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Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Various dystopias


The Hunger Games film is a box office success, apparently grossing £290 million world wide. This has been similarly good news for book sales, with Amazon's top 3 sellers this week being The Hunger Games and sequels. However, the books are not universally popular; they are back on the "most challenged" list of books complained about in US schools and public libraries, accused among other things of being anti-family (bizarrely, since Katniss's main concern is with protecting her sister) and "satanic". I have also noted tweets and media comments along the lines of this one from the Wall Street Journal of last year wondering why Young Adult fiction has become too dark, and whether there is too much dystopian young adult fiction. 

Putting to one side the eye rolling and sighing comments that previously there have been complaints that ALL YA/ children's books were about young wizards, or ALL about romantic vampires- whereas of course there as many genres of young adult books as there are for adults- thriller, romance, contemporary drama, historical fiction etc- I find it very interesting that dystopian fiction appears to be so popular in recent years. The first dystopian novel I remember reading was Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien. First published in the 1970s, I remember reading it in the early 80s. People who didn't grow up in the 1980s may not realise how very real the threat of nuclear war seemed to us; as well as news stories about nuclear proliferation and the cold war, there were TV dramas such as Threads on TV- bear in mind that in 1984 there were only 4 channels on UK TV, and practically everybody in my class watched the drama and discussed it at length. Z for Zachariah is the story of a young girl, Ann, who survives a nuclear war in a remote valley in the USA. As far as she knows, she is the only survivor, until one day a man arrives in her valley. He is suffering from radiation sickness, and she nurses him back to health. They agree to live and work together, but he betrays her. Like many contemporary YA dystopian novels, it is told in the first person, in this case through Ann's diaries. I urge you to seek it out if you have read and enjoyed The Hunger Games. 

Within a few years of reading Z for Zachariah I read a large number of dystopian novels: Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid's Tale and Ender's Game. As a young woman growing up in an era with very real concerns about war, peace, human rights and women's reproductive rights, it was clear to me that, while these novels may be set in the future or in alternative worlds, the authors were writing about concerns that were not only contemporary, but timeless- after all, Huxley in 1931 was writing about behavioural conditioning, class distinctions and corporate control, still issues of concern today.

I think that it is clear that thoughtful, intelligent teenagers (the kind that are likely to be reading!) will of course identify with novels writing about war and tyranny, like The Hunger Games. Other dystopian novels that I would recommend are:

Noughts and Crosses  by Malorie Blackman (2001). Set in a world where people are categorised as Noughts and Crosses, Nought Callum and Cross Sephy are at first friends, then fall in love. But when Crosses are the ruling elite and Noughts are the downtrodden minority, how can they find a way to be together? This is a remarkable novel, chapters told in turn from Sephy and Callum's points of view. Blackman has stated that it was inspired by the Stephen Lawrence murder. The Radio 4 Bookclub podcast interview with her is brilliant, but beware of spoilers!

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher (2007) was the Times children's book of the year. Claudia is growing up in a world where the whimsy of the ruling family has declared that time must stop in a version of the 18th Century. Clothes, manners and food are stuck in this time, which ironically is supported by a sophisticated technology. This world should be a paradise, as after a period of strife Incarceron was created: a prison world where criminals were sent forever. However, Incarceron is in fact a nightmare world of factions and violence, which the reader (and Finn, a young prisoner), discovers is horribly sentient. Claudia and Finn realise that they are connected. Can they escape their own prisons, and be together? Written in a beautifully poetic style, this novel has a sequel, Sapphique, which I haven't yet read, but fully intend to.

The Declaration (2008) (and sequels) by Gemma Malley is set far in the future, in a world where there is no more death, due to the development of a drug called Longevity. Anna is a "Surplus"- a child born unnecessarily (after all, if there is no more death, why do children need to be born?) Anna is living in Grange Hall, when a mysterious boy arrives. Can they break free from the punitive conditions at Grange Hall? I really enjoyed this series. The ethics and unforeseen consequences of drug research, population control and food instability are sensitively discussed, and the plot twists are exciting and unexpected.

Gone series by Michael Grant (2009 onwards). Disclaimer: I have only read Fear (2012). This series is set in the fictional town of Perdido Beach, California. One day, the town awakes to discover that all the adults over the age of 15 have disappeared. At the same time, the children and young people have developed special powers, such as great physical strength and psychic perception. Two factions develop, centred on half brothers Sam and Caine, but as readers of Lord of the Flies will be unsurprised to discover, power struggles become violent. There is also a threat from a psychopathic boy named Drake, who is increasingly identified with the mysterious event causing the adults to disappear. This is the novel I enjoyed least of the YA dystopian novels I read, but with an endorsement from Stephen King and a pacy narrative, I am prepared to read the rest of the series. 

Delirium (2011) and Pandemonium (2012) by Lauren Oliver is set in an alternate version of USA. Love has been declared a disease, amor deliria nervosa, which can be cured by an operation on the brain, performed on 18 year olds. People who refuse to have the operation are known as Invalids. In the city of Portland, a 17 year old girl named Lena has been awaiting her operation for years, convinced by the repressive government that love is at the bottom of all strife and misery in her country's past. Then she meets an Invalid boy named Alex, and falls in love. These are fantastically thought-provoking books, which I read shortly after Nadine Dorries' abstinence-only sex education bill was withdrawn and the defeat to her proposals to change the abortion bill. 

Lorna Bradbury in the Telegraph has suggested other YA dystopian  novels. I would like to be very clear here that these are novels that I would recommend for 13+, as they have content that I don't feel younger children would be able to understand. Please let me know what you think, or whether you have any other suggestions!

As well as drawing your attention to the Radio 4 bookclub site which I mentioned above, where you can download podcasts of interviews and question and answer sessions with children and young adult novelists such as Benjamin Zephaniah, JK Rowling and Malorie Blackman amongst others, I would like to mention the UKYA blog. It is a great site reviewing YA novels by British novelists. Enjoy it!


  1. I caught a repeat of Threads a few years - one of the most chilling dramas I've seen, and still frighteningly possible. It should be repeated more often.

  2. I agree. It is absolutely terrifying; the more so since so many people experienced watching it together. I imagine the experience was a little like the story of Americans listening to Welles' War of the Worlds.

  3. Thanks for this round up of suggestions Ali. Dystopian novels are ones I've yet to be bitten by, but maybe Hunger Games will change all of that, and then I'll be back here to take the next step!

  4. By the way, have you read John Wyndham's The Chrysalids? We read it in school, it was an interesting post-nuclear dystopia focusing on mutations caused by radiation (and telepathy). YA didn't exist back then but it has a sort of YA feel to it.

  5. I did read The Chrysalids, Juliette- I'd completely forgotten it until someone on Twitter reminded me of it! Zoe, please let me know what you think!

  6. Z For Zachariah is a marvellous book - I'm always totally amazed that Rober C O'Brian was also the author of Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH - AND of 'The Silver Crown' which is chilling and sinister and totally riveting!

  7. Yes, Katherine! It took me a while to realise that Mrs Frisby was by the same author, although the themes of industrialisation and science were common. I've never read The Silver Crown, but I will look out for it.