I recently finished two YA Dystopian novels, and both were frightening in their own ways. I’m curious what sorts of cultural work dystopias are doing – I’d love to think that it’s positive, but that would require letting down my guard and being a bit vulnerable. In other words, no.
The first is Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrean Sky. In it, the Heartland is a resource center for the Empyreans, who, as the title sez, live in the sky in floating 1920s-style dirigibles (actually we don’t know that, but I sort of hope it’s true). The ag companies have messed with corn so much that it’s pretty much all that grows, having been genetically modified with all kinds of unholy substances. But grow it does, and the Heartlanders are essentially surfs who harvest the corn and live on the leavings of the Empyreans.
- Adults are not all hopeless, as the main character’s father is actually growing underground vegetables and finding out the use for those who have the blight and have become part plant
- This is the first volume in a trilogy, and Wendig does not even pretend to wrap up the story of this first novel
- The violence doesn’t seem all that oppressive in this version, much as I struggled with the supposed oppressiveness in The Hunger Games
The second was more interesting in some ways, as M.T. Anderson’s Feed is everything Idiocracy should be if Mike Judge didn’t seem to actually not like humans, at least after Hank Hill.
In this novel our main character struggles with his feelings for Violet, a girl raised outside the feed. She sort of dies (too late for a spoiler alert, sorry), but the genius in the novel lies in Anderson’s voicing it in his narrator’s head, and in his narrator’s language, with only occasional side forays (courtesy of the feed, although they still feel a little bit deus ex machine) into telling us what’s actually going on. Since this is a YA novel, he occasionally slips into heavy-handed narrative gestures (Violet tells us that as Americans we’re doubly responsible for the destruction of the planet that we are anesthetizing ourselves to), but this novel kept me reading and feeling slightly queasy, as any good dystopia should.
- Some of this made me laugh out loud: “Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battle of the Civl War George Washington fought in and shit” (39)
- Other parts made me want to cry – Violet is sort of sucked into the feed because she wants to be normal, which she can’t otherwise be because her parents were freaks who only succumbed to the feed because they had to get jobs
- This had far more of a Brave New World feel to it than Under the Empyrean Sky or even The Hunger Games. However, I don’t think that Anderson hates humans like Huxley seems to; he gets why we are constantly under sedation, because our lifestyle is so destructive that we can’t face what we’ve done. One view of the steak farm and you’ll get it.