will fight each other to the death on TV.
4. Families are allowed to have two children maximum, but a third child lives in secret.
5. A young boy discovers choice and color in a world where they’ve been eliminated.
6. A boy and a dog, who read men’s and animals’ minds, run with a girl to evade killers.
7. A girl on an orchid farm receives a plea for help from across the forbidden borderline.
8. At sixteen, everyone has an operation to become beautiful, until one girl rebels.
9. A girl wakes post-coma with amnesia, an awkward body, and a family full of secrets.
10. A boy’s brain chip connects him to ads, other teens, and a girl who resists her chip.

A. The Adoration of Jenna Fox (2008) by Mary E. Pearson
B. Among the Hidden (1998) by Margaret Patterson Haddix
C. Birthmarked (2010) by Caragh M. O’Brien
D. Feed (2002) by M. T. Anderson
E. The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry
F. The House of the Scorpion (2002) by Nancy Farmer
G. The Hunger Games (2008) by Suzanne Collins
H. The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008) by Patrick Ness
I. The Line (2010) by Teri Hall
J. The Uglies (2005) by Scott Westerfeld

Answers: 1-F, 2-C, 3-G, 4-B, 5-E, 6-H, 7-I, 8-J, 9-A, 10-D.

-Caragh M. O’Brien is the author of the dystopian novel Birthmarked, recently nominated for the YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults. For more info, see www.caraghobrien.com.


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