Thursday, July 4, 2013
Bleak New World: YA Authors Decode Dystopia
Lois Lowry spoke first. The Giver has often been called the first YA dystopia, but it's never been a genre she was drawn to. She didn't set out intentionally to write a dystopia. She just knew that the book she was writing needed to be set in the future.
Lowry said she got some unusual mail from readers after the book had been published, and not just from children. A man who had been part of a cult was told by his psychiatrist to read it. He saw his own world in the book. The teacher of a young Amish girl wrote to Lowry. The girl had been sexually abused, and when she tried to get help the mother moved the family away, and, horrifyingly, had all the girl's teeth removed so she wouldn't want to talk to people. She sought help again and was removed from the family. She also saw her world in the book. The Giver is set in a world that is designed to be utopian, but something else has come in. The world was intended to be good, but turned corrupt somehow.
For Lowry, dystopia is like folk tales. They perceive what things could be like if they go badly. They are cautionary tales.
Patrick Ness! Oh how I love you, Patrick Ness! I have such a fangirl crush on him. After he spoke, I tweeted how I thought he was awesome and we should be the best of friends and he favorited it! And I was just delighted. He begins by informing us his picture is VERY airbrushed, and asks us if we're tired of dystopia books yet. He frames his talk by asking five questions. First is why is dystopia so popular? Dystopia is high school. You can't trust your parents or authority figures, friends are duplicitous, etc. All teenagers feel like they're different. That's why Harry Potter was so popular. "It's OK you're different, because in fact you're a wizard. And hundreds of kids go, 'I knew it!' The Noise in the Chaos Walking series is suppose to be like the information overload we're constantly experiencing.
What does dystopia accomplish? Ness says dystopia is about surviving the worst that can happen to know. More than anything, teens want to know that they're going to be OK. When Ness started writing The Knife of Never Letting Go, he wasn't deliberately writing a YA book. He was trying to find Todd's voice and realized it was a book for teenagers. Why not utopia? Ness didn't want to write the books he had when he was a teenager. Aside from Judy Blume, who "was a goddess and very informative" the books that were available to him all taught lessons and didn't tell the truth. Ness wanted to write books that told the truth. Dystopia isn't a story, but a way to tell it.
Listening to Veronica Roth speak was interesting because I was in the middle of reading Divergent. Veronica Roth doesn't think she'd survive long in a dystopian world. Also, her mind was blown being on a panel with the people she was with. Roth talked writing the first book at 21. She was perfectionist, religious and highly anxious, and all these things informed the worldview of her book. Divergent Chicago is actually her utopia, but her utopia is actually a dystopia. the characters in her book helped her to see that her worldview was wrong. She talked about her struggle with anxiety and how selfish it made her. How the factions in Divergent all formed with the best of intentions, to create a utopia, but the characteristics they valued actually made them become what they most hated. Courage turning to bullying which is a form of cowardice. Peacefulness turning to lack of action which actually allows violence, etc.
The utopian vision always collapses, and writing the book helped her to grow up. The "series exposed me to myself." I appreciated how honest Roth was.
Cory Doctorow thinks so fast that it's hard to keep up with him. He said that the deeper truth revealed is that it can't be every man for himself. Dystopias often involve gathering loved ones to protect them from everyone else. It an "us" against "them" mentality. We're all afraid that humans are going to eat each other when the lights go out, and that thought process is a dangerous one. Dystopia can be about how people can be good and how we can save each other. "Dystopia come true when it predicts the present by telling parables about the future." So true!
Doctorow went off on something about machines that was hard for me to follow. Do the machines take orders from us or do we take orders from them. He told us a story about going through security at the airport and he had a tiny screwdriver in his pocket. He was informed that tools were not allowed on the plane. "Language is a tool," was his reply. His final thought was that the point is to create a generation that breaks all censor rules and creates the future we all deserve.
It was a pretty excellent panel. And I love Patrick Ness. Love.