Musings on the prevalence of dystopia in young adult fiction…
- Obvious thought #1: dystopias offer readers a chance to remake their world, even if the ways in which this happens are not all that pleasant or even desirable. From my subject position the stakes seem higher: connections with the natural world are harder to come by, the destruction of the planet looms, older folks keep threatening (and succeeding) with getting them into an ever-increasingly vague and confused series of wars from which they may or may not come back whole, things that seem clear to the majority of their generation (race and gender are constructs, capitalism has limits, consumerism is destructive, the poor are just like those who are not) are sources of anger and bad arguments by those older.
- The problem with dystopias, though, is that there are still residues from the old world. That may not be a problem, especially if dystopias are canvases that we can draw our own desires on. What are those desires?
- Fewer other people, perhaps, and a world where everyone is joined in a common purpose *because* of the dystopic threat that all simultaneously face…
- Complications about good and evil disappear, as with the vast majority of folks gone sides are easily determined.
There are many more, of course…
I finished the second book in the Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, The Broken Kingdoms. I’ll try to sort out my reactions below…
- Jemisin has created a world that feels absolutely alien and inhuman, despite all the characters being either human or divine in human form. This world feels like it should be recognizable, but the powers that all of these characters have are so dramatic and always in conflict, with mortals stealing from gods and gods trying to contain mortal power.
- She borrows characters, or archetypes, from all sorts of mythological traditions, but nothing feels immediately recognizable. I find that sort of uncanniness compelling, because the sort of approach where a character appears and I as the reader can immediately say, of course, that’s Thor, feels lazy and uninspired to me.
- It’s more than just compelling, somehow, and that’s why I’m struggling so much with analyzing a novel that I enjoyed, a lot.
- I can’t find a typical lens to read it through – it’s clearly about power, and energy, and identity, but those are not the typical fantasy lenses, and thus my struggle.
- I get a bit of a feel of the Malazan series, but without the endless deaths and cannon fodder. This book only has one major character die, but there are no minor characters – everyone in here is dangerous in some way that they might not even comprehend.
- I can’t wait for the third book to come up in rotation.
Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo features a protagonist, Paama, who goes toe-to-toe with Chance in order to retain the Chaos Stick. That she [SPOILER ALERT] willfully gives it back to him, and that both she and Chance learn something along the way is just one of the ways in which Lord’s novel messes with generic expectations. She ends up happily married to a younger man, after burying her first husband who ate himself to death.
- My synopsis does not do this novel justice. Paama is the antithesis of those sorts of supposedly genre-bending young female heroines that are featured in much current YA lit – she is married to a man she does not love but cannot hate, she is a great cook, she has no desire to learn how to wield the power she has been given, and she acts with compassion and empathy even when the results are not what she would like.
- Lord’s narrator is lively, self-aware, and interested in engaging us in a conversation, even if it constantly defends itself from charges of defying what it feels our expectations will be. The narrator is far different than Paama, and often asks us not to judge her or other characters at surprising points in the novel – the one that struck me most was when Paama goes back to nurse Ansige, her first husband, as he dies from the consequences of over-eating. Ansige is set up as entirely unsympathetic, and yet Paama knows that her duty is to be with him until he passes. This is territory not often covered in this genre.
- In that sense this novel comes directly from the land of folk tales, written with a postmodern sensibility and an eye towards redeeming our relationships with each other and with the forces in the world that causes things to happen that we do not understand. The narrative voice helps with this redemption with its energy and desire to always keep us looking outside the text.
- The natural forces in this novel are definitely not supernatural, and are also not aligned along a good-evil binary. Again, it is very unlike lots of YA fiction that’s out now, with barely-disguised good and evil aligned along metaphoric lines. I admire the effort that some of that fiction makes, but killing off characters does not necessarily make a novel complex, even when that plot-level action defies generic expectations. What makes ASOIAF complex is not the fact that Ned Stark dies early on, but that GRRM (at least I though he was, before the teevee series) is looking at issues of planetary balance and the appearance of science in the Enlightement. Defying generic expectations does not necessarily equal complexity.
- Part of the joy of Gaiman’s Sandman series was the ways in which entities simply operated in their own best interests, with complex understandings of how those interests meshed with those of other entities. Lord’s novel adds the idea of duty to that mix.
- This binary allows her to comment on humans and their needs through her narrator (which isn’t exactly human, but not exactly a djombi):
Humans did not hold such power within themselves easily; they had a deep-seated need for symbols, talismans, and representations. (61)
- Her epilogue continues the feisty narrator theme. I cannot tell if she’s chastising academics or those who read for escape – I think it’s the latter, but I’m not completely sure. Representative of this trope from the many pieces of advice we get from the narrator is this one:
For others a tale is a way of living vicariously, enjoying the adventures of others without having to go one step beyond their sphere of comfort. To them I say, what’s stopping you from getting on a ship and sailing halfway around the world? Tales are meant to be an inspiration, not a substitute. (157)
The third book in the Sharpe series, Sharpe’s Fortress, has him at Wellesley’s attack on Gawilghur in 1803. The British take the fort, and end up not even suffering all that heavy of casualties, and Sharpe fights his last battle in India before he heads back to England for the next set of battles, this time involving Napoleon.
- This novel follows along the same lines – Sharpe is a hero, a warrior, someone who consistently uses his street-fighting background to be a great soldier. Hakeswill is still a cartoon character – I imagine him as Bluto, only less realistic – and British officers are divided into those who recognize Sharpe’s worthiness and those who can’t see beyond their class blinders.
- As a cypher, I’m becoming increasingly fascinated by Sharpe. Cornwell apologizes in an author’s note at the end of Sharpe’s Fortress to Colonel Campbell, who he gives an auxiliary role to in the improvised move to climb the wall in an undefended place, a move that allows the British to take the fort relatively easily. I don’t know how many British soldiers from the ranks became officers, but based on the need for money (the commission system of becoming an officer and raising a regiment) I can’t believe that it was many.
- From a story-telling standpoint, Sharpe as cypher enables Cornwell all kinds of latitude in looking at a wide range of lives in both the British Army and the army of the East India Company. He refines this technique in the Grail Quest series, and his portrayals become much more realistic and perhaps a bit humbler, but the use of the cypher gives him range he wouldn’t otherwise have as someone writing historical fiction.
- I don’t think I realized exactly how the British colonialisation of India worked, at least in regards to having a private company utilize an army to ensure their profitability. That is a scary model for the future, I’m guessing, but Blackwater will become the new East India Company if the current administration has anything to say about it. I can see nothing wrong with that plan.
- The ease with which the British take a fortress that had never been taken by an enemy shows the frightening power of artillery. It reminds me of a co-worker at the time of the first Gulf War who had received all his images of combat from war movies. He was amazed at how destructive artillery is, how many casualties it accounts for – he thought that most casualties came from soldiers shooting each other. I completely understand how he came to this point of view.
- Cornwell also identifies the range of nationalities involved in the war, with the British and French aligning with various members of the Indian royalty, and Arab mercenaries joining the fight on both sides as well. Clearly, war is expensive, although if what it enables a country to do is to gain a monopoly on trade and collect egregious taxes than I guess it can be profitable.
- I keep thinking, though, about how many humans over the centuries have died in these type of small “engagements.” I can’t think of a grand statement here that fits…machismo, hard-wiring for territorial acquisition, capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, tribalism – they all speak to a part of the picture.
Working with Deadly Synchronicity made me think of Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis, and the following passages came to mind, both from the first chapter of the book on The Odyssey. In particular, he comments on the ways that Homer handles the fact that it takes Odysseus three days to enact his revenge upon the suitors:
Thus the journey is like a silent progress through the indeterminate and the contingent, a holding of the breath, a process which has no present,
which is inserted, like a blank duration, between what has passed and what lies ahead, and which yet is measured: three days! (10)
And (comparing The Odyssey and the Old Testament story of Abraham): Continue Reading
I have been wanting to read Metro 2033 for a long time, and finally did it. It had a beautifully gloomy ending, being Russian of course…
- I am not an expert on Russian fiction – I have essentially read what I’m supposed to read from the canon of Russian lit according to the West, with the addition of the Arkady and Bulgakov. Still, I am struggling to imagine a more cataclysmic and typical Russian ending than this…
- Artyom discovers at the very end that the Dark Ones are actually mutated humans who can survive the hellscape, and who want to help the rest of humanity.
- The humans kill them anyway, and Artyom essentially commits suicide.
- In the Metro all different types of ideologies have recreated themselves – capitalists, fascists, communists. Glukhovsky treats each differently, although he I think demonstrates some nostalgia for the very first days of the Revolution as Red Army partisans rescue Artyom from the fascists.
- The novel takes no joy in being able to negotiate the dystopia, unlike lots of Western novels. The stalkers (those who go to the surface for supplies) are manly men, without a doubt, and represent idealized masculinity, but they mostly run from the creatures on the surface.
- The mutants are imaginative, with Librarians turned into frightening werewolves almost who still don’t like noise in the library.
- There are lots of attempts among the Metro residents to address their existential crises. Artyom meets all kinds of folks and has all kinds of dreams, most of which are nightmares. Some of the philosophers are barely disguised, and anyone who is not hyper-masculine and who meets Artyom dies.
- My guess is that Glukhovsky is less interested in philosophy than he is interested in understanding how humanity got here…
The Malazan Book of the Fallen readers on WordPress (you know who you are, and thanks!) recommended that I read this, and it was worth the wait. I realized as I was reading that I had read Cook’s short fiction in the 80s, but I hadn’t picked it up since.
- Writing about a mercenary company in a fantasy novel makes most of the folks who read LOTR because Aragorn is dreamy heads explode. This is a good thing.
- The mercenaries with a heart of gold is also an interesting twist.
- The fact that the company physician is also its annalist and someone who can fight again messes with fantasy conventions.
- Our narrator is the story-teller who has been charged with writing down this story. He also tells us spots that he did not record what happened, and makes several fourth wall breaking admissions to us as readers. These things all made me smile.
- The idea that mercenaries are the only truly honorable people because we know where they stand is a sort of trope that I have to admit I like.
- [SPOILER ALERT] Who didn’t see Darling as the new White Rose?
- The mages are clearly not Gandalf – One-Eye, Silent, Goblin…
I’m looking forward to the rest…