Dystopian YA Novels: It’s the End of the World as We Know It…

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Matched, Across the Universe, Article 5Matched, Across the Universe, Article 5

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. But everyone seems to agree that after the end of the world we’ll end up living in some sort of totalitarian regime that controls our thoughts, whether by subtle or overt means. At least everyone who writes young adult dystopian romance novels, apparently.

Yes, that actually is a genre. For those of you who don’t read a lot of young adult fiction, you may have thought that it was limited to paranormal romance novels, but it isn’t just vampires and werewolves and angels and demons out there. There’s also a whole world of worlds gone wrong, and all of them are populated by rebellious intrepid teenagers who fall in love.

Ok, before I get ahead of myself, I want to back up a bit. I’ve liked dystopian fiction probably since high school, when I read several of the classics of the genre: Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984. Each of these, about societies with very rigid rules, made me wonder: Why would somebody create a society like that? Would I survive in this world? Would I be happy? Would I dare to break the rules?

Teenagers, of course, are the ideal audience for this sort of thinking. Sure, those older books weren’t written for teenagers; the “young adult” category didn’t exist then. But rebellion and insurrection seem to come naturally to teenagers, who are brash and full of hormones, ready to act on idealistic pursuits. Adults, as they are usually portrayed in these books, are cynical, or jaded, or too invested in their security to resist. It takes a kid to see that the emperor is naked.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read a few of these books: Article 5 by Kristen Simmons, Across the Universe and A Million Suns by Beth Revis, and Matched by Allie Condie. (There is a sequel to Matched, titled Crossed, but I haven’t gotten to that one yet.) I’ll review each book briefly on its own, and then conclude with a few remarks about the genre.

Article 5 by Kristen SimmonsArticle 5 by Kristen SimmonsArticle 5 by Kristen Simmons

As I see it, there are two main schools of thought about the current state of our country. One holds that liberals are corrupting the values our nation was founded on, that we’re on a slippery slope toward an immoral, godless society. The other argues that ultra-conservatives are trying to impose their own belief systems on others, sacrificing freedom in favor of conformity to a subjective standard. For whatever reason, fiction writers seem to think that the right wingers are more likely to create a totalitarian regime. That’s certainly the case in Article 5, a young adult novel from new author Kristen Simmons. After World War III destroyed many major cities, the U.S. is now under martial law. The new code of conduct is the Moral Statutes, enforced by the Federal Bureau of Reformation (nicknamed the “Moral Militia” by dissenters).

It finally is a Christian nation, because it’s against the law to be otherwise (Article 1). Marriage has finally been defined as one man, one woman; divorce and abortion have been outlawed (Articles 2 through 4). And then there’s Article 5: children of unmarried parents aren’t valid citizens. Their parents are criminals, and they themselves are subject to rehabilitation.

Ember Miller is seventeen, old enough to remember life before the FBR, back before her best friend and neighbor Chase Jennings was drafted into the army. When he returns, it isn’t a happy homecoming — he’s there to help arrest Ember’s mother, and Ember herself is taken to a reformatory. What follows is what you might expect: Ember escapes and spends the rest of the book on the run, aiming for a safe house in South Carolina, where there’s an underground resistance building. And, this being YA fiction, Chase is there, too, a key part in her escape and a source of much emotional tension.

Maybe it’s because I’m not a teenage girl, but I found myself incredibly frustrated with Ember for much of the book. She finds Chase absolutely despicable for becoming a solider, for allowing her mother to be arrested, for changing. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to tell you that she eventually finds that he still loves her, and she loves him — it is, after all, a YA novel. But I could see that Chase was doing everything in his power to keep Ember safe (and that the FBR was more dangerous than most civilians were aware); somehow Ember couldn’t see past these imagined offenses and spent most of the book believing that Chase no longer had any feelings for her. In real life I’d say that usually it’s the guy who seems totally clueless about intentions and emotions, but for some reason in Article 5 Ember was the one who was blind to her circumstances.

However, depending on your taste in books and politics, Article 5 can be a fun read. It’s not one that social conservatives are likely to enjoy — they’re definitely the bad guys in this book. But there’s a good amount of adventure and action, even if the slow reveal of the FBR’s true actions is a bit too easy to predict.

Matched by Ally CondieMatched by Ally CondieMatched by Ally Condie

The regime in Matched is of a different sort, more like A Brave New World. People are happy in the Society. They’re healthy. They can expect to live a long, peaceful life, free from diseases and turmoil. If you’re a citizen of the Society, you can expect to die at age 80, surrounded by loved ones at your Final Banquet.

And if you’re a teenager, well, you can be free of all of that angst about dating and relationships and does-he-like-like-me fretting. Because when you’re seventeen, you’ll attend a Match Banquet, where you will be paired with your perfect match. It’s all scientifically arranged, giving you the best fit for your genetics and personality, guaranteeing a long, trouble-free marriage with two healthy children.

Cassia attends her Match Banquet and is surprised to be matched with her best friend, Xander. Most people aren’t matched with somebody in their own Borough, so it’s exciting and unusual, but to Cassia it feels right and comfortable. Except (and you knew there was an “except” coming, right?) when she finally fires up her microcard to see what sort of data they’ve given her about Xander, she glimpses a picture of somebody else.

Ky Markham is another childhood friend. But he’s an Aberration — somebody who isn’t allowed to Match, because he’s not a full member of Society. But although he follows all the rules and gives the appearance of being perfectly average, Cassia begins to notice that there’s something more. And the more she learns about Ky, the more she starts falling for him.

The world of Matched actually reminded me a bit of the movie Gattacca, because it’s about this guy who doesn’t belong, but hides himself within the system. And because he’s different, he’s intriguing. He has to work harder to keep up appearances, but he knows things that the rest of the society doesn’t. Cassia (whose dying grandfather also revealed some long-kept secrets to her) begins to see past the facade that the Society presents, and discovers that things are not as perfect as they’re made out to be.

The love triangle at the center of the book bugged me, though, particularly because Cassia just can’t make up her mind. She loves her best friend, she loves this strange, indecipherable kid. She loves them both for different reasons, and she can’t bring herself to abandon either of them. But the whole time, you know that one of the guys is going to lose her, and he’s probably going to do it nobly, sacrificing something so that she can go after the other one. That’s the sort of story this is.

There was a lot about the Society that made the book enjoyable to read. It’s not a new concept, but it’s still fun to read about a “perfect” world that’s hiding a lot of imperfections. I particularly liked the concept of the One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Pictures, One Hundred Songs — the Society had culled things down to a manageable number, picking out art that wouldn’t incite rebellion and destroying the rest. It’s sort of like Fahrenheit 451, but perhaps more insidious.

Whether or not you enjoy Matched may depend on your tolerance for adolescent love triangles. My wife read the book too and didn’t enjoy it, feeling it was too cliched. I liked it more than she did, but I think I would have preferred a little less angst in it. I may still check out Crossed later on, because I’m curious where the story goes after this (and the love triangle does seem to be resolved by the end of this one).

Across the Universe and A Million Suns by Beth RevisAcross the Universe and A Million Suns by Beth Revis

Across the Universe and A Million Suns by Beth Revis

In this series (the first two of a planned trilogy), the dystopia doesn’t happen on Earth. Oh, there’s some economic turmoil going on but there’s no World War III, no dictatorship. Just a bunch of people volunteering to be cryogenically frozen and loaded onto a ship traveling to Centauri-Earth. Estimated time of arrival: 300 years. Amy, seventeen years old, is “nonessential.” Her parents, a geneticist and a military officer, are both on board the Godspeed for a reason, and so Amy is allowed to go along, despite the fact that she’d rather stay on Earth with her friends instead of being frozen for three centuries and leaving behind everything she knows.

But fifty years before their scheduled landing, Amy’s cryo chamber (#42, naturally) is unplugged. She wakes up, though not before nearly dying, and here’s where we find the dystopia. The ship is not an unmanned vessel: it’s more of an ecosystem, with a huge crew that maintains the ship, raises livestock and crops, and so forth. But over the centuries, things have changed. It’s a more primitive, feudal society, with one leader (“Eldest”), strictly controlled reproduction, and a mono-ethnic culture that doesn’t know what to make of this fair-skinned, red-haired teenager.

Oh, and because the generations are so carefully coordinated, Amy finds that she’s the only teenager aboard the ship, aside from Elder, a sixteen-year-old boy who is destined to become the next leader. The Eldest/Elder system was established after the Plague wiped out much of the ship’s population and things fell into chaos, but now the population seems almost mindless, subservient and emotionless. The only people who seem “normal” to Amy are the ones in the Hospital, the ones labelled “crazy” by the rest of them.

The story is narrated by Amy and Elder in alternating chapters, and I loved the slow reveal of what’s going on in the ship. There are lies upon lies — Eldest presents a grandfatherly face to all of the “Feeders” (the menial laborers) but Elder sees the other side of him, manipulative and tyrannical. He’s afraid of anything different that would cause discord, and Amy is about as different as can be.

There’s a lot of intertwining plot lines, but at the center is the mystery about who unplugged Amy, because other cryo chambers are being unplugged as well, and the “frozens” are dying. As Amy and Elder work to figure out who’s behind the plot, they also discover a lot of other secrets about the ship. In A Million Suns, the sequel, Amy and Elder continue to unravel the web of deceit and lies that surround the ship — quickly, because the ship may not last much longer. But, as expected, they also work to untangle their feelings for each other. I think it’s apparent from the start that they’re destined to end up together — I mean, they’re the only two teenagers in this universe — but Amy actually questions her own feelings for that very reason. That, in my opinion, makes her a little more interesting as a character: she isn’t ready to just fall for this guy simply because he’s the only one there. On the other hand, that’s a pretty hard force to resist, knowing that there really isn’t anyone else for you, ever.

I don’t want to give too much more away about the plot, because there are some surprises in store that aren’t all predictable, though I did guess at a few of them. The one thing that did bother me, however, was a scene in the first one of a sexual assault. It’s a minor spoiler, but Amy gets attacked (and rescued), and for parts of both books she lives in fear, but doesn’t tell anyone else what happened. She takes things into her own hands. While this may be a realistic reaction — often victims of assault blame themselves and are ashamed to tell anyone — I think it’s dangerous to have that behavior modeled here, without anyone to encourage her to seek help.

That’s only one part of the book, though, and for the most part I enjoyed it. It felt a little bit like Stargate Universe (which I liked), the bulk of the plot taking place in the limited world of the ship, a closed environment which nobody could escape. All of these books are planned trilogies, but I think this one is the one I’m most eager to finish. (I’ve got a bit of a wait, though; A Million Suns just came out this month.)

Conclusion

These newer books about dystopias carry over a lot of similar themes from the older ones: Big Brother-type surveillance and nearly-omniscient officials; drugs that keep people calm and satisfied with the status quo; jobs assigned based on genetics or breeding. However, there are a few significant differences: the main characters in the new crop of books are teenagers rather than adults; most of these books are romances, as much about falling in love as they are about fighting the system; and — perhaps most significantly — the protagonists win, at least in part.

Of the three classics I mentioned above, only Fahrenheit 451 has something even close to a happy ending: one in which Guy Montag doesn’t die horribly or get brainwashed to love the system. Despite the fact that these new authors still dream up worlds that are twisted and out of control, they want readers to believe that there is a way out of them.

I wonder why that is? Perhaps Orwell and Huxley were afraid that, once society made the leap to the “brave new world,” it would be impossible to fight it: all the more reason to prevent it from happening in the first place. Perhaps today’s authors worry that the shift is already taking place, but they want to tell their young readers that there is still reason to fight. Or perhaps it’s because contemporary authors want to be sure that their books are entertaining as well as provocative? As amazing as Brave New World and 1984 are as literature, they’re kind of downers to read. And, of course, it’d be hard to get a trilogy out of either of them.

As I said, I prefer the more subtle regimes than the overt — the ones in which there are smiling Officials instead of sneering soldiers, because it seems more likely that we would fall for that. Something insidious that seems friendly and beneficial. It just didn’t seem realistic to me that we would allow our government to ban outright books or poetry or artwork that would inspire us to fight and rebel … but then today I got this Change.org petition about the Tucson school board. They’ve banned Mexican American Studies, and on top of that have banned anything that talks about “race or oppression” — including Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Suddenly, the world of Article 5 seemed much closer than it had while I was reading it.

So, if this current crop of dystopian novels encourages kids to stand up and fight for what’s right, then I suppose I won’t complain too loudly about the angsty teen romance and the against-all-odds success of the protagonists.

Update: It’s been brought to my attention that the stories about banning books in the Tuscon school district weren’t entirely accurate, or at least that the word “banned” should not have been used. At the very least, The Tempest is — according to some sources — not one of the books that was removed from classrooms. I’m not able to go dig into the story much deeper right now (gotta get my daughter to preschool) but checking recent news articles and reading about the walkouts happening today, there’s definitely something fishy going on, whether it’s called “banning” or not. I guess the lesson here, as in most of these dystopian YA novels, is to think for yourself.

Disclosure: GeekDad received review copies or advance proofs of the books reviewed here.

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