All humans have felt it at one time or another. Fear.

I'll freely admit that I'm terrified of most dogs, even little tiny ones. They have sharp teeth too, you know.

So in accordance with our discussion on Margaret Haddix's AMONG THE HIDDEN, I'm going to talk a little bit about how she used fear in the novel.

Poor Luke is struck with it all the time. He loses his freedom to go outside for fear that someone will see him. He can't sit at the kitchen table for fear that someone will hear him. And Luke isn't the only one living in fear. His parents--though it might be hard to see sometimes--live in constant fear that their third child will be found.

I think Haddix does an amazing job of infiltrating the plot with fear, which then captures readers. Parents can imagine what it would be like to protect Luke from getting caught. Teens and kids can put themselves in Luke's position, constantly living behind closed shutters and silence. The use of fear appeals to wide audience.

So then Luke conquers one of his fears when he sneaks out to meet Jen. My heart was pounding during that scene, because let's face it, haven't we all snuck out at some point in our lives? The fear of getting caught doing something we're not supposed to be doing is almost inbred in us.

Fear is what endears the reader to the plot, because it is a human emotion that we all understand.

Think of the dystopian novels you've read recently. Were they filled with fear? I bet they were. What about other types of novels? Is fear driving them too? What makes someone, like Luke, take a risk, leave the house and scamper out into the open to see if another Third is living next door? What makes YOU take that risk -- look fear in the face?

Class (and Saint Monday) Among the Hidden

The beauty of Margaret Peterson Haddix' AMONG THE HIDDEN is that it’s a simply told tale about some very heavy, thought- provoking subjects. Today, I want focus on the class system she's built in this unnamed country some time in the near future.

Jen’s father tells Luke that after the famines and the riots that followed, the government—one that believed in democracy—was overthrown, and the despot who came to power offered the two things people wanted: food and order. The class system—the Barons and everyone else—was a conscious decision to control the populace. The Barons—who run the government—want to protect their privileges. And the poor are kept too busy working and surviving on less and less. So neither class openly questions or dissents. All in the name of productivity.

It works in the context of the story. The government takes Luke’s family’s land for a subdivision of Barons. The Garners lose their ability to support themselves, and Luke’s father gets fined for trying to raise food indoors. Luke’s family is constantly made to work harder for less and less.

Far fetched? Not so much.

In the very early years of the industrial age, factory workers, mostly fresh off the farm, didn’t quite have the 9-5 (or in their case, 9-9 or later) grind beat into their souls yet. They got paid by the piece, and when they had enough money to pay for the necessities, they simply didn’t work. They even invented a new holiday, Saint Monday, which was usually observed after a late Sunday night at the tavern.

As you can imagine, this piecework arrangement didn’t last too long. Employers wanted factories running full tilt all the time. So manufacturers had to figure out how to get workers to actually work full days and full weeks. Incentives and increased pay didn’t entice people. Given the choice of earning more or working less—provided that the base pay was enough to cover expenses—most people then chose time over money. They chose to honor Saint Monday. So employers started paying less, as little as possible even, in order to force workers to put in more hours just to make ends meet.

So Haddix is right on the money, so to speak, about how the powers that be (whether governments or corporations) try to control the workforce.

How else did the government of Luke’s world control its people? Fear? Privilege? Food? Discuss. (And for your book club listening pleasure, check out Billy Bragg's "Saint Monday" below.)

Who Would You Be if You Were Hidden?

For me the most affecting part of Among the Hidden is Luke's isolation, how he spends the beginning of the book in a strange sort of limbo that's drawn more and more tightly around him as the story progresses.  First the outdoors are taken away, then the ability to eat in the kitchen, then he can't even walk by a shuttered window for fear of someone seeing his shadow.

What's left? He sits in his room. He rereads books. He eats in the stairwell. There are some attempted conversations with his brothers, but really, what is there to say?

Everything changes when he comes into the orbit of fellow 3rd child Jen. Jen, though Hidden like him, is allowed outdoors on shopping trips and interacts with a large number of other kids online. It struck me how much bolder Jenny is in terms of characterization than Luke. She's brash, smart, passionate and more than a little entitled while Luke is basically a nice young man, dutiful and curious. Put next to Jen he seems sweet if a little bland. That starts to change though once they begin to interact. Jen offers him new ideas about the government's laws and their fairness, she gives him new books (leading to his attempt to get his Dad into hydroponics)  and finally she offers him a way to act that might change his world for the better. 

It's not until Luke begins the struggle to assimilate these ideas that we see him come into focus and his characterization broadens and deepens.

I think this is a great look at how all of our personalities are built. We grow up at home with our families, safe and sheltered, and it isn't until we start venturing out on our own and encountering new disruptive ideas that we begin the process of becoming who we are. One person after another crashes into us leaving little behind bits of their personality, their values and beliefs. You take some whole or in part, you react against others, you leave others behind.

I know, for me, my interest and pursuit of the arts was inspired by people I met growing up. I can't even begin to imagine all the ramifications of that. My sense of humor was seriously informed by watching endless Steve Martin movies with my high school friends. My analytical nature was focused and intensified by experiences I had with teachers and fellow students in college. Some early awkward attempts at friendships and dating also made me a little shy, a little tentative, a little slow to get to know people. I finally became comfortable with who I am and where I am in life because of my wife.

It's hard to even conceive of myself without these experiences. Without these people in my life I think I'd be about as blank as Luke seems before he has that first encounter with Jen.

What do you guys think? How much of who you are is because of the effect others had on you? Who would you be if you were one of the Hidden?

Two sides to every coin...

There are usually at least 2 sides to every issue - certainly two sides to every coin - and maybe several sides to right and wrong. Some of the "bad" things in Among the Hidden, could have been written as "good" things with a different story bent.

In the book, Jen points out that the Government wants people to become vegetarian because more food can be produced from plants than from animals. Now - this is fact - it takes about 16 pounds of grain to make 1 pound of beef. Not hard to see that cutting out meat would mean more food (grain) for the world’s people. Yet, the idea of the government forcing people to become vegetarian is seen as bad. Whereas, with different circumstances and a different plot - vegetarianism might be seen as a positive.
The Population Law (the basis for the entire book) could be seen as a good thing under certain conditions. Particularly if overcrowding had reached the tipping point - such as the concerns of overpopulation in China. (I won’t go into all the issues that have sprouted out of that experiment in population control.)
In Among the Hidden, the Government disallows hydroponic farming supplies because of fears of illicit drugs being grown in secret. Or, so they say...  However, is that much different than various over-the-counter drugs being unavailable nowadays (except by individual request and mandatory tracking) because they are used in the manufacture of illegal drugs? 
So - what is good and what is bad? Not always an easy question to answer.
Beth did mention that I might drift into Government and Media discussion. And, it is very easy to do with this topic.
The totalitarian Government in Among the Hidden came to power because people were scared. They believed whatever the ever-present Media told them (a media controlled by the government - duh!) and were willing to give up their freedoms - the ability to make their own decisions about how many children to have, what kinds of food to grow and eat (no more potato chips, folks!), and so on - in order to feel safe.
And, to reinforce things - the Population Law in particular - the Media began a campaign of portraying pregnant women as criminals! Not hard to convince the general public of a thing when it’s constantly coming at you from TV, billboards, magazine ads, etc. (Think about our own views of women that are driven by Media images.)
Sadly, it’s not difficult to come up with current examples of our government moving in the direction of the totalitarianism seen in Among the Hidden
One recent example that seems, on the surface, to be innocuous, but is being enforced due to its good for the general population is...
The Department of Energy is going to start enforcing federal regulations that require shower heads to deliver no more that 2.5 gallons per minute. How will they enforce it? By not allowing manufacturers to make shower heads capable of delivering more than 2.5 gal per min. And, fining them if they do. Currently it is mostly only the very wealthy who use these huge (24” diameter) shower heads and/or multiple shower heads (shades of the Barons!) without regard to the wasting of water. 
Now - it doesn’t seem an awful thing to want to conserve water. I've lived in places where there have been droughts and watering the lawn was a ticketable offense. But, where does the public’s common sense jump ship, thereby allowing the Government to step in and mandate rules about how you can (or can't) take a shower? 

It could only happen in a book - right?

At the Kitchen Table

I've always felt a tiny bit smothered by my family.

Not because they're bad people. Not at all! I've got a wonderful, loving, Norman-Rockwell-perfect family.

And that's, in some ways, what smothers me.

See--I'd love to travel the world. Live in weird, exotic places. Do bad things that make me a legend. Rebel. Not care about a damn thing.

But I do care...because my family cares about me, and I don't want to disappoint them. I don't want to leave them behind.

In AMONG THE HIDDEN, nearly all of Luke's actions are directly influenced by his family. He elects to be locked up in his attic based on their guidance. He accepts his positions as a hidden child based on their fears. He ultimately decides to not act on Jenna's suggestions in part because of fear for repercussions to his family.

But it all--from the fear to the hiding--is based on love.

That's what got me the most while reading AMONG THE HIDDEN. At the root of it all, Luke's parents forced him into solitary perpetual confinement because they loved him. And he accepted lifetime imprisonment because he loved them. More effective than any stone walls or metal locks is, simply, love.

That's something the Government didn't understand, not at all. Jenna's father, who works for the Government, acted out of love for his daughter, though neither Luke or Jen really realized that before. His fear of the very Government he worked for was nothing compared to his love for his daughter. A family is more powerful than any Government.

A bit fortuitously, I came across a poem, "Perhaps the World Ends Here" by Joy Harjo, while writing this post. The poem is about the kitchen table, and how so much of our lives start there. It reads: "The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, / we must eat to live." As the poem goes on, the reader becomes aware of how much of our lives are centered on that table. "It is here that children are given instructions on what / it means to be human. We make men at it, / we make women."

How different would AMONG THE HIDDEN be if there was no kitchen table? Such an innocuous piece of furniture, but the story itself starts there, at the kitchen table, and Luke's imprisonment starts there, too. His family gathers for meals at the beginning of the novel, and Luke's place is swept away and hidden when visitors come to call. When the Barons move in next door, Luke no longer even has a place there--instead, he's stuck on the stairs, along, separated from his family who gather around the table for their meal.

Harjo's poem ends sadly: "Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, / while we are laughing and crying, / eating of the last sweet bite."

AMONG THE HIDDEN doesn't end at the kitchen table...but in a way, it does. Once Luke is shunted from the family table, he can no longer really be a part of the family. He can't hear their conversations, he can't participate, he's left silent and alone on the stairs. If his world had had just enough stability to keep him at the kitchen table, none of the other events that led to the end of the novel would have happened. It's because he had to leave the table that he had to leave his family.

Among the HIdden: July Book Club Selection

Hi everyone!

We here at the League are just so excited to share with you the very first Book Club. Have you all been reading AMONG THE HIDDEN by Margarent Haddix with us? We hope so--because all this week, we're going to be discussing this wonderful book!

We chose AMONG THE HIDDEN as our first Book Club selection because it's considered a classic dystopic novel. Geared slightly younger than a lot of dystopian novels, AMONG THE HIDDEN appeals to middle grade, young adult, and older audiences.

The story itself takes place in a near future world that worries about population control. After a series of natural disasters (that took place around the time the narrator's parents were young), the government has become stricter, stringently enforcing a law that decrees couples can only have two children. Ostensibly this is to ensure that there's enough food for everyone, but it seems to the narrator, Luke, that while some families struggle, the upperclass Barons have little to worry about.

Luke is a third child--illegal, and kept hidden from the outside world. That wasn't hard to do while he and his farming family lived alone in the country, but when the Government buys the farmland and builds houses for Barons to live nearby, Luke is forced to live locked up in his house in a windowless attic. Then he notices that one of the Barons has a third child, too.

In meeting this other illegal third child, Luke's world starts to spin out of control. He starts to question whether he wants to stay safe but locked up in his own house, or whether he wants to risk it all to fight the Government. Is freedom worth his life? His family's lives? His future?

For the rest of the week, we're going to be discussing specific elements of this dystopian title, and we hope you join in the conversation! Please, feel free to post comments and continue the discussion. Our goal is to make this an interactive place to explore different aspects of the book.

Our schedule for this week is:
  • Monday (posted at 3PM Eastern Standard Time): Beth will discuss the family dynamics on the book--that, at it's heart, this book is about being a member of a family just as much as existing in a dystopian world with an oppressive government.
  • Tuesday: Julia will talk about how there's two sides to every coin--how what's good in some dystopian novels is bad in others, and how that translates into the real world. She's probably going to overflow a bit into the government and media's version of the truth with her discussion.
  • Wednesday: Jeff is going to talk about how much our personalities are formed by our relationships with others. If you have no one, how do you form who you are?
  • Thursday: Angie will present the class system in AMONG THE HIDDEN and how the government controls people through it.
  • Friday: Elana will talk about the fear of having to stay hidden, as well as the use of fear in general in dystopian literature.
Let's start the discussion NOW! What did YOU like best about AMONG THE HIDDEN?

Books That Spur

I believe Angie just talked about closets of the apocalypse yesterday. I'm camping in Glacier National Park this week, and in preparation for the trip, I had to steer my cart down the emergency preparedness aisle at the grocery store.

Holy brown cows, people. Have you been down that aisle lately? And I thought I could possibly survive a natural disaster. But there were things in that aisle I'd never even considered. An ax, for one. See, I live in a townhome, and let's just leave it at the fact that I don't need an ax for anything. Or at least I thought I didn't.

My little trip down oh-man-I'm-not-prepared made me think of a book I read last year. I think some of you know where I'm going with this.

The book?

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer.

As soon as I finished it, I posted something on facebook that basically said I'd bought 100 pounds of flour and 50 pounds of rice.

Because I did.

That book made me realize that I had nowhere near enough food to sustain my family, and I ran right out and stocked up on some things. My jaunt down the aisle at the grocery store reminded me that I haven't done enough.

Have you ever read a book that spurred you to action? What was it and what did you do?

Closets of the Apocalypse

I lived on the Space Coast (east central) of Florida for ten years. Most of those years were quiet, catastrophe-wise. Then in 2004, we had 4 major hurricanes hit the state. Three of them rolled through our area, two almost making landfall in the same spot about 100 miles south of me. (My car still has a dent where Jeanne threw some mystery object at it.) In 2005, we had so many tropical storms and hurricanes that we ran through all of the official storm names and started on the Greek alphabet.

Before the storms, I had accumulated a reasonable number of hurricane supplies. All the usual suspects: candles, batteries, water, manual can opener. But some things you discover you need only after you actually need them.

Bleach. If you can’t boil water because the electricity is off and you’re out of propane or charcoal for your grill, you can use a drop of bleach (per so many gallons) to purify water.

TV antenna. Most TVs these days don’t come them.

Cash. No electricity, no ATM or credit card purchases. Some places didn’t have electricity for weeks after, but they still were open for business.

Gas. During Hurricane Francis, the entire state of Florida ran out of gas. Since it was an enormous (wide) storm, I ended up going to Georgia. On the way back, there were huge signs at the Florida border that said NO GAS. You could see people with South Florida plates with full cans of gasoline strapped to roofs of their cars.

Beer. Enough said.

So, after the storms I had really well stocked Hurricane Pantry. I shared my list of supplies with a friend who didn’t live in a hurricane (or earthquake or flood) zone, and she shared it with some other people. Next thing I know, my friend has a Bird Flu Survival Stash under her kitchen sink. She added cigarettes to my list, not only because she smokes but also because she says cigarettes will become the new currency. Just like in prison.

Another friend, who actually survived Katrina in New Orleans, has what she only half-jokingly calls the 2012 Armageddon Closet at her rental cabin in the mountains. The food and supplies are primarily in case the guests get snowed in and can’t make it to the store. But, I think my friend and her hubby are planning to occupy the cabin themselves, oh, around December of 2012, just in case.

After moving back to the mountains, I let my hurricane supplies sit on the shelf, batteries slowly expiring and analog TV becoming obsolete. Last winter, though, my Hurricane Pantry morphed into the Snowpocalypse Stash. I added pet friendly deicer and a small shovel to carry in the car. I still need a portable digital TV, though.

Do any of you have secret supplies for surviving potential apocalypses? A Swine Flu Fridge? A Climate Change Closet? (To clarify, I'm not talking about being a full-on survivalist with a storehouse of MRE's and ammo. No, just average folk with a tiny fear of running out of duct tape, peanut butter, and MGD 64.)

And, think about this when you’re reading or writing dystopian fiction, too. What dumb thing are the characters going to have to work around because they all of a sudden don’t have it anymore? How can you use that to heighten the drama?

The Garden of Earthly Delights

I fully intended today's post to be about something else entirely. I was going to do this whole thing on apocalyptic art featuring painters like Bosch, Brueghel, Blake, Durer, etc, but then I got sucked in by one particular painting and was thrown in a completely different direction.

So let's go with it, shall we?

I still might do the big classical art post, but for now I wanted to share my thoughts after spending some time with Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.

Do you all know this painting? If not, hop over here to take a look at a large hi-res version of it.

It's ok, I'll wait.

Got it?

Ok, first thing--whoa. Crazy, huh?   The craziest thing to me is that this was painted in the late 15th or early 16th century and it still feels so fresh and is still so shocking.

This is a triptych, a painting made up of three sections. Looking from left to right we see God bringing Eve to Adam together in the garden, then in the center section is man after the loss of innocence, and finally the last panel shows hell after the final judgment. (For some interesting background and analysis on it, you can go here.)

This is what got me thinking. How many other artists have approached these exact same scenes and characters? Countless right? So why is this painting to striking? Clearly it's in the details. It's what Bosch brought to it. Sure, we've seen demons before in artwork, but we've never seen Bosch's demons before. We've seen Hell, but we've never seen Bosch's Hell.

This made me think about what we do with speculative fiction. We're working in genres that have certain components. There's been an apocalyptic event. There's some new technology. There are aliens. There are ghosts. There are monsters. Whatever. No matter the situation, thousands of writers have dealt with it before. So how do we wipe the haze of familiarity away from the genre elements and make them as arresting as Bosch's work?

How do we make the familiar strange again?

Like he did, we have to ask ourselves: "How is my alien different than anyone else's alien?" "What is a ghost to me?" "What is the end of the world?" "How can I flavor my story with details that I, and only I, can bring?" Even if you're writing naturalistic fiction it applies. "What is high school to me?" What is a family?" "How do I see these things differently from anyone else?"

I think that by answering these questions honestly from your own unique point of view you can come to some really striking things. Maybe it sounds simplistic, but more and more I find that it's important to keep these fundamentals in the very front of my mind.

It's exciting if you think about it. Details are kind of our playground, aren't they? It's one of the places where we can really engage our imagination and make things deeply personal.

For modern examples look at Scott Westerfield's treatment of steampunk technology in Leviathan or Patrick Ness's look at an alien world in The Knife of Never Letting Go. On the adult side, check out what China Mieville did with a fairly standard detective plot in The City and The City or how Anne Rice reinvented vampires in a way that still reverberates right up into Twilight.

What do you all think of this? How do you make a work your's and no one else's? Is that a consideration? Any picks for other truly visionary works of speculative fiction?

Is horror under the speculative umbrella?

Way back here, Angie had a great post of what Science Fiction is (or isn't.) And, there's a very cool chart in the post, with Speculative Fiction as the broadest category, with Science Fiction and Fantasy as the next broad categories and everything from Dystopian to Historical Fantasy covered under those.  Everything but horror... hmmm....

Well, I was contemplating horror & vampires (I mean - who doesn't at some point, right?) and wondering if I thought vampires were "sci-fi" at all - ever. Then I got to thinking about a movie I saw when I was a kid - it was called The Vampire (1957.) It's a vampire movie with a twist... a doctor accidentally takes some pills, thinking they are aspirin, but they are actually an experimental drug make from the blood of vampire bats. Of course, he turns into a bloodthirsty monster and goes on a killing spree (no sparkly, shiny, sexy bloodsuckers in this movie.) He's not your Transylvanian-type vampire either - no allergy to garlic, no aversion to crosses and no stake through the heart is needed to kill him. He ends up getting taken down by a sheriff using regular bullets. All in all - that movie scared the crap out of me! 

I got to wondering why a movie like The Vampire was so much scarier to me than a movie like Dracula. (Although, honestly - I am a horror movie wimp! Can't really do them... nope... nuh, uh...)  Anyway, The Vampire dealt with a man taking a pill and the pill changed him. Dracula was an undead monster who started from who-knows-where??? The Vampire has an element of Science in it... the pills were part of research that a scientist had been working on having to do with animals. So, there was a modicum of "reality" to the story. 

There's less suspension of disbelief that needs to happen when there is a so-called "scientific" basis for something - like "Jurassic Park" (which, by the way, scared the bejeezus out of me!) And, even though The Vampire was a horror film - I would place it in the Science Fiction category - because of the science element. Same with Jurassic Park (book & movie) - definitely sci-fi. 

So, if say - zombies - show up in a speculative fiction book, and their zombification is the result of some bio-or-chemical accident or warfare or has any kind of scientific underlying basis - is it science horror? Hmmm... I like to think so. (well, maybe "like" is the wrong word for me!)

What d'ya think?

Why Is Film More Popular?

I haven't seen it yet, but I want to. SO BAD. Seems like everyone's been talking about Inception, and I am SO going to see it as soon as the husband can find some free time to take me.

But its sudden (and unexpected?) popularity surprised me this weekend as I saw countless tweets and reviews about it. It got me thinking last night--why are movies always so much more popular than books, especially when it comes to sci fi and dystopia and other "weird" subjects?

Of course the obvious answer is simply that movies are always more popular than the book, or that movies make a book popular. Typically, that's true. But I'm talking about the genre more than anything. There's a bit of a stigma when it comes to speculative fiction in general. I remember in college, I went to a large bookstore with some of my college friends. They went to the literary section--I still remember that one of my friends picked up The Hours. I drifted over to the "Fantasy and Science Fiction" section...and they looked at me as if I'd drifted towards the "How to Dismember Puppies and Drown Kittens" section.

As an English teacher, I can't tell you the number of people who would come to me for book recommendations, expecting Shakespeare or at the very least Twain. When I started going on about the latest Scott Westerfeld or the Orson Scott Card "classics," eyes would pop and people would back away.

And yet those very same literary snobs lined up to see the latest Star Trek and Inception and Pandora. How many of them would have read The Road without Oprah's stamp of approval and the later movie deal? Think of the difference between the popular super-hero films (Iron Man, Batman Begins) and the unpopularity of someone over the age of eight buying a comic book. How many people are ignorant of The Hunger Games now...but will "love it" when the movie comes out later?

I am honestly stumped, League Minions (can I call you minions? It just sounds so classy). Why is speculative fiction so very very popular in film form, but often sneered at in book form? Or am I the only one who sees this trend?

Celebrate Good Times

Come on! (A little Lionel Richie never hurt anyone, right?)

Today, I'd like to talk about a world-building detail that I think can add depth and believability to futuristic novels.

Celebrations. Holidays. Traditions.

As I sat watching the Boston Pops play their patriotic concert on the Fourth of July (a tradition for my family) I got to thinking about the traditions or holidays in my dystopian society. I realized that the only thing I have is a birthday mention. Nothing big, nothing overtly different than what we do now.

But I think in future novels I write, I'm going to pay a little bit more attention to the holidays, traditions, and celebrations that are prevalent in the new society. I think they can give great insight into the world and how it came to be, provide setting details in a unique and rich way, and give the reader something somewhat familiar that they can grasp onto.

So will there be an Independence Day in my next novel? Will the people celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, births, or weddings? Will there be baby showers? Graduation parties? Funerals?

Of course, I'm not sure right now, but I think this aspect of culture is one that should be considered when developing a futuristic society.

What do you think? Have you read a novel with a futuristic society that references the celebratory traditions? If so, let me know -- I'd love to read it to see how it's done.

Handling the Baggage

But that’s the way it works. That’s how it would happen.

We’ve all said that at one time or another as writers. An editor or critique reads our carefully researched darling of an idea or scene and tells us that it’s not believable. Or it didn’t happen that way. And we want to drag out our piles of research and rub their noses in it. Or we just want to write the naysayers off as being too thick to get it and go on our merry way.

But we can’t do that. Our job as fiction writers isn’t telling the truth. Our job is creating the appearance of truth, aka verisimilitude. If the readers don’t get it, then we’re the ones being thick.

So, how do we get them to get it?

Readers of any age come into a story with some baggage, some preconceptions about how the world works. Readers of science fiction and dystopia already have ideas—from movies, TV, and other books—of what, for instance, a post-plague world might look like. They’re generally willing to suspend disbelief—until they encounter something that doesn’t jive with their preconceptions, until they run over the baggage-shaped speed bump in the road through your story.

What do we do? We writers either have to cleverly convince the readers the story could happen that way or remove the speed bumps that jostle them out of the story.

I know of two strategies to do this:

(1) Take it out. Do you really need the detail? Although you did the research, you don’t need to include everything. Don’t fall in love with a detail or even an idea. (I do this all the time.) Is it critical to the story? If not, maybe you don’t need it. If this one thing that’s not critical to the story trips up your readers, then axe it.

(2) Debunk the popular wisdom. Use the truth to give the story even more authenticity. The best example I’ve heard to explain this strategy is from another genre—mystery. (And I’m going to steal shamelessly from a class I took from Michaela Roesner years ago.)

Let’s say you’re writing a scene where your protagonist has to identify a body at a small town morgue. Being a stickler for authenticity, you visit your local medical examiner, and she tells you no one ever identifies the body by actually looking at it. They use dental records, finger prints, and DNA testing. As a last resort, they might show a photo of the deceased to his or her family. And you find out most morgues are like that. So you write your scene in which the hero is shown a photo, but your editor later says it’s not believable. On TV or in movies, they always get to see the body.

But that's the way it works, you want to tell her.

Now what? Let's say the scene is crucial to your story, so you keep it. How do you make the truth believable? You could have your protagonist storming in, demanding to see the body. Then the disgruntled medical examiner could quip something like “What do you think this is? CSI: Miami? Those TV guys have ruined this profession.” In a few lines, you’ve turned the reader’s preconception on its ear--plus you've given them the feeling that now they're going to hear how it really works.

Can you guys think of other strategies you’ve used or read to create the appearance of truth? Also, what particular "baggage" do young adults (and adults) bring into dystopian fiction? Do teens bring fewer preconceptions just because they're younger? Or do they just have a different set of luggage than we adults?

The Creativity Crisis

I just read this article in Newsweek the other day about the so called "Creativity Crisis" in America and think it's a real must read for a lot of reasons.

The article talks about how since the 1950's psychologists have been giving people a standard test to measure creativity. And this isn't only artistic creativity we're talking about here. Rather, they define creativity as the ability to come up with many unique solutions to a problem (divergent thinking) married with the ability to examine and judge those solutions to determine which one is the most useful (convergent thinking). Beyond writing and the arts you can see how this definition could apply to engineering, or business, or the sciences, or the military, to pretty much anything really. It's about creative problem solving in the widest possible sense.

Now here's the interesting, and troubling, thing.

From 1958 to 1990 the average American CQ (creativity quotient) score rose steadily. After 1990 though the score began to fall each year. And it's falling still. Not only that, but the group that's seeing the biggest drop in creative problem solving are kids from kindergarten through the 6th grade.

No one knows exactly why this is. People blame TV and movies. They blame the internet. They blame schools that focus on rote memorization and standardized testing. Whatever the case, you can see some ugly places this could be heading. I'm no scientist or anything but it seems to me that one of the reasons humans got to where they are is this capacity for creative problem solving. Would we have harnessed fire without it? Started agriculture? What about the car and airplanes and the internet and modern medicine? Would any of it have come to be without creativity?

I mean, geez, talk about a dystopia. What happens to a society that forgets how to be creative? (Wow. Does that sounds like the tagline to the mot boring teen novel ever, or what?)

So take a look at the article and let me know what you guys think of all this. Is there a creativity crisis in America and if so why is it happening and what do you think we can do about it?

Also what do you think of their definition of creativity as it relates to writing? Does it seem right to you? Is it useful?

What's Most Important?

You haven't forgotten to read this month's Book of the Month selection, have you? AMONG THE HIDDEN is a small book, but packs in a lot of dystopian oomph behind those pages! We'll be discussing the title the week of the 26th, so make sure you start reading ASAP!

When I finished reading last week, one thing I marveled at was how Margaret Peterson Haddix combined all the elements of story together in an elegant, seamless way. Setting merged with characters that merged with plot. Now, I'm not going to talk about AMONG THE HIDDEN yet--I'm saving that for the week of the 26th. But it did get me thinking about the elements of story.

For a book to work, you need the following:
  • Setting: physical location of story (i.e. place, time period, etc.)
  • Setting: laws of the world (i.e. magic, alternative history, etc.)
  • Characters: protagonist (heros of the story, what they look like, their personalities, what they believe)
  • Characters: antagonist (the villain or opposing character, what they look like, etc.)
  • Plot: main conflict and resolution
  • Subplot: minor conflicts and resolution
  • Voice: the tone, style, etc. of the narration
All of these things are essential to a story, but I've found in my own reading that some parts stick out more for me than others.

  • THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO: Setting. To me, this book IS setting--the new world, and the new magics and laws of the new world, is what I remember most.
  • A WRINKLE IN TIME: Protagonist characters. When I think of this book, I think of Meg and Calvin, of Mrs. Whatsit. 
  • THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH: Voice. The beautiful writing style of the narration is what I reflect on most when I read this book.
Think of your absolute favorite book of all time. What one thing do you remember the most about? Is it the world, or the characters? The beautiful language or the mind-boggling plot?

What's the Point?

Wanna know how much of a nerd I am? I subscribe to The Writer's Almanac, a daily dose of poetry and literary history in my email. I kinda feel like the kid in class who asks the teacher for extra homework...

But the July 11th Almanac had a piece about Harold Bloom that really stuck with me. I thought about it all day, and even though I had a perfectly nice post about setting planned, I can't help but think about this quote:

[Bloom] is one of the last critics who argues that great literature is a product of genius, and that we shouldn't read to understand history or politics or culture, but to understand the human condition.

Bloom himself is noted as having said: “In the finest critics one hears the full cry of the human. They tell one why it matters to read.”

Now, I have a feeling that if Bloom and I were to meet, we'd have many disagreements. For one thing, he doesn't like Harry Potter, and them's fightin' words in my book.

But I do agree with him on these quotes.

And--even if I HIGHLY doubt Bloom would give two shakes a lamb's tail to consider dystopian works "literature" and worthy of his reading, I actually think what he has to say applies more to dystopian works than he'd care to admit.

Dystopia is hugely popular right now. There are books out now or coming out in the near future that range in topics from environmental disasters to political ones, from survivng zombies to surviving yourself. The world can end any which way in a dystopian work, and it would be easy for us to look at it and assume that's what the book is about. Uglies is about plastic surgery; Among the Hidden is about overpopulation; The Giver is about government.

But...it's not. None of them are about those things.

They're all about the same, simple thing.


Dystopian works--I mean, the really good ones--aren't trying to make a political or historical statement. It's like what Bloom said: it's about the human condition. Uglies isn't about plastic surgery; it's about Tally. Among the Hidden isn't about overpopulation; it's about Luke. The Giver isn't about government; it's about Jonah.

We don't read dystopian works to see how the world ends (be it with a bang or a whimper). We read them to find out how a human might react to the end...and in reading about others, we discover what we ourselves might do.

Reminder: AMONG THE HIDDEN is July's Book of the Month!

Don't forget that AMONG THE HIDDEN is the Book of the Month for July! Have you been reading along with us? We're going to be holding a week-long discussion of the novel the week of July 26th. Be sure to join us in talking about what makes the book work, how the dystopian genre is represented by it, and more!

Softer Science Fiction

I've been reading a lot of what I've started calling softer science fiction. It's science fiction for people who don't like science fiction. Our very own Beth Revis is advertising her book, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, this way, and I think it's a fabulous way to draw in a new generation of science fiction readers.

Since this is a young adult science fiction author blog, that's mostly what I've been reading. I think this "softer" side of science fiction is very appealing to teens, because they don't have to be scientists to follow the plot. I'm hopeful that titles like those of ours coming out next year, combined with other YA soft sci fi titles, will make lovers of a genre that often doesn't get much love.

I think the key to drawing readers into this softer side is to make the book more YA than science fiction. When I was looking for an agent, I had some suggestions from someone at a fabulous agency. I did the revisions she suggested, but she wasn't satisfied with the science fiction elements. Only later did I realize that she wanted a science fiction novel, not a young adult novel. And there's a delicate balance between the two.

So today, I'm going to give a nod to some of my favorite MG/YA science fiction/dystopian titles. Please chime in with others you love!

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson
The Unnameables by Ellen Booraem
The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Candor by Pam Bachorz
Feed by M.T. Anderson
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
The Maze Runner by James Dashner
The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan
The Line by Teri Hall
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Unwind by Neal Shusterman
Girl in the Arena by Lise Haines

These titles are as much about teen life as they are science fiction, and I think that's where the real draw is for young adults. What do you think? What draws you to science fiction?

The Carbon Diaries

What would you do if you had to cut your carbon footprint by 60% What if the whole country did—just as it was being faced with storms, flooding, and cholera outbreaks? And what if you were a 16-year-old London girl and all you wanted to do was play in a punk band and crush on the boy next door?

Then you might be Laura Brown, the feisty protagonist of Saci Lloyd’s CARBON DIARIES 2015 and its sequel, CARBON DIARIES 2017 .

Laura’s just trying to live her life: get her A-levels, practice with her band, and decide if Adi’s more than just a friend. Only it’s 2015, and the UK has just started carbon rationing. Everyone gets a card that tracks (and limits) anything that requires carbon. Travel. Cell phones. Non-local items like food. Laura tells the story of that year in her diary—and she does it with a sardonic humor that’s hard to resist:

So much for family togetherness. March is going to be the month of a thousand nights. Day 1 and I’m already going crazy. Every one of us is sitting in the dark in our own separate freezing rooms. Our ancestors couldn’t have had it this bad – at least they had candles and corsets and cards and lutes and shit. Oh yeah, and servants too.

The hydro gig’s coming up next week. There’s nothing going to stop me going, even if I have to walk there. I had to get off the bus today cos I didn’t have enough credit to get me all the way to college. I am a carbon leper.

In a recent Guardian article, Lloyd talks about her characters:

“I always loved books that asked big questions about the world," she said. "But I also loved funny books, with lead characters who never wanted to teach you a thing, like Holden Caulfield, Adrian Mole or Huckleberry Finn."

THE CARBON DIARIES (2015 & 2017) do tackle some big questions, but Laura Brown couldn't care less about teaching you anything. (Mission accomplished, Saci!)

Though I really liked the first book, I have to admit I had a little trouble getting into the sequel. I missed the pace and sense of urgency of 2015. However, that’s obviously deliberate on Lloyd’s part. The second book focuses more on the festering political fallout of climate change.

It is risky setting a book in the very near future with the date right there on the cover. (It worked for George Orwell.) That’s why so many authors set their works so far in the hazy, indeterminate future. They write about a world that’s already settled into a dystopia. But Lloyd gives us a chance to see the world—through 16-year-old eyes, no less—as it slides down into the abyss. It’s funny yet traumatic (or is traumatic yet funny?) —and entirely possible. Soon.

BTW, The Carbon Diaries will soon be a BBC series. Johnny Depp’s production company made Lloyd an offer, but she turned him down in favor of the guys who made Skins. I’ll let her explain below why she turned down Johnny Depp (gasp)—and about the Carbon Diaries website and social network she’s set up.

Check out the competition / Future Diaries Project on the site (www.carbondiaries.com). Lloyd is engaging her readers (even the ones who haven't read the book) to express themselves and even come up with some solutions by creating their own future diaries. Very cool.

What would you have to give up if we started carbon rationing? (And, Beth, it might be bacon, unless it's a local pig.) You guys can play around with one of these carbon calculators to give you some ideas:
Discuss away.

So Many Choices....

Once again I have a post inspired by awesomeness of Joss Whedon as brought to me by the awesomeness of Netflix Streaming.

Warning! This post includes spoilers for a show that ended 7 years ago...

So, season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer starts with Buffy dead after having made the ultimate sacrifice to save her sister Dawn at the end of season 5. In episode 1 Willow and crew are consumed with grief and are getting ready to perform some extremely dark magic to raise Buffy from the dead. They're successful! Hurrah! But uh oh. All is not well. Buffy doesn't seem, well, right. She's distant. Quiet. Emotionless.

The gang decides she must have been dragged down into some awful hell dimension while she was dead and that the adjustment is simply being difficult for her to make. For several episodes Buffy says nothing about this. People keeping saying how awful it must have been, how painful and terrifying and Buffy is silent. Until one day she finds herself standing in the alley behind the magic shop alone with Spike. That's when she tell us that everyone is wrong. She wasn't being tortured. She wasn't in pain. She wasn't in hell.

She was in heaven.

When she died, Buffy was transported to a place where, for the first time ever, she knew peace and happiness and fulfillment. So rather than saving her, Willow's magic ripped her out of paradise. Now that she's back the difficulties of her life--figuring out how to support her family while at the same time handling the demands of being the slayer--are thrown into high relief.  Once you've been in heaven, the real world feels like, well, like hell.

It's a heartbreaking moment when Buffy admits where she was and it got me thinking about how simply making a strong, arresting choice can make you feel like your story is suddenly writing itself. Make a weak or hackneyed choice and you find yourself lost wondering where the drama is, where the tension is.

This happened to me just this week actually. Around page 180 my WIP  fell flat. No tension between the characters. No urgency. I worked at it as hard as I could but it just wouldn't come into focus. In my frustration I went back and worked on an earlier section, hoping the time away from the problem area would help work the problem out.

That's when I figured it out.

It wasn't page 180 that was the problem, it was a chapter about twenty pages before that. Around page 160 I had come to a turning point in the story and made what turned out to be a weak choice. That was why page 180 wasn't working and,  really, couldn't work. Strong choices are the fuel of drama and because of the weak choice on page 160 my tank was empty 20 pages later.

See, Whedon and co. could have made the choice that Buffy was simply having trouble adjusting after being dead. Valid enough choice.  But look at that choice in comparison to the choice he eventually made. The choice that she had been in heaven reverberates throughout the season. It creates extraordinary conflict within Buffy, it effects her personality, her friendships, her lovelife, her outlook on life and her job, everything.

I mean how is she supposed to feel about her friends now? How does she deal with them? They did what they did because they loved her, but what they did ended the only moment of pure happiness she'd ever felt.  I just sat there marveling at how smart and powerful that choice was. (The choice is also the basis of everything that happens to Willow in season 6 as well. Some powerful and wrenching stuff there too.)

So the point is, when I'm having trouble these days I always look backwards, since there's a very good chance that it's not actually the scene I'm writing that I'm having trouble with, but one twenty or thirty pages back.

Of course, there's no formula for making a strong choice. If only. I just try to go back and look at turning point moments--moments where there is a revelation about character or relationships or a shift in the plot and I ask myself "did I make strongest choice I could?"  Did I make a choice that fired my imagination? One that fueled conflict and tension and opened up new possibilities? Did I surprise myself? If the answer is no, I've likely found the place where the work needs to be done.

Once I went back and made a stronger choice the world just opened up for me and the writing flew by. Whew!

How about you guys? What do you do when your story hits the doldrums?  How do you pull yourself out of it?

Oh, the things you'll learn from reading - fiction!

Things like - what to do when a stranger comes to the door. Case in point...

It's been miserably hot here in the midwest the past few days, but, not so much in the early morning hours. So, when I get up, I turn off the A/C and open the windows for the cats. They love to watch birdies taking baths and also to bask in the fresh air and sun (before it's 100 degrees in the shade.) Well, yesterday morning, a quiet morning after the fireworks of the 4th, I opened up the house and settled in for a bit of breakfast while working on my next book. All was peacefully serene and I was in the writing groove when my dogs charged to the front screen barking like crazy. 

"Drat!" I thought. "Must be one of the neighbors walking their dogs down the street." Then I heard it... my 2nd step from the top is loose & whenever someone steps on it, it makes a little concrete thump. I've not corrected it for that very reason. "Double drat! Must be one of the neighbors coming to see me." I got up to quiet the dogs & see who it was. 

A guy was contemplating retreating down the steps when he saw me. I did not know him or recognize him as living nearby. He explained that he was looking for a friend who lived on my street, but he didn't know the house number. I said maybe he lived a few houses to the west - where a number of guys lived. I was going to close the door (which had previously been open), when he started talking. And, here is where my love of reading mysteries proved to be invaluable - I am practically a trained Miss Marple and/or Sherlock Holmes (I wish!) due to me devouring their books over my lifetime.

The guy gave me a poor-me story about how he'd just dropped his daughter off at a school for summer day care - then claimed to barely remember (but he did) the names of the streets on the corner - right by the school - where his car started smoking. Then a policeman - whom he identified as "must have been your local police, he was in a black & white car" - stopped. (I become suspicious because of two things here - one, if his daughter is in day care at the school, why is he unfamiliar with the streets and  - two, the police cars have the city name plastered on the side. Why act like he doesn't know if they are local?)

Then he launches into how the policeman, rather than helping him, did a background check and then impounded his car with no explanation, apparently leaving him standing on the street. (Suspicion again - does not sound like proper police procedure.) So - he walks(?) to the police station (which would be many blocks from the school where his daughter is in day care) to file a complaint against the policeman. (Why not go into the school and ask to use to the phone and call a friend - or a cab!) 

At some point he briefly explains that he's an engineer at a local company and it's the beginning of the work week.  (Okay, I think, so why are you standing in front of me in shiny (black), baggy exercise pants, white tennies and a sleeveless (gray) t-shirt that has the name of a local pet shop on it?) 

His story is sounding more and more phony by the minute. And, hey... why is he telling me all of this anyway? (Very odd - not a normal thing to do with a stranger.) I glance over at my cordless phone and anticipate the amount of time it would take me to slam the door in his face, leap to the phone and get the cops there.

He continues on with his story - ending with not having a enough money on his credit card to pay to get his car out of impound. At that point, I've practically memorized his face - and I say, "Sorry, I can't help you. Hope you find your friend." And close the door.  Then, I call the police to report a suspicious character in the 'hood. When the officer came to my house to take my report, he said he'd passed a group of men on the next block and they didn't look like they belonged in the neighborhood. Hopefully - crisis and/or crimes averted.

If you pay attention when you read fiction, you learn a lot about life. Holmes taught me to watch and pay attention. Marple taught me to listen and compare. Both taught me to notice when things don't feel right, or fit together properly - to be suspicious.

Now - this is not a mystery blog (although I would posit that all fiction contains some kind of mystery!) - and, I'd like to tie this to dystopian novels, so... I would say that paying attention to what's going on now - gives us a suspicion of what the future may look like... and wouldn't we be wise to keep an eye on that?  

Of Bacon and Breakfast

As some of you know, I just got back (on Saturday) from a trip to Europe chaperoning high school students. I love to travel--and I actually like traveling with kids, too. It amazes me to see the new places through their eyes.

One thing that really struck me was what the kids missed. We were gone for 13 days--a long time for kids, especially when they know deeply how very far away mom and dad are. It's not like summer camp, where mom can come pick you up when you have a fight with your friend and take you home--you're stuck there the whole time.

Of course they missed family and friends and (most of all) boyfriends and girlfriends. But what did they complain about missing the most?


They ate traditional European meals--which meant that breakfast was a bread of some sort (croissant, baguette, etc.) and juice, or cereal and milk. Not eggs and bacon and sausage and grits and biscuits and gravy.

My mother, who helped chaperon the kids, missed ice in her drinks. (True story: by the end of the trip, she ordered and "iced drink" and was ecstatic to get ONE SINGLE ICE CUBE in the whole glass.) I, who sweats like a sinner in church at the slightest hint of heat, missed my beloved air conditioner most of all.

In near-dystopian books where the main characters are experiencing a world gone wrong recently (as opposed to far future), the main characters almost always miss the way things were. They miss the freedoms the new oppressive government has taken away, they miss their parents or friends who are somehow gone, they miss the way their life was before.

But they should also miss bacon.

For me, the most real moments in these stories are the moments that make me believe the characters are real. Of course the characters have to miss the big things: family, home, friends, and freedom. But they also need to miss the little things. The most poignant scene in How We Live Now for me was when the main character stole and ate some chocolate from her family, just because she longed for chocolate so much.

Sometimes, it's the little, mundane things we don't even think about in daily life that we miss the most when they're gone. In my current work in progress, my main character is very homesick for the world of the past, a world she can't return to. When she made a list of everything she missed, she had her family and friends, but she also included driving with the windows down, her grandmother's chicken and dumplings, and Q-tips.

When reading dystopian, watch for this kind of detail.You can tell a lot about a character by seeing if they miss toilet paper or newspapers more. If you're writing a dystopia, make sure to include this sort of detail in your work. Make your characters real by including the mundane and reminding us all that at the end of the world, what you might miss most is bacon.

Changes, Changes

GIRL IN THE ARENA by Lise Haines. Dude, you guys. If you haven't read this, you must.

She made up a fabulous society that looks and breathes like ours. But the past is different, which created a different "now" than what we know. Familiar, but oh so different.

She invented Glads and their history and how it shaped our present. Awesome. And this concept sort of goes with what Angie was talking about a couple of weeks ago. Where if there's an alternate past (Steampunk) that creates an alternate future. Think Back to the Future II and all that Biff craziness.

It's a concept that intrigues me, because sometimes I think we view science fiction and dystopian novels as a future evolving out of our present. And the majority of them are, and they're awesome. But thinking on the other side of that coin is also interesting. What if you could go back in time and change something? What kind of present would we have? What kind of future? Is this kind of novel sheltered under the science fiction/dystopian label?

And hey, just for kicks, if you could go back and change one thing, what would it be? How would that impact our society now?

The Literature of the What-if

Not too long ago a fellow writer and I had this conversation:

FW: I wouldn’t say my book is science fiction. Post-apocalyptic, yes. Dystopian, sure. Speculative fiction, Perhaps.

ME: How can your book be post-apocalyptic without being science fiction?

FW: Good question.

A good question indeed. And to answer it, we need to start with another good question. [BTW, we'll assume his book isn't fantasy--because it's not.] What is science fiction? This question is so good that science fiction writers, editors, and scholars have been debating it since Hugo Gernsbeck coined the term in the 1920’s. (He actually called it scientifiction when he created the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories. When he started Science Wonder Stories in 1929, Gernsbeck changed the term to science fiction.)

If you look up science fiction in a dictionary, you might get something like this:
a form of fiction that draws imaginatively on scientific knowledge and speculation in its plot, setting, theme, etc. [dictionary.com]


fiction in which advanced technology and/or science is a key element. [Wikitionary.com]

So, I can see where my fellow writer might think his book or a book like Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD is not science fiction. There’s no science or technology left in the world, and the story is character-driven.

To me, the dictionary definition is sort of the layman’s or outsider’s take on the genre. The insiders' take on the field isn't always clear, though. Most writers, scholars, and editors of science fiction seem to have their own definition of the genre. Some say it’s indefinable. Others say it’s nothing more than a marketing category. Some, like Damon Knight, basically said you know when you see it. (Kind of like pornography!) And, those who do try to define the genre don’t always agree. Here are a few opinions:

Science fiction is really sociological studies of the future, things that the writer believes are going to happen by putting two and two together.
- Ray Bradbury

A good science-fiction story is a story about human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content.
-Theodore Sturgeon

Modern science fiction is the only form of literature that consistently considers the nature of the changes that face us, the possible consequences, and the possible solutions. That branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.
- Isaac Asimov

... science fiction is the myth-making principle of human nature today.
- Lester Del Rey

You'll notice that none of these masters of the genre said it was all about the science or technology. It's about their impact on human beings.

Personally, though, I have to go with Orson Scott Card's eminently practical definition in his book, HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION:

Speculative fiction includes all stories that take place in a setting contrary to reality.

Card lumps fantasy and science fiction under the umbrella of speculative fiction, which I think is entirely reasonable. The difference between the two has to do with whether the world obeys the laws of the world as we know it (science fiction) or the world as the author has created it (fantasy).

This is how I think of science fiction and fantasy. Both are the literature of the what-if. What if a comet struck the Earth? What if you could erase bad memories with a pill (and earn frequent forgetting points while doing it)? What if the Victorians had invented computers? What if vampires were real—and sparkly?

In science fiction (as opposed to fantasy), the what-if scenario has to be based on the laws of our universe—which does mean science and technology have to be involved somewhere along the line. They do need to be integral to the plot, but that doesn’t mean the story has to be about ray guns or space ships or mutants. The science doesn't even have to be explained in the story at all. In THE ROAD, the setting is contrary to reality, the world operates according the laws of our universe, but it wouldn’t exist without the impact of science or technology. (The world went to hell for some fathomable reason--war, plague, etc.)

So, yes, my fellow writer(s), your post-apocalyptic, dystopian, perhaps speculative fiction story is science fiction. The fact that THE ROAD and a few other books (like Margaret Atwood's) are shelved in the mainstream fiction section of your local Barnes & Noble has much more to do with marketing and the ghettoization of genre fiction. But that's a whole 'nuther post.

OK, I'm easing off my soapbox--for now. How do you guys define science fiction? Is dystopian its own genre, or is it a sub-genre of science fiction? Do you think it’s even necessary to worry about the labels? Discuss.