Don’t worry, you’ve never heard of this term before because I just made it up about 10 seconds ago, but I think this is a glimpse of the future of dystopian/apocalyptic sub-genres. Just remember you heard it here on Tell Great Stories first. Someone write it down so one day I’ll be listed as the coiner of the term on the Wikipedia page.
Anyway, for about the past year, the YA-verse has been suffering from dystopia fatigue (not entirely unlike vampire fatigue, paranormal romance fatigue, trilogy fatigue, and love triangle fatigue.)
Contrary to popular opinion, the fatigue is NOT because the books being published in these sub-genres are bad. It’s because they aren’t unique. Sure, they might take place in different countries, in different cities, with a different twist, but it always plays out more or less the same.
The Story We All Know
Protagonist is oppressed by something bigger than themselves (a corporation, a government, water shortage, oil shortage, disease, zombies, poverty, hunger, whatever.)
The protag is given an extraordinary opportunity that allows them to catch a glimpse of who they really are or could be and a world that needs someone to fight. The Extraordinary Opportunity is better known by writers as The First Plot Point and is often thrust upon the protag unwillingly. Once the protag’s eyes are opened, of course, there’s no going back.
Through is the only direction, and so the protag spends the next 50,000 words fighting against themselves and against the oppressor in order to come out triumphant (or nearly so) at the end with a hot love interest by their side. Ta-da.
Which means, of course, there are no surprises.
And as readers, we are just a little bit tired of reading the same thing. We love these settings, these scenarios, these terrible events, but we yearn to be taken by surprise, to feel like the characters are in mortal danger, to believe there are serious stakes and regardless of our passion, we may not triumph.
Why We Need It
New Dystopian is a term I cooked up because I needed a new piece of language to describe a book I recently read that is dystopian but does not, in any way, look like the dystopian we’ve seen in the last five years
It feels different.
It takes us by surprise.
There are stakes so high that success is doubtful.
And we’re not sure there will be a happy ending.
In fact, if I hadn’t told you this book was a dystopian, you wouldn’t have known until more than halfway through the book. Because it doesn’t flash its “Dystopian” tramp stamp at everyone. It’s subtle, more like, a way of life and not a defining characteristic.
And I have a feeling that the fatigue we’ve been feeling lately is going to lead to these sorts of books that are dystopian but aren’t so in your face about it. There won’t be cities burning or roving gangs of thugs in the wastelands. Government control won’t be so in-your-face. Dystopian conspiracy theorists will hang out at coffee shops with alien conspiracy theorists.
Never Let Me Go
The book I’ve been slowly building up to was also made into a movie, so if you’ve seen the movie but not read the book, I beg you not to give anything away in comments, as there are some key differences.
The book? Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
And the thing is, I can’t really tell you much about the book because in giving anything away I’d ruin the unfolding and trust me when I tell you, you don’t want me to do that. So I’m going to have to be a little backward about describing the book to you.
Ok, so, the book is told through the recounting of a girl named Kathy H. who grew up at a boarding school called Hailsham somewhere in England. When the book begins she’s a little older, around 31, and we know there is an important reason she’s about to tell us her story, but we’re not sure what the important reason is until like, 75% of the way through the book. And that’s ok. That’s part of the beauty of this book. It’s all in the unfolding.
So Kathy starts out when she was middle school aged, but she often jumps around, going much younger and much older in her stories. There’s a certain rhythm of memory that you can’t fake here – I feel honest-to-god like we’re sitting at the knees of a new friend telling us her life story and one memory reminds her of something else that happened ten years later or in telling a remembered moment she suddenly understands it so much differently than she did back then. The unfolding story is as much a revelation to her as it is to us.
Kathy’s world is intersected by two friends – Tommy, the boy she loves, and Ruth, her bossy daydreaming best friend. They are interesting in their own right, but let me say this: Pay Very Close Attention to Tommy. I believe that a deeper understanding of the story can be seen through Tommy’s character. He is maybe the only character who’s mind is filled with screams against what is being done to him.
The students of Hailsham are special. How are they special? Well. That would be telling.
But here’s the thing- it doesn’t matter why they are special. Their specialness does not stop them from having normal childhoods full of drama and heartache and manipulation. Their childhoods are not all that different from the one I wrote about in my glittery unicorn diaries. It’s about favorite teachers and sports, doing well, acceptance and bullies. There’s this story Kathy tells about how her friend Ruth, when they were very young, told a small group of them that there was a conspiracy to kidnap their favorite teacher and that Ruth had been charged with protecting this teacher. She tells them she’s forming a private guard and they are to silently, without this teacher ever knowing, protect her and root out the conspirators. These little girls take on this duty with the perseverance and dedication that only little girls can muster.
Do you know you’re in a dystopian story when you’re living it?
Let me ask you this – If we were living in a dystopian society right now, where the government controlled us entirely and we were housed in gated communities were unapproved books were burned and people imprisoned for the smallest of infractions, would you walk around thinking to yourself, “Man this is one hell of a dystopian society.”
Probably not. You’d probably think, “Man, this life is hell.”
You probably wouldn’t spend most of your time dissecting the goings on of the government. You’d be too busy keeping your head down and food in your mouth. Most of the dystopian books coming out lately can’t stop pointing out their genre to you, but not Never Let Me Go (which, granted, came out in 2005, so it’s not new new.) This is what I mean by New Dystopian. It’s not a genre for this book, it’s just the way life is.
Which is why the ending, though you can kind of see it coming, slams into you like a freight train.
I can’t recommend this book enough, though for all that is holy in this world please do not go watch the trailer for the movie. Don’t go anywhere near the movie until you’ve read the book. The movie is lovely and captures the heart of the story sure, but it also lacks the subtle nuances of the book that make it such an intense and life changing read. The trailer alone will give away the twist (ARGH! HULK SMASH) and flashes HI I’M AN OPPRESSIVE DYSTOPIAN all over the screen.
So just avoid it until you’ve read the book first.
If you’ve read the book or if you don’t mind spoilers, author Margaret Atwood digs into the heart of this creepy tale in this book review.
This book is for anyone who has ever loved the following books but the idea of reading yet another dystopian book/trilogy fills you with a sort of exhaustion that makes you think, “I can’t be bothered.”
- The Hunger Games
- The Water Wars
- Restoring Harmony
Where do you want to see Dystopian fiction go next?