The Passage by Justin Cronin

Just finished this last night and I have to say I think the hype is pretty much justified. I have some quibbles of course, but this is the rare book that works well as a horror/action/adventure story but is also smart and beautifully written with compelling characters.

The Passage is about a world overrun by vampire-like "Virals." The story spans a little over a hundred years from the inception of the plague that creates the Virals, to a time when Americas society as we know it is gone and the few remaining humans are just barely holding on.

The first third or so of the book largely follows Brad Wolgast, an FBI agent tasked with convincing death row inmates to be a part of a series of medical trials that eventually lead to the creation of the viral plague. Wolgast goes about his job, grimly resigned, until his military superiors instruct him bring in a young orphan named Amy to be a part of the project.

Cronin does an amazing job in this section of creating and rounding out the characters of Wolgast and Amy and developing a relationship between them that is very touching. What's most impressive to me though is how Cronin takes the time to even round out relatively minor characters like the inmates, the military workers, a briefly seen group of nuns. This is what sets this book apart from the pack for me. The characters and their relationships. Cronin goes into far more detail here than you would expect in what could easily be the literary equivalent of a big summer popcorn movie.

The second part of the book is set a hundred years later. Here we're introduced to a small band of survivors living in a crumbling holdout somewhere in California. Not long into their story, circumstances lead some of them to leave their camp and venture out into the wider world, hoping maybe they can make an impact on the post plague world. The majority of the book follows their journey across the country. (Despite the time jump Cronin does connect the first and second sections of the book satisfactorily, but I won't get into to how he does it cause it's nifty.)

This second section is the only place I had real problems with the book. It introduces us to a much larger cast of characters,  enough that I had trouble keeping them all straight at times, and I never felt as strongly about them, or felt I knew them as well, as the smaller cast of the first section. Where the first section runs deep, the second section is broad. I guess I preferred the deeper end of the pool

Other quibbles? There are some action movie moments that seem a bit over the top. He also leans on some stock situations and characters. A chosen one, a power mad and reckless military, a seemingly happy town with a dark secret. He handles these things well but they do seem pretty familiar. Oh, he's also not above the "Oh no! A main character is about to die! Oops just kidding!" fake out. It happens a couple times and rankled a bit.

All in all these are small things. I really enjoyed this. Cronin writes beautifully and poetically, the world and the societies in it are detailed and interesting, the monsters are scary (and sad too in a way) and the story moved a a good pace. I definitely look forward to the next book in the series.

Oh, as a heads up, this is 100% a novel for adults. I  figured with post-apocalyptic setting and the hype surrounding it it'd be a good one for folks like us to be aware of.

Any of you all read it yet? Plan to? Thoughts?

Let's go to the World's Fair - in 2014

Isaac Asimov is unarguably one of the great science fiction writers of all time - and an incredibly prolific author, period! In 1964, he wrote an article for The NY Times about the World's Fair, of 2014. This was based on things he'd seen at the 1964/65 World's Fair and extrapolated into the future.

The article is fascinating! Some of the things he foresees are:

  • Subterranean living - with the surface of the planet being used for large-scale agriculture (think of our factory farms!)

  • Robots - still relatively crude - but used for housework (roomba anyone?) and powered by tiny computers embedded in them (microchips!)

  • Kitchen gadgets that can be pre-programmed the night before to have breakfast ready when you get up. (okay - at least we've got the coffee part down!)

  • Semi-prepared frozen meals that only need to be heated up. (Didn't they have TV dinners in 1964? heheheh...)

  • Automatic cars for long-distance driving (can't happen soon enough for me!)

  • Moving sidewalks (go to any large airport - they've got 'em!)

  • Sight/sound communications (care to Skype?)

  • Moon settlement

  • And, then - the dystopian side of things...
    • Overpopulation
    • Food shortages
    • Humans as machine-tenders
    • the disease of boredom
    Interestingly, even though I only came across this article a couple of weeks ago, I had similar many similar gadgets and evolved transportation, etc. in my book, XVI. I wonder if things like the media, education, and the evolution of human thought cause us to come to similar conclusions about how things will be? What is it that brings us to almost identical images of how things will be? I don't know - but I will be noodling this around & continue writing the speculations thereof.

    I'd love to know what you think will be in our futures!

    HOW versus WHY

    Dystopian literature is, technically, a form of science fiction. Since we are dealing with stories based on reality, we have to have a reason WHY the world turned bad--and in order to do that, we have to use science. We can't use magic, we can't cheat our readers and say "just because"--we have to ground our works in reality so that the readers can reasonably say, "Hey, yeah...that COULD happen..."

    But how much science do you need? In today's dystopian literature, I think it's easy to put the HOW of the science on the backburner and focus instead on the WHY. In Mary Pearson's THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX (slight spoilers ahead), we're told that the main character's medical problems are solved with a mysterious genetic substance--something we clearly don't have currently, but is something we are able to suspend our disbelief in and accept. A fan of hard science fiction would probably argue with this presentation--hard sci fi readers want to know HOW the science works. But teens and readers of teen lit tend to care much more about the WHY. It's enough for us that her parents use the mysterious substance and that the substance isn't so outrageously beyond our scope of knowledge that we question it. What's much more important is WHY her parents are willing to use the substance. That's the meat of Pearson's story.

    On a similar level, you can see this in the character development in Joss Whedon's FIREFLY and SERENITY.* There's all sorts of technology out of our reach on this world--paper that's an electronic screen, space crafts that travels faster than the speed of light, hover vehicles, goo that seals wounds, etc., etc. But all these modern marvels are relegated to background and props because what we really care about is Captain Mal's ethical dilemmas, River Song's mental illness, Wash and Zoe's marital problems, and whether Shephard Book's story will ever fully be told (yes--in graphic novel form), whether Kayleigh and Simon will hook up (yes--and how creepy is it that River watches?!), and whether or not Jayne is actually a big damn hero (duh, obviously so!).

    Is characterization over science a key difference between dystopia and science fiction? Or is it a matter of age--most dystopian works are, after all, geared toward teens rather than adults. Consider, for example, Susan Beth Pfeffer's LIFE AS WE KNEW IT. We, the reader, know that the moon is knocked closer to Earth and that the weather reacts in a life-threatening way...but we don't really know all the ins and outs of it. How big was the asteroid that hit the moon? What precautions or reactions is the scientific community making to counteract the situation? What are the long term effects of the shift in gravitational pull? The narrator of the novel, Miranda, is an average teen and doesn't know--or often think about--these questions. And so what? We, the reader, don't need to know either--we are listening to Miranda's story, the story of a teen girl in an extreme situation.

    Characterization over science isn't limited to teen literature, though--just as dystopian literature isn't limited to teens. Think about Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD. This is definitely an adult dystopian...but it, too, focuses primarily on characters over science. We don't really know exactly why and how the world ended up so bleak and terrible--all we really know is that it IS bleak and terrible, and a father and son must find a way to live--or not--in such a world.

    In the end, I think this leads to one of the key differences between science fiction and dystopian literature. Both deal with a different world from the one we have now, and both explain the world's differences through science. But science fiction tends to focus on the how--the science of the situation--while dystopian tends to focus more on the why--the characters in the situation.

    *One could argue whether SERENITY and FIREFLY are more accurately labeled sci fi or dystopian...but I posit it's a far-future dystopian. Take away the space ship, and you've got all the classic tropes of dystopian--cruel government, gang of rebels fighting the government, a world that's lost a lot of it's former hope and innocence.

    The Unknown

    This week, I did a post on fear on my personal blog. I listed “the unknown” as something I fear the most. I got a lot of interesting comments, and many of them I could’ve lumped into a fear of the unknown. Fear of what the future might hold.

    And this post and all the comments fed right into my dystopian side. I think most people fear the future. What might happen if we can’t stop the oil leak in the ocean? Or we pass that bill? Or elect that official? What will the future be like then? What will the future be like for our children?

    And that unknown future brings fear. Dystopian and science fiction novels provide some answers to those questions. Sure, they’re fiction, but they bring normalcy to the chaos of our minds. We don’t know what the future will be like, and reading futuristic novels calm those fears. We see the human race triumph. We see characters falling in love, surviving, finding things that make them happy.

    I’m adding “soothes my fear of the unknown” to the reasons I read science fiction and dystopian novels. What about you? What kinds of things do you fear? Do they get soothed in the fiction you choose to read?

    Tank Girl - the Grrrl U Want

    A few weeks ago, when we were talking about end-of-the-world scenarios, I brought up a little cult-classic gem called Tank Girl. I adore the movie. I have a small version of this poster hanging in my office. (A gift from a friend who used to work at Sci-Fi City in Orlando.) I’ve kept it for years because something about the movie, despite its over-the-top delightful badness, inspires (and tickles) me.

    Directed by Rachael Talalay (who produced several John Waters' movies), the 1995 film stars Lori Petty, Malcom McDowell, Naomi Watts, and Ice-T. (How can you resist a cast like that?) The movie is what you might call Dystopian Punk, if there were such a thing. The year is 2033. A comet struck the Earth 11 years before, and it hasn’t rained since. The land is parched beyond recognition, and those that control the water have all the power. (And those folks are aptly called Water and Power, which is run by the delightfully evil Malcolm McDowell.) Tank Girl (aka Rebecca) and her friends are surviving in the wasteland in a little communal house where they grow their own plants and steal water from Water and Power. That is, until Water and Power raids the house, killing everyone except Rebecca and a young girl, Sam, who gets sold into slavery. Rebecca goes to work camp / prison, where she acquires her tank and her sidekick, Jet Girl.

    Here’s the trailer for those of you who missed it before:

    The movie is loosely based on a British cult comic of the same name that appeared in Deadline magazine. Racheal Talalay fell in love with the comic and set out to make the “ultimate grrrl movie.” However, the studio interfered quite a lot in the production of Tank Girl. (The comic book creators, Allen Martin and Jamie Hewlett, reportedly hated the movie when it was done.) The unofficial Tank Girl site lists a few of the changes the director was forced to make—as related by Talalay herself. Those changes included the opening and closing sequences as well as the deletion of a whole character, Sub Girl. Many of the animations in the released version were done to cover plot holes or scenes deleted after shooting ending. Here’s the released and original versions of the introductions:

    True confession time. I haven’t read the comics. And the movie ain’t a great one. It’s not even a good one. (Neither is Rocky Horror Picture Show or the Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai or Flash Gordon—the one with the Queen score. They are all fun, so-bad-that-they’re-good, over-the-top cult-classic movies.) I could do without the Cole Porter number in the brothel (even though the idea itself is hilarious), and sometimes it seems Lori Petty is trying way too hard to make the movie work, but how can you not like Ice-T as a mutant kangaroo super-soldier who use to be a cop in another life? Or Malcolm McDowell getting his head snipped off and replaced with a holographic one? Or Tank Girl’s unbending, punk rock spirit?

    In that end, that’s what I love best about the movie. Underneath it all, you have Tank Girl refusing to be broken by the shattered world around her, the death of her friends and lover, the kidnapping of Sam, and the tortures McDowell’s Kesslee devises for her. Her defiance goads Kesslee on. Jet Girl cautions her that “the better you behave, the more they leave you alone.” Tank Girl answers, “What’s the fun in that?” She’s not self-destructive, though. She knows deep down that to give in is to lose, and when standing up to the Man (literally), that’s worse than dying. When she’s being tortured by Kesslee, all he wants is for her to admit that he has won, that he has broken her:
    Kessler: Just say I won.
    TG: I won.
    Of course, this pisses off Kesslee, and he does something worse to Tank Girl. But he didn’t win. And ultimately, that’s what defeats him.

    So, that’s what I think of when I look the poster hanging on my wall. Sometimes you don’t want your characters to change. Their journey is about enduring—attitude intact--through that dystopian landscape. But, it doesn’t hurt if they have their own tank.

    What cult-classic (or not) character and/or film inspires (and tickles) you? Discuss.

    btw, the song during the opening credits is Girl U Want by Devo.

    Four Great Dystopian Graphic Novels

    Got any comics fans out there?

    Sure, Ok, there was a time when comics were largely the province of awkward teenage boys drawn to steroidal action heroes and anatomically improbable women in tight clothes, but not anymore. I mean sure, that stuff is still out there, but the world of comics is so much bigger now than it was when I was one of the aforementioned awkward teenage boys. You can easily avoid all that stuff and focus on some not-to-be-missed literature.

    In fact, I was perusing my bookshelves lately and got to thinking lately about how there are a bunch of really great comics out there that deal with post-apocalyptic or dystopian worlds. I thought I go over a few key titles. These are stories that create amazing worlds and characters and also, and this is something we haven't talked much about here yet, do an incredible job of looking at how systems-governments, families, religions etc--handle crisis as well.

    Even if you're not a natural comics buyer I highly recommend checking a few of these out! (If you are a regular comics buyer, sing their praises in the comments. Let's make some converts, people!)

    Y: The Last Man: The premise alone is worth the price of admission.
    In 2002 a plague strikes and in a matter of minutes it wipes out every single male on the planet except for two, Yorick Brown, a slacker/amateur escape artist and Ampersand, his capuchin monkey. 

    The story follows Yorick, Ampersand and their protector, the mysterious Agent 355 (who kicks more ass than any woman I've seen since Buffy) as they travel across the country, and later the world, in search of safety and an answer to the mystery of the plague.

    The storytelling is fast-paced, twisty (the writer eventually joined the writing staff of Lost) and very funny. It explores the idea of a world suddenly without men from a number of angles, all of them interesting, none of them simplistic. If you read one thing on this list, make it this one.

    DMZ: This series revolves around a second US Civil War, with the US government fighting the "Free States" for control of the country. Manhattan is the site of a stalemate between the two forces and is the demilitarized zone of the title. The story follows Matty Roth, an intern at a big cable news agency who was supposed to be simply following along with a veteran reporter on assignment in the DMZ. When the veteran reporter is killed in action, Matty takes up a camera and decides to broadcast the truth about what's going on in the DMZ.

    I'm about 3 volumes into this one now and am liking it a lot. The storytelling is strong and involving. The characters, especially Matty, are great. For me though,  the best part is how the art manages to really evoke the chaos of the DMZ. It's a bombed out ruin of NYC where danger comes from too many angles to count but where there is also unexpected moments of kindness and humanity. The residents of the DMZ have managed to form a fairly workable society and it's exploring that society that I found most interesting.

    V for Vendetta: A lot of you probably know this one from the movie, which I liked, but the original graphic novel is definitely worth checking out. It's a bit more detailed and richer. This is by Alan Moore, the super genius behind classic graphic novel The Watchmen, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and others. The story is similar to the film. Set in a fascist-controlled Britian, V for Vendetta follows a (depending on your POV) terrorist/freedom fighter/hero/lunatic named V in his efforts to expose and overthrow the evil of the government. This story is intertwined with V's relationship and radicalization of a young woman named Evey and the story of the policeman, Finch, tasked with investigating V.

    It's a great, thought-provoking story that examines life in a police state and how far it's acceptable to go to confront such a system. Its violent and difficult at times but well worth the read.

    The Walking Dead: I'm just one volume into this one. Full disclosure, I'm not the biggest fan of it so far but I wanted to include it here for a few reasons. 1) it's about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse and we love those around here and 2) a lot of people really love it and all accounts I've read say the story and the characters strengthen and get more detailed as the series goes on. (Anybody read the whole thing? Is this true?) This one is also on it's way to becoming a new AMC TV series so you might want to check out the original before it starts airing.While the 1st volume didn't grab me as much as I would have liked I'll probably pick up one or two more and see where it goes.

    The book centers on Rick Grimes, a former policeman, his family and a small community of other survivors as they travel the US, looking for a place to call home. Along the way they fight hordes of zombies, each other, and human monsters like The Governor, who runs a small Georgia town like a dictatorship. If the series does move it's focus to center more squarely on the characters I think it'll be a real winner.

    So I hope you all take a moment to check some of these out, or if you already have, let us know what you think in the comments. Also, as always, if you've got picks of your own, let us know!

    This door swings both ways...

    I am so hearing '60s British Invasion songs on brain radio tonight!  I promise - I will tie this in with dystopian!

    Beth's post yesterday about Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix - and it's population control theme got me thinking about the reverse. Which is seen in P.D. James (adult) dystopian thriller, Children of Men, where all men on earth have become sterile and no babies are being conceived. And, two movies - Waterworld and Tank Girl - one, the overabundance of water, the other the scarcity.

    Those opposite views of the future are what I love, love, love about writing dystopian novels. Anything can become unwanted if it's too much - and just the opposite is true, too.

    There was much talk around the blogosphere last week about Mary E. Pearson's The Adoration of Jenna Fox - which has its roots in a world where bio-engineering is controlled to the extreme - one side of the coin. I'm sure you can find a dystopian novel where medical science has been all but forgotten and the world needs bio-techno advances. (Actually, if you can't find one - maybe one needs to be written!)

    Often, when I am noodling out ideas of future books, I take an event or technological advance and spin it out to the extreme. Once there - I look to see if that extreme can be viewed as both good and evil - depending on the lens through which one is looking. Then, I get to decide if it's story-worthy and, if it is - will it be the sought-after utopia or the present dystopian nightmare. My guess is, that, depending on the day & my frame of mind - it could be either!

    Winners and New Books and Clubs, Oh My!

    Did you guess the clues last week? If you followed the yellow brick road to each of the hidden clues, you'll probably have noticed a pattern...

    Piece that together, and what do you got? AMONG THE HIDDEN by Margaret Peterson Haddix. This series of books stars LUKE, a boy who should never have been born. In his world, there is strict population control, and parents can only have a certain number of children. Luke is extra--and therefore his parents must hide him so the government doesn't take him away. When he finds another extra, though, things start to change...

    AMONG THE HIDDEN is a super popular dystopian series that comprises 7 books total...and of all the people who entered the contest, 19 correctly guessed the titles of the series and is therefore the winner of ALL SEVEN BOOKS in the series!

    ...but to just draw out the anticipation a tad more, I'm happy to announce that AMONG THE HIDDEN is going to be our first book club selection! On July 19th, we're going to spend a week discussing what makes AMONG THE HIDDEN such a great dystopian title, and we hope that you're all ready to jump into the conversation with us!

    And if you're PETRA, then you get the entire series for free--so start reading!

    Everyone else--go to your libraries, your bookstores, or your own shelves and check out AMONG THE HIDDEN before July 19th!

    Character-Driven Sci Fi

    Earlier this week, Jeff talked about how dystopian novels for teens differ from those written for adults. Be sure to read it if you missed his post on endings.

    I wanted to expand on that just a little, delving into the emotions needed for a young adult novel, science fiction or otherwise. Teens are angsty creatures. And they need characters they can connect with, which means that sometimes the plot takes a backseat to character.

    One of my favorite novels, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, displays this thought of allowing the character to drive the story. Sure, there's a plot present. But it's not what drives the story to it's conclusion, sweeping Jenna along with it, forcing her to make choice A at pinch point B.

    Jenna drives the story forward, with choice C and discovery D and feelings X, Y, and Z. I think this type of character-driven science fiction really resonates with young adults (it does with me!). It's not so much universes far, far away or glorious space battles, but a more subtle way of drawing the next generation of readers into the science fiction genre.

    Because when we read about a character we love, maybe even one we see ourselves in, we'll keep coming back for more.

    What books have you read that are more character-driven? More emotional? Do you prefer this "softer" science fiction or are you all about the science dictating the story? And give me some suggestions for character-driven sci fi that I just have to read, like yesterday.

    And here's your next clue in our scavenger hunt! When you figure out the title of the secret book, click here to enter the drawing for the whole series!

    Can Steampunk be Dystopian?

    Last week, someone asked if Steampunk was dystopian.

    Both are sub-genres of speculative fiction. Of course, genres and sub-genres are just labels, and they’re hardly mutually exclusive. You can have an alternate history noir detective story. (Set it in Alaska, and you have Michael Chabon’s YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION.) And, you could have a dystopic Steampunk story. However, in general, the perspectives of the two sub-genres are very different.

    Dystopia imagines a far less than ideal future. When writing one, we ask the question: what if things went really wrong? We extrapolate from today and build a future as we’d truly not like to see it become. And, as Beth so aptly pointed out, the world we build acts as an antagonist. The characters fight against the dystopic world around them.

    Steampunk re-imagines the past. Its writers ask the question: what if the steam age (mostly the 19th century) had developed the technology we have today? (The term, Steampunk, was coined in the 1980’s as kind of a tongue-in-cheek play on the cyberpunk genre.) The premise is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Charles Babbage designed the first mechanical computer—the Difference Engine--in the 1820’s. Unfortunately, it didn’t work—at least then. One of the best known Steampunk novels—THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE (1990) by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling—imagined that Babbage’s computer did work, and it became the cornerstone of technology in the Victorian era. Imagine a steam-powered internet--and Victorian England (Babbage was British, btw) as the Silicon Valley of the 19th century.

    Not surprisingly then, Steampunk has a distinctive visual aesthetic. The Victorians would not have encased everything in plastic as we do today. They would’ve built computers out of mahogany and brass, all riveted together. You would have pulled levers, read gauges, spun dials, and watched gears turn. And, let's not forget the punk part of the equation. Like punk rock, Steampunk (or cyberpunk or any other literary punk) has an anti-authoritarian streak.

    The aesthetic and attitude of Steampunk appeal to many people--so much so that an entire subculture has grown up around the genre. Afficiandos design Steampunk clothes, toys, art, role playing games, and machines. A museum in Oxford even dedicated an exhibit to Steampunk art:

    Steampunk is making inroads in the YA/MG world—thanks to Scott Westerfeld. If you haven’t read LEVIATHAN yet, go do it now. It’s a rousing adventure set in an alternate 1914 Europe. Here, instead of me telling you about it, check out this trailer:

    Isn't that one of the best book trailers ever?

    If you read Westerfeld’s blog, you’ll see how his readers have embraced the DIY ethic of Steampunk. Fans submit their own art work, and Westerfeld features steam-powered mechanical creations on Walker Wednesday:

    So, back to the question. Is Steampunk dystopian? Most of the time: no. But, it can be. At the end of THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE, we do get a glimpse of the present day world (at least the 1990’s) in this alternate time line. It’s depicted as a dystopia. Other Steampunk writers who extrapolate that past to the future may end up with a dystopia, too. However, most Steampunk—at least that I’ve read—focuses on the alternate past—the past as we wished it had been—and embraces the brash confidence and optimism of the Victorians. It was an age when Brittania ruled its empire, the Wild West was still wild, and technology and reason could solve anything. In a dystopia, the characters fight against the world—whether it’s an oppressive government or a post-apocalyptic landscape. In Steampunk, the characters (in general) revel in their world, using technology, ingenuity, a bit of whimsy, and attitude to conquer it. Sooner or later, though, the world may catch up to the Steampunks. (World War I, after all, crushed the Victorian / Edwardian optimism and faith in technology.) Or the Steampunks may just kick the world's a*s.

    What kind of dystopia could you create out of a Steampunk past? Discuss.

    Seems like I'm forgetting something. Oh yeah. You probably want a CLUE for the Scavenger Hunt, don't you? Hehe. Click here for today's clue.

    When you figure out the title of the Secret Book, click here to enter the drawing for the whole series!

    Hope and Endings

    Have you guys seen the mega hype surrounding Justin Cronin's The Passage? Every review seems to be raving and since it's a post-apocalyptic vampire novel, though one written for adults, I thought I should check it out. I'm about halfway through it now (It's good so far! I'll post a little review as as soon as I'm done) and I got to thinking how what we're doing as YA authors is different from what Cronin is doing.

    What's the difference between a post-apocalyptic vampire story written for adults and one written for teens?

    Focusing on a teen voice is probably key, right? Violent and sexual content is likely toned down a bit.  (Of course, these days, maybe not so much)

    But the thing that really got me thinking was endings.

    See, I can envision a post-apocalyptic novel for adults that has a completely down ending, that says we're all screwed, we're all going to die and that's just life. Tough luck, buddy. The vampires win. I can see that as a valid, though gloomy, artistic statement.

    I have a harder time imagining that in a novel for teens though. This made me wonder, when we're writing for teens, be it post-apocalyptic or otherwise, do we ultimately owe our readers a hopeful ending?  Personally,  I have a tendency to end things on a hopeful note but it seems strange to say that this is the only valid statement to make.

    What do you guys think? Writing for teens, are there artistic statements that are best avoided? Can you think of YA novels that end on a completely down note?

    Oh! And here's your scavenger hunt clue!  Good luck!

    I've got a secret!

    In the 1950s & '60s, one of the most popular game shows on TV was "I've Got a Secret."  Ordinary people would come on the show and try to stump a celebrity panel who tried to guess the person's secret. Aside from the moderator, Garry Moore and the host, the inimitable Steve Allen, and the cleverness of the panelists. I think this show owed its long-running success (1952-1967) to the facts that 1) people love to have secrets, and 2) people love to guess other people's secrets.

    In dystopian novels, often the antagonist (be it person or government or whatever entity) has a secret they (or it) are trying to keep from the general populous. And, the protagonist suspects there is a secret (or knows there is one) and sets out to discover it or make it known to everyone. This is - of course - not only true in dystopia, but in many, many novels & genres, i.e. there's always a secret to be discovered. As many authors have stated "all novels are mysteries." (google that quote & there are a ton!) There is always something hidden that needs to be revealed.

    So, along these lines, I got to thinking about those "Oh, Wow!" moments in novels and movies, that point where the secret (one you were, hopefully, not expecting) is revealed. My examples below are not all dystopia, or novels, but they were certainly "Oh, Wow!" moments for me...

    1. "No, I am your father." (Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker) Were you expecting it? I know I wasn't! Neither did I expect Princess Leia to be Luke's sister!

    2. "It's people. Soylent Green is made out of people." Detective Thorn's reveal in the movie, Soylent Green, based on Harry Harrison's novel, Make Room! Make Room!

    3. When Anne drops Malcom's ring at the end of "The Sixth Sense." Well... I'd suspended enough disbelief and I was totally taken by surprise that Malcom was dead.

    4. The reveal of the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, also based on a French novel of the same name. Totally surprised me that they were on earth!

    5. And, the end of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Masterful! Brilliant! And, I did not see it coming at all.

    What are your favorite (and most shocking/startling) reveals?

    And - continuing this month's Scavenger Hunt!!!  If you'd like your next clue, to reveal what is hidden... go HERE!  After you've figured out the title of the book, go HERE to enter!

    Scavenger Hunt for Prizes Made of WIN!

    It's that time again! The time to give you awesome new books!

    I can't tell you which books you're going to be getting, but I will give you some hints:
    • The prize is brand new copies of an entire series of books. Yup--you're getting the whole series.
    • The books are well known dystopian works.
    • Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to guess the title of the first book in the series.
    • Everyone who correctly guesses the title gets entered into a drawing to win the whole series!
    But we're not going to make you just blindly guess! Each day this week, a League member is going to post a link that will take you to a clue. You'll have to READ BETWEEN THE LINES to piece together what the clues add up to, and what the title of the book is.

    Once you've figured out what the title is, go to this webpage and enter your guess. You can guess as many times are you want, but only correct guesses will be entered into the drawing. DO NOT POST GUESSES IN THE COMMENT SECTION!

    You must enter a correct guess by Sunday, June 20th, at noon (EST) to be considered for the drawing.

    And, as an added incentive...the Secret Book will be the Book of the Month selection for July--so, in addition to giving away the series, we're also going to feature this title all next month, and have roundtable discussions and chats!

    Oh, you want a CLUE for the Scavenger Hunt?
    When you figure out the title of the Secret Book, click here to enter the drawing for the whole series!

    Humans are Humans...Right?

    This week, I blogged on YAHighway about creating a dystopian society. I wanted to expand a little, but I think you need a tiny bit of background in case you didn't read that post (gasp!).

    Here's what I said about creating futures: Creating futures for young adults in a novel is a challenging task. I mean, no one knows what life will be like. And the future has to stem from something that does exist in this time, something that teens are familiar enough with that they can envision your future evolving from their present.

    So with that in mind, how do we shape the characters that are living in that futuristic society? Will they feel the same things? Love? Abandonment? Will teens struggle with the same issues they do now?

    That's what I'm going to explore a bit today.

    I think the human need for love remains constant no matter what world you live in. Sure, the teens living in my brainwashed society may not have the same hopes and desires as the teens today (I mean, when someone else tells you want to wear and what to eat, your hopes are skewed a little), but they still crave acceptance. They still have to carve their own way in life. Those fundamentals don’t change too much. The road toward love, happiness and success might look different, but the desire to achieve those things is deeply rooted in humanness.

    I believe that young adults like stories where they can see themselves. Their own struggles. Be that a coming-of-age story, or a battle with addictions, or a need to thrash their own path. In a dystopian society, these themes can still be explored. And, I believe, in a "safe" way, in a society that is clearly not real. I think those same things that we struggle with as humans now, should be present in humans then.

    And that’s why all stories are born with believable, likeable, three-dimensional characters. Someone who could be us, living in a future we can imagine, fighting similar battles we've fought.

    After all, humans are going to continue to be human.

    Do you agree? Disagree? If so, what do you think humans will be like in the future?

    Whither Utopia?

    A couple of weeks ago, Julia mentioned a great bit of history about utopia—the opposite of dystopia. That got me thinking about fictional examples where an author has created an ideal world. They are harder to come by than dystopias. And often what you think is a utopia, turns out to be not so much. For instance, Scott Westerfeld’s UGLIES series starts out sounding utopian (well, sort of) but quickly turns out not to be. Ditto with Lois Lowry's THE GIVER. They're both false utopias. So, what about a genuine utopia in recent science fiction?

    One of the best examples I can think of—at least that I’ve read in the past few years—is the alternate Earth in Robert Sawyer’s HOMINIDS series. (Sawyer, BTW, also wrote FLASH FORWARD, the novel the TV show is based on.) In the first book, present day scientists on our Earth stumble across a dimensional rift created by scientists of the parallel Earth. That Earth has no wars, no famines, no climate crisis. Age is revered, and religion is non-existent. Men and women are equal in all respects. And each adult has two partners—one male, one female. In this parallel universe, Neanderthals inherited the Earth. They became the predominant primate species on the planet.

    Since there is not much dramatic tension in a perfect world, Sawyer plays our world against the utopian society of the Neanderthals. It does have its faults, and our world has its virtues, but the story comes from this juxtaposition. (Otherwise, a story set solely in utopia might be a little boring.) One of the Neanderthal scientists comes to our world—and falls in love. And what he brings back to his world from ours upsets the balance of his society.

    What about other utopian fiction, though? Feminist utopias—like Joanna Russ’ FEMALE MAN and Marge Piercy’s WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME—were popular in the 1970’s, but the science fiction genre as a whole hasn’t really favored utopian visions since then—with a few exceptions. Can you guys think of any recent utopian science fiction, particularly in the young adult / middle grade market?

    If there aren't any, why not? Is it more than lack of dramatic tension? Do we just not believe in the possibilities of Utopia anymore (if we ever did)? Do we think all so-called perfect worlds are highly suspect? Discuss.

    BTW, Robert Sawyer has written a YA series (WAKE, WATCH, and WONDER), although I don't think they're being marketed as such. I must confess, though, I haven't read them. Have any of you? Would you consider them utopian?

    The Rapture for Nerds

    Been thinking about the Singularity recently. If you aren't familiar with the concept, the idea revolves around a technological advance so profound that it transforms society into something that we, here on this side of the Singularity, would see as completely alien. Politics change. Personal relationships change. Relations between countries change. Our notion of humanity changes. Think of the changes wrought by the rise of farming, language, money etc, and you get an idea of the kind of technology-driven cultural shift we're talking about.

    So what kind of changes could bring about the Singularity? There are a few common scenarios.

    The AI Scenario - In short, this is Terminator/Matrix land. We create machines that are self-aware and smarter than we are and then they in turn create even smarter machines and even more advanced technologies. In both of the movie scenarios the result is catastrophic, but there's no need to assume that. Even if the machines were benign imagine how much society would change, how much we would change, if we were were no longer the smartest beings on the planet.

    The IA Scenario
    - Short for Intelligence Amplification. We enhance human intelligence to super human levels through direct brain/computer interfaces, turning us all into human/computer hybrids. Ever read MT Anderson's Feed? (If you haven't, then get on it. It's awesome.) This is similar to what he's getting at. All of the stored knowledge and analytical and computational power of the internet hardwired right into everyone's brain. If this happens are we even human anymore?

    The Bio Medical Scenario
    - What if we took a pill that made us immortal? Or removed our need to eat or drink or breathe? Or one that made us superhumanly intelligent without the need for computers?  What then?

    In a way, the Singularity is alot like the apocalypse we talk about here so often, just without the negative connotation. It's not the literal end of the world but it's definitely the end of the world as we know it and can understand it. Maybe it's good. Maybe it's bad. Maybe it's neither. We don't know.

    So how is this idea interesting to us as writers? If we can't conceive of or understand life after the singularity is it possible to depict a post-singularity world? Depict it realistically? Maybe not. After all, if you could realistically depict a world formed by a superhuman intelligence you would need to be super-humanly intelligent yourself, in which case you'd probably have better things to do than write YA novels.

    Whether we can write realistic post-Singularity novels or not, I think the idea makes two interesting and useful demands of writers of speculative fiction:

    First, it makes us take the consequences of the technological advancements used in Sci-Fi seriously. Think about Star Trek. Now don't get me wrong, I love me some Star Trek, but it doesn't really take its tech very seriously, does it? Here's a culture that has faster than light travel, teleportation, self aware super smart robots, holodecks and, occasionally, time travel, and yet somehow this is still a culture more or less like our own. Wouldn't Star Trek's idea of perfectly realistic physical holograms in the holodeck radically change how people live their lives and interact with others? Wouldn't the way teleportation erases the concept of distance change how we see ourselves and our relation to others in a similar way to how moving from horse-powered transport to jet planes did?  Wouldn't engaging these ideas make for a show that is more complex and more interesting?

    If we want to create a post-Singularity novel we also have to consider what is irreducible in human nature. After this tidal wave of change what, if anything, will stay the same? I think the Singularity can lead us into thinking and writing about our essential nature and that's something great literature has always done and should do. Ultimately, thinking about the "post human" world may lead us to write work that is more human, more grounded in characters and relationships and how we interact with each other and our society.

    I'd love to hear what you guys think of all of this. Is it something you'd like to write about? Could it work for teens?  Is the Singularity the next Vampires? Are there other developments that might bring about the Singularity?

    Also, I know writers like Cory Doctorow, Vernor Vinge and Neal Stephenson sometimes work in this area but I'm no expert on the current literature of the Singularity so if you guys have book picks I'd love to hear them!

    And... a question

    In previous posts we've talked about setting in dystopian novels. We've discussed how it can be as important as one of the characters, and how it shows you what the new world is like. It can be the same as it is now, an arid wasteland, an environmental horror, a state-of-the-art technological wonder, a space ship, a different planet or some combination of all of these.

    Some writers dole out descriptions of setting in bits and pieces, brief glimpses through a character's interaction with the setting. It's up to the reader to decide what this place really is like. Other writers devote a paragraph every so often with detailed description of setting, leaving little room for the reader's own imagination. Often the story itself dictates how setting should be presented.

    My question - Do you have a preference? Would you rather imagine a portion of the setting or have it spelled out?

    Just curious...

    Wonky Formatting on Site

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    From the Trenches

    This is my last week as a teacher; after Friday, I will be a full time writer! However, with six years of teaching literature under my belt, as well as lots of time advising the Creative Writing Club, I've been in a good position to see what kids are actually reading in the dystopian field.

    Here are my totally unofficial and unscientific findings from my own limited experience on what YAs are actually reading in the YA dystopian field:

    Most Popular Dystopian Titles
    • The Giver
      • This one is required reading in middle school--and is actually one of the titles that most of the kids really read, instead of fake-read to get through the test. It's also one that stays with the kids--they bring it up in discussions years later, in tenth and eleventh grade
      • Many kids have read the sequels on their own, outside of class.
    • The Uglies Series 
      • Very popular in school--many kids have read it, and they've read the entire series.
    • Brave New World  & 1984
      • The classic dystopian titles are alive and well among the latest teen readers. Brave New World and 1984 are both optional titles to read in 12th grade, and they're considered the "cool" titles to read. They are also among the top stolen books--which is high praise for a book in high school.
    • Dystopian Manga
      • Manga titles remain popular in a certain subset of teens. Some works, like Ghost in the Shell are very popular across the board.
    • Dystopian Movies
      • Mainstream dystopia is reaching teens through movies. The Book of Eli was a popular movie among the cool kids recently, and anything zombie related remains high on many kids' radars. One could argue they want the death and destruction, but many dystopian titles, such as The Island of a few years ago, often lead to philosophical discussions among students--sparked at lunch tables and in the halls without the prompting of a classroom. V for Vendetta is reaching cult status.
    Most Popular Dystopian Themes
    • Dystopia
      • Most kids in my school aren't aware of the label "dystopia." They see dystopia in terms of it's subsets: science fiction, zombies, apocalypse, etc.
        • Within the subsets, I'd wager that zombies are most popular
    • Romance 
      •  Most kids--both girls and boys--want at least some element of romance or sexual attraction within the story. Blow something up, sure, but have them kiss at the end.
    • Light Philosophy 
      • The kids seem to prefer works that don't hit you over the head with philosophy. Children of Men is much less popular than City of Ember for example.
    • Paranormal
      • Any way you cut it, teens want something beyond the normal. Be it zombies or mutant powers or cool tech or whatever--they want a little magic in the science.
    Most Surprising Absence
    •  The Hunger Games Trilogy
      • Surprisingly, there are rather a lot of teens--even the heavy readers--who've not even heard of this one. Middle schoolers seem much more aware of this series, in part from the heavy advertising they're getting in the Scholastic Book Order Forms. The high schoolers who have read it (often at my or another teacher's rec, not because they find it on their own) are often not aware of how popular it is.
      • The ones who do read it, though, almost unanimously love it.
      • It's extraordinarily popular among the teachers I know who've read it, too...hmmm....throwing children in an arena of death...maybe I can understand why it's popular with teachers, especially this time of year! :)
    And that's what it's like in my area, with the teens at my school. What are you seeing? What popular? What's not? What new trends are developing? What's on the way out?

      I Think, Therefore I Read and Write (Dystopia)

      There's been some discussion (here and elsewhere in the blogosphere) about why dystopian literature is becoming so popular. I could link you to a bunch of places and we could probably theorize on it forever.

      But for me, I think it comes down to this: Dystopian novels make you think.

      Let's explore.

      The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson. I'm not going to ruin it for you, but this is what the School Library Journal had to say about the book.

      "Pearson has constructed a gripping, believable vision of a future dystopia. She explores issues surrounding scientific ethics, the power of science, and the nature of the soul with grace, poetry, and an apt sense of drama and suspense."

      I adored this book, not only for the great characterization in Jenna, but the way it made me stop and think.

      Unwind by Neal Shusterman. Again, no spoilers, but here's what Publisher's Weekly had to say about this dystopian.

      "Gripping, brilliantly imagined futuristic thriller...The issues raised could not be more provocative--the sanctuary of life, the meaning of being human--while the delivery could hardly be more engrossing or better aimed to teens."

      And again, from the School Library Journal:

      "This gripping, thought-provoking novel is guaranteed to lead to interesting discussions about abortion, adoption, organ donation, religion, politics, and health care."

      As I turned the pages of this book, I found myself not only riveted by the characters and plot, but often I found myself pausing to examine my own thoughts on particular issues.

      I think Scott Westerfeld (author of the UGLIES trilogy) says it best in his review of Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth:

      "Zombies have been metaphors for many things: consumerism, contagion in an overpopulated world, the inevitability of death. But here they resonate with a particularly teenage realization about the world--that social limits and backward traditions are numberless and unstoppable, no matter how shambling they may seem at first.

      And yet we must try to escape them anyway, lest we wither inside the fence.

      His thoughts "that social limits and backward traditions are numberless and unstoppable, no matter how shambling they may seem at first. And yet we must try to escape them anyway, lest we wither inside the fence." are EXACTLY why dystopian novels are riding the tidal wave of popularity. And not just with young adults, but with anyone who dares to think.

      What do YOU think? What novels have made you stop and think -- about life, love, the apocalypse?

      Slouching Toward Dystopia

      Last week, we talked about some of the more catastrophic ways we could create a dystopia. Rogue asteroids. Pandemics. Biotech disasters. Good times.

      Of course, those are not the only way to frame a dystopia. In fact, I’m more a fan of slouching toward the bad place. As a writer, I’m more fascinated by how we reach the tipping point that sends us irretrievably (or not) in the wrong direction.

      So, here are a FEW other ways we might build a dystopian world:

      Government takeovers
      This is a mainstay of classic dystopian fiction. Corporations, religious sects, dictators, and/or other countries could take over the land. For instance, in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a right-wing sect overthrows the US government.

      Economic Upheaval
      The world economy could melt down (imagine that!). A world power could become a third world country, and vice versa. Or rampant consumerism could destroy the economy and the planet. The latter is what happened in MT Anderson’s FEED.

      Over population, large-scale pollution, climate change (I know, it was on the other list, too.), man-made disasters (big oil spills), etc. could all contribute the collapse of civilization as we know it. In Saci Lloyd’s near future books, Carbon Diaries 2015 and 2017, the UK adopts carbon rationing in the face of global warming (and rising sea-levels). Society begins to crumble just as the heroine is starting university.

      Either through evolution or genetic experiments, mankind could change drastically or subtly, leading to some sort of dystopia. For instance, in PD James’ Children of Men, humans have become infertile.

      In Through a Scanner Darkly by Phillip K. Dick, the US lost the war on drugs. And in the movie, Idiocracy, the stupid inherited the Earth--and kill the crops off with sports drinks.

      Cumulative effects of any of the above
      Other than a coup by right-wing fanatics (or alien overlords or killer squirrels), this one seems the most likely. If you look at MT Anderson’s Feed, for instance, you’ll see his dystopia resulted from a combination of technology (the Feed), rampant consumerism, and environmental factors. Most dystopian worlds are built on the foundation of several related things going wrong.

      Why the fascination with how we get there? It’s all part of the world building exercise when writing science fiction—for any audience. I know I left a lot of elements out—such as technological advances getting ahead our ability to cope or a non-nuclear war. Can you guys think of any others? Discuss.

      EXTRA CREDIT. Now for a little fun. I had intended to include this widget here on the League blog, but I couldn’t get the darn Javascript to work! So, if you would, jump over to my blog for the RANDOM DYSTOPIAN WORLD GENERATOR.

      Firefly: A Gorram Appreciation

      All I can say is thank God for Netflix's streaming service! Within the last month or so it's brought us a veritable deluge of Joss Whedon. The entire run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is there, along with Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, Season 1 of Dollhouse and, my personal favorite, Firefly.

      I was thinking about Firefly recently because of the recent posts about setting by Nathan Bransford and our very own Beth Revis.

      For my money, Firefly is a perfect example of setting done right. For those that don't know, (Shame on you. Shame!) Firefly follows the crew of Serenity, a Firefly class cargo ship captained by Malcolm Reynold,  a one time soldier on the losing end of a civil war and now a smuggler and thief. The universe they travel through is ruled by The Alliance, though their influence peters out significantly as you hit the outer rim of their territory. Reynolds and his crew do their best to get by, taking whatever job they can get and trying to stay a step ahead of the law.

      So why is this show so instructive to us? Partially for the reasons Nathan and Beth talk about. Whedon constructed a dynamic world. A world in motion and in conflict.  On top of that, the universe is richly imagined and unique, a sort of post-earth Chinese/American hybrid with elements of high-tech science fiction and old west rustic. It's unfamiliar but accessible and rewards in-depth exploration.

      Another point in Firefly's favor is how it deals with the concept of utopia/dystopia. If you're a monied resident of the central worlds, sure you've got the Alliance's eye on you all the time, but we're given the impression that your life is pretty damn fine. Safe. Prosperous. Ample resources. If you live out on the edges of the galaxy you're free, but struggling to just get by in a place that is more or less lawless. Which is the utopia? Which is the dystopia? Depends on who you are. Depends on your point of view. The show never makes things black and white. Ultimately, this allows for more complex stories and characters and also brings in moral and ethical gray areas that we recognize as being part of real life to ground the fantastical setting. This raises another question to ask as you're creating a world. Is what I'm doing with the world building helping me? Is it supporting my goal of writing complex and layered stories?

      The thing I most take from the show, however, (and what I try to keep in mind every morning at 6AM as I'm working on my next book) is that Whedon seems to know that ultimately, as important as world-building might be, it's actually a relatively minor concern.

      An odd thing to say on a blog more or less dedicated to a kind of world-building, but it's clear that Whedon knows that what matters is characters, relationships, and conflict. World-building works to support those three things. Watch any show by Whedon and you'll always see that characters and the choices they make are front and center. I love the worlds he creates. But honestly, I think you could strip them all away and you'd still be left with compelling characters and narrative. For me, that's the real test. I find myself thinking as I'm writing…"am I leaning on the whiz-bang elements of this world to keep people interested or are my characters enough?" If I put these people on a bare stage, would people still want to watch?

      I'm sure we can all think of plenty of instances where a writer has done some impressive world-building, yet neglected to provide us with the things that actually make us want to follow a story. Examples?  The new generation Star Wars movies anyone? Any Matrix movie but the first one?  Pretty and detailed but utterly lifeless.

      All that aside, you should watch the show because it's a hell of a lot of fun. The characters are warm and real and incredibly funny. The stories are great. It also has the benefit of saying some really helpful things to people who are trying to write in a similar vein.

      Oh! It also has the best opening and theme song ever. If I had to do my apocalyptic playlist post over again I'd totally add it.

      Now and then...

      or Now & Then...

      Beth's post yesterday, about the importance of the setting in dystopian novels, got me to thinking about setting the time, the "now" and "then" aspects of dystopian novels.

      Most dystopia is set in the future - be it near, far or ambiguously-timed future. Which would seem to be the nature of the genre. Moving the slightest bit out of dystopian and into the realm of speculative fiction, there is "then" as "past"- in works such as LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld (on my TBR list.) Which may not be strictly dystopian, but is set in an alternate history (which requires amazing world-building skills, which Mr. Westerfeld certainly has!) However, for now (tee hee) I am just going to stick with "now" & "then."

      The time setting of dystopia is crucial in gaining the trust of the reader. If you set your work in a near-future time frame, you have to be convincing in that what is going on in the story would have had sufficient time to evolve in real life. Radical political gains, revolutions and government overthrows may happen in a very short period of time, but be sure that you do a bit of digging into history (both far and near past) to see just how long it took for say, Hitler, to come into power. A journey that started around the end of World War I (1918 or so) came to fruition when he became dictator in 1934. Using that model, it took 16 years (but, of course, Hitler's personal beliefs were forming long before 1918) for that kind of change to take place.

      Even using the historical perspective requires a writer to take into account current technology. In Hitler's day, there was no internet and no mass media (as we know it today) to be used in turning the minds of the people into willing participants. He and his followers used print and speeches to gain followers and eventual victory in elections. Which took much more time than the instantaneous information flow we have today. So - what could happen in say... 16 months? Hmmm... what could happen in 16 months?*thinks about the possibilities, starts making notes* Oops! Back to the article!

      Of course, a far and/or ambiguous future gives the writer much more leeway in what may or may not have happened to get from point A (the present) to point B (the future in the novel.) When I was writing XVI, rather than dropping it into a random future time, I plotted a timeline full of events that might have happened (such as wars, treaties and governments changing hands) prior to my world setting. So, even though my readers won't see those events happen, they did shape my world.

      As far as the "now" aspect of dystopia - well... I am working on that - so, I can't talk about it - yet!

      I personally love "star dates" and also the fact that 1984 seems timeless! (Published in 1949, Orwell imagined change in 35 years!) I wonder, what are some of your favorite "time" settings in speculative fiction?