Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Dystopian Fiction at the Edinburgh Book Festival

Last week I appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival: did you know it is the largest celebration of the written word in the world? (I didn't, but I do now!). It was pretty awesome, and I've blogged about what it was like to be there from a writer's point of view over at Notes from the Slushpile, so I won't repeat any of that here. What I'd like to get into is the event I did on dystopian fiction with Sara Grant, author of Dark Parties, as part of the RBS Schools Programme.

When I was preparing for Edinburgh I spent a lot of time thinking about dystopian fiction. Not all of it came out in our event: an hour is tiny window of time on my obsession! So I'm going to delve into some of it here. 

What exactly is dystopian fiction?
I think this is easier to answer by saying what it isn't. It's opposite is the eutopia: an imagined perfect society. In a dystopia, something terrible is going wrong.

Classic dystopian novels like Orwell's 1984 serve as a warning and call to action: the hero is always utterly defeated. The only way out of the mess is to change the world, now, so that this can't happen in the future.

Is this true of YA dystopian novels? Generally....no. About the worst the endings get is a little like you don't know quite what is going to happen. Sometimes there are happy endings that outrage some critics as going against what a dystopian novel is meant to be.

Do I have a problem with that? No. 'Dystopian' is a label that has been applied to novels like Slated and Dark Parties: for myself I didn't seek it out. What the YA dystopian novel is, in essence, isn't in my view the same as what came before in any event. But having said that....if a happy ending is bogus, it is going to outrage readers. It has to fit the story, and make sense in the world created.

Why dystopian? Why now?

What I'm getting at is why is it so popular just now? Is it just because of the popularity of the Hunger Games books and film, or is there more behind it? There are a number of theories.

Fear of the future: so many things are going wrong in the world. Dystopian novels imagine futures we fear: their recent popularity began in the US, and it began after the events of 9/11. Is this a coincidence? Perhaps authors are playing out their fears in their writing.

Escapism: dystopias give an exciting plot! Having a world where things are going wrong makes for a great story. An imagined perfect society where everyone gets along might be wonderful to live in, but it would make boring reading.

You're living it, right now: writers like Scott Westerfeld of the Uglies trilogy have said that high school is a dystopia. The idea is that teenagers like reading about dystopias because it echoes their own experience. And this doesn't mean that they've been fighting to the death on reality TV like Katniss in the Hunger Games. More that their lives are unpredictable, the rules keep changing, and they have no control.

The fear factor: with everything we have access to today, on the TV and internet, it takes more to scare us, so authors have to go further and further to make an exciting story.

They put your own problems into perspective: sometimes, life sucks. But seeing what Todd in Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy has to get through can make our own stuff seem less of a deal.

Wanting the truth: traditional fiction for young people often paints a rosy view of the world and the future, one that may feel at odds with what is real.

Why do I write dystopian fiction?
Slated grew from a dream in the dark murk of my unconscious, so it wasn't a plan to write a dystopian novel at all. But I think I end up writing about my obsessions, things that worry me. Whether I want to, or not. I didn't set out to consider big questions, but the story took me places, and the questions were there.

Questions in Slated...
The scales of justice
If a young person commits a terrible, violent crime, why did they do it? Are people born bad, or made that way? If someone commits a crime as a reaction to horrible things that have happened to them, is it their fault? Should they even be punished? But if they are dangerous to everyone else, you can't just let them go: what then?

In Slated, underage criminals have their memories wiped, so they are given a second chance. Assigned to a new family and a new life. After my second event at Edinburgh when I was signing books, a dad who was a policeman told me he thought Slating was a brilliant idea. I'm not sure how serious he was, but is this a eutopian ideal?

Back to the question of whether bad people are born or made...if they are born that way, wiping their memories won't change them, will it? That is why Slateds must wear a Levo: a device that monitors emotions, to stop them from hurting themselves or others.

Behind Slating are Lorders, a brutal and oppressive government, and the other big question that keeps insisting I write about it is this: is it right to overthrow a government like this by any means necessary? In many dystopian novels, there are freedom fighters, attacking an unjust system, bringing it down. But what is the difference between freedom fighters, and terrorists? Is it just a matter of perspective?

I'm still working these questions out as I continue Kyla's story. Fractured is next and will be published in May 2013 in the UK. In the US, Slated is out Jan 2013 and Fractured will be September 2013. The final of the three should be published simultaneously in May 2014. I'll write it just as soon as I work out the answers to all of these pesky questions....

I'd love comments: Why do you think dystopian fiction is so popular? Or on anything else. Thanks!
Anobii First Book Award: Slated is up for this as a debut novel with the Edinburgh Book Festival. You can vote, here. Doing so enters you in with a chance to win all 46 nominated titles, and is open until October 12.

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