Why have dystopian and post-apocalyptic books become and remained so popular? As a teen librarian, this was one of the questions most frequently asked of me (mostly by bewildered parents and teachers), so I recently included my (extensive) answer in a speculative fiction lecture to my Young Adult Literature class.
Included in the dystopian and apocalyptic sub-genre are books addressing the degradation of the planet, painting societies that have run out of fossil fuels, societies that have run out of water, numerous scenarios of global warming, and societies in which the entire infrastructure has broken down and created a scavenger mentality. There are stories addressing the breakdown of civil society, with the rise of oppressive religions and philosophies and the persecution of “the others,” and experimenting with ideas about who those others of the future will be—will they still be gay people, Jewish people, Muslims, people of color? Or will the society shift and find different victims on which to avenge itself?
Some observers of the success of this publishing niche point to 9/11 and the many terrorist events before and after it as an existential catalyst to make people consider end-of-the-world scenarios. But dystopian fiction was around long before any of our current destruction scenarios, starting in 1932 with Brave New World, and featuring such classics between then and now as Fahrenheit 451, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Road, and Parable of the Sower. And in addition to those considered classics, there are equally enduring stories (even though some of them are dated) such as Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank; Logan’s Run, by William F. Nolan; War Day, by James Kunetka and Whitley Streiber; Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle; On the Beach, by Nevil Shute; and The Family Tree and The Gate to Women’s Country, by Sheri S. Tepper.
The question is, though: Why are these books so popular, especially with teens?
Before The Hunger Games ever spurred a glut of dystopian and post-apocalyptic books on the teen market, there were forays into this downbeat science fiction sub-genre of dark, diminished futures focused on survival: cautionary tales such as Feed, by M. T. Anderson and The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer; and future projections such as Obernewtyn, by Isobelle Carmody, the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld, and the chilling Unwind (and sequels) by Neal Shusterman. After The Hunger Games, which is the all-time best-selling book series (surpassing even Harry Potter and Twilight!), the reading public went crazy for such books as Ready Player One and Epitaph Road, and overdosed on such series as The Maze Runner, Divergent and sequels, and The Young Elites.
Some of these works are focused on the immediate hereafter, while others project centuries ahead to speculate on what a future world would look like after the immediate destructive effects have subsided. If adults are feeling anxious enough to write these books, it’s probable that their anxieties are being communicated to their teenagers through more than popular fiction and the movies made from it.
Reading about a society that is worse than yours, or a scenario in which the worst that could possibly happen has transpired—but people have survived and are using their ingenuity and determination to make things better—can be reassuring.
There is also the advantage of being able to talk about socially unacceptable topics in a fictional arena and work out how you feel about them or how you should feel about them. Calling a political regime into question, or rebelling against a religion or cultural restriction by reading about it can help a teen (or an adult) who can’t quite bring him- or herself to rebel in real life, by offering some relief, or possibly even guidance and encouragement. Authors can offer pointed commentary about societal trends (as did the authors of Brave New World and 1984) from within a fictional setting and gain an audience while not suffering the criticism or retribution they might receive if their comments were offered in plain speech.
Teens can use these books as metaphors to work out their own problems with the real world. Teen brains are not done maturing yet, and many teens are filled with rage and fear and longing, and have trouble articulating their thoughts and feelings; so fiction that provides a cathartic release and relief of these emotions is helpful. These books can also inspire us by the actions of their courageous, defiant protagonists who overcome barriers and limitations or come to the realization of their own shortcomings and seek to do better.
Ultimately, it is also fiction that, once again, provides the opportunity for the learning of empathy.
“Reading good literature can be a powerful way to develop empathy. Empathy could be one of the most important qualities to develop in young citizens who will go on to be successful actors in a complicated world.”
—Dr. Brené Brown
This is the time of year when I look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and ponder which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads, where I record my reading, conveniently keeps track of statistics for those who set a reading goal, so before I get to the specifics, here are some of mine:
I read 41,346 pages across 113 books.
My shortest book was an e-book-only novella (71 pages) by Sharon Bolton, while my longest was a reread of a Diana Gabaldon book (928 pages) in preparation for the next season of Outlander on TV. The average length of book I read was 365 pages.
The most popular book I read this year was (surprisingly) The Princess Bride, by William Goldman (which I read for high school book club), while the least popular (though one of the most useful to me) was the “textbook” (Reading Still Matters, by Catherine Sheldrick Ross) that I assigned to my readers’ advisory students in the masters program at UCLA. And the highest rated book that I read, according to Goodreads, was The Empty Grave, a young adult horror novel that is the final chapter of the Lockwood & Co. books by Jonathan Stroud, a wonderfully entertaining series for 8th grade and up.
One of my favorite books of the year, but not one I would consider a “best book,” would be Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner. It was a favorite for a couple of reasons: It was a long-anticipated fifth in her beloved Queen’s Thief series (beloved by me, though apparently unknown to far too many people); and it had her typical intricate yet understated plotting and humor that made me appreciate it throughout and also at the end. But for most people, it would probably be far too subtle to consider as a “best book,” and it needs to be viewed within its setting as part of a series to give the full effect. If you are, however, looking for a good and also untypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief (the first book) and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, and finally, Thick as Thieves. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.
Tess is a slow, compelling, character-driven fantasy, so if you are impatient for breathless action, it may not be for you. But I found the writing, the characters, and the story all to be completely gripping. Tess’s transformation throughout the book was a fabulous coming-of-age story for resentful and impetuous young women everywhere. I identified with her repression by a rigid, religious mother, was dismayed by the ways she tried to disengage from her life, and was delighted by her choices, though some of them seemed idiotic in the moment.
Defy the Stars was entertaining from start to finish. I loved the characters—Noemi is so idealistic, stern, determined, and committed, but with a squishy interior that occasionally surfaces. Abel is, well, a ROBOT—this is my favorite robot book since the Lije Bailey/Daneel Olivaw pair-up in Isaac Asimov’s old mystery series. As with Daneel, Abel turns out to be so much more, mostly because his creator, Burton Mansfield, gave him enough agency to continue developing on his own. But Noemi is really the catalyst who brings him to his ultimate personhood. What I especially liked about this book is that it gave you a glimpse into possible worlds that could have been colonized from Earth, and how they evolved differently depending on the expectations and ideals of their colonizers. This isn’t just space opera; it also goes into religion, environmentalism, and politics, and is thought-provoking in all areas.
One of my faves that I would also consider a “best book” was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. Her quirky character Eleanor is, in many ways, profoundly broken, and Eleanor’s metamorphosis depends on courage that she wouldn’t have found without making some human connections, but it is not a romantic book, for which I was grateful. Her story is told in a tender, sweet, and humorous way that isn’t manipulative and never descends into mawkishness, that pulls both Eleanor and the reader out of melancholy into hopefulness. I was impressed that this was the author’s debut novel: The language, the characters, and the world in which she places them are smart and engaging, and she writes with confidence. I have always believed re-reading potential is the true test of a good book, and as soon as I finished this one, I wanted to go back and read it again to feel the emotions brought forth in me by the story.
In the mystery category, I thoroughly enjoyed the reliable offerings from among my list of favorites: Louise Penny, Elly Griffiths, Robert Crais, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Sharon Bolton, and Craig Johnson; but the most anticipated and most enjoyed one had to be Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. I was completely enthralled by everything about the book: The initial mystery, of the mentally ill homeless man who has fastened onto the fame of detective Cormoran Strike and touchingly believes that only he can ferret out the truth about something the man witnessed as a child, is just the kind of thing that Cormoran latches onto like a dog with a chew toy and won’t let go until he’s thoroughly decimated it. But then, to have not one but two more cases to solve, both of which go somewhat against the usual principles that Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott consult before taking on a client, boosted up the energy exponentially. I was thrilled that the book picked up right where book #3 (Career of Evil) left off, which was immediately after the wedding ceremony in which Robin married the detestable Matthew Cunliffe. When she returns to work as Cormoran’s partner, he labors to keep their private lives carefully separate, giving the reader a delicious simultaneous sensation of frustration and anticipation as we find out where their personal choices will lead them.
I have already mentioned, in a recent post, my favorite fantasy of this year, Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor; if you have, in your past, been prejudiced against books because they were given a “young adult” categorization, please let go of that long enough to pick up and read Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares. You won’t be sorry. I will add to the best fantasy category another, completely different offering: Vengeful, the long-awaited sequel to Vicious by V. E. Schwab.
As usual, being the bibliophile that I am, I managed to find a few new novels based on reading and bookstores to add to my list, including The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson, Paris by the Book, by Liam Callanan, and The Lost for Words Bookshop, by Stephanie Butland. I think the last would be my favorite of these.
Please feel free to respond with your comments on any of my favorites, and share your own—if I receive enough responses, I will publish an end-of-the-year book bonanza from readers, full of ideas for January catch-up!
Vicious, by V. E. Schwab, was a confusing, frustrating, sensational book. The hero/protagonist was definitely not a hero, not likable, had no redeeming qualities, and yet you root for him. The villain terms himself the hero, and you see his vulnerability and his delusion and want to like him, and yet you can’t. The secondary characters are all compelling—fully fleshed out, insinuatingly engaging, and also impossible to pigeonhole.
On the surface, the premise is a comic book—ExtraOrdinary people (EOs) who have special abilities—but there the comparison ends, because they go around using their abilities, not for good, but for their own advantage and to others’ detriment, unless they are in the mood to be lenient or merciful, or the person is useful to them. This isn’t what we’ve been taught to believe “superheroes” would do, but…why not, really? If you woke up from a coma and discovered that you could tell everyone around you what to do and they would do it, would you refrain? If you were able to heal from any wound, no matter how grievous, would you still act like a normal human being fearful of death, or would you take any risk, pull any stunt, knowing you couldn’t be hurt?
It’s a fair question. No one ever says, What impulse supplies the moral certitude of a Superman to always do good, never evil? Where is the moral ambiguity in these tales? This book is true science fiction, because the job of science fiction is always to ask, What if? and then try to supply the answer, and Schwab has done a superb job of going where seemingly no one has wanted to go before (at least to my admittedly limited knowledge). Bravo.
Vengeful, the continuation of the story, did not disappoint. Having said that, I don’t think it was quite what I was expecting, either. The parts I was expecting: She continued to write from her head-spinning stance of the first book, which is to say she jumped back and forth in time at will, reorienting the reader with every chapter heading. She also randomly switched perspectives between multiple characters. Not many authors can pull that off, and those who try sometimes actively irritate me, but Schwab can do anything she decides to do, it seems. She gave us the next chapters for each of her major characters from the first book, while further developing Stell’s campaign against the EOs, and she also introduced some kick-ass new ones, notably the powerful women, Marcella and June.
The new characters are part of what I wasn’t expecting. I thought this book would be the resolution of all the story lines among Victor and Eli, Sydney and Mitch, and this resolution is largely accomplished; but we also get a pretty thorough development of these two new people to the EO panoply. Marcella in particular is a gripping portrayal of what happens when a woman is consistently appreciated only as arm candy and she decides to let the world (husband first) know exactly what’s wrong with that picture. June is more of a picaresque character, popping in and out and supplying (dark) whimsy and intrigue; but Marcella is a force of nature, and we’re talking hurricane.
Ultimately, what makes this book as gripping as the first is that they are all terrible people, unmoored to any sense of absolute right or wrong, and Schwab makes you simply not care; or rather, she makes you care deeply, despite how horrifyingly cruel and brutal they may be. The juxtaposition of violence and murder with sweet family scenes incorporating mac and cheese and hot chocolate further solidify the irony.
The ultimate thing I wasn’t expecting is that this may not be the end. This was billed as a duology, but so many loose ends were left as possibilities; people walk off into the sunset, and where are they going? Who will stay together, who will be riven forever from one another, how will they live, what will they do? Now that some of them have achieved their objectives, what will be their life’s purpose? I felt like the characters who walked away at the end could be trusted to disappear out there and never resurface in fiction, but for one: The fact that we know so little about June—her back story, how she became the way she is, and her future intentions—gives me a suspicion that we haven’t seen the last of this world.
Shall we hope for a third tale?
In early 2017, on the recommendation of a librarian friend who shares sci fi love, I picked up Lock In, by John Scalzi. It was a set-up that wouldn’t seem too unlikely in the near future: A contagious virus invades society, taking down everyone who catches it with headaches, fever, and other flu-like symptoms; but a certain small but significant percentage of those who contract it are then afflicted with a follow-up condition termed “lock in.” They are completely and terrifyingly awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to any kind of stimulus. The disease, which is named Haden’s Syndrome after its most famous victim (the First Lady), attacks indiscriminately, affecting people across all spectrums.
Because of the high profile of some of its victims, researchers go all out to solve the various problems of Haden’s Syndrome. Although they haven’t yet come up with a cure, they develop several “work-arounds,” including the implantation of a neural network in the brain of its sufferers that allows them to project their conscious selves—brain, personality, however you want to term it—into mobile units or robots called “threeps” (after, of course, C3PO). Additionally, there are also certain humans who can act as “Integrators” and carry the personality of the Haden within their head, so that a Haden could hire the services of a human with this ability and training and use their body to, say, attend a business meeting, have a romantic evening, or what have you.
The scientific explanation for exactly how all of this works is a bit hazy; but the effect of the science is such a fun concept to play around with that the reader is able to suspend disbelief and go with it. The current story to which all of this is background is a police procedural in which two FBI agents, one a Haden, the other a former Integrator, are assigned a case in which a Haden-related murder may have been committed. Think of the added complexity of solving a murder in which someone else’s personality may have been “driving” the body that committed the crime!
I loved this first book. It was a delightful combination of science fiction and murder mystery—it felt like Asimov’s ‘Lige Bailey and Daneel Olivaw were back, but younger, wittier, fresh. I loved the complexity created by people who could jump from threep to threep and thereby travel wherever, or Integrate to “ride” in someone else’s head/body—it made it difficult to solve crime, that’s for sure. I also enjoyed the widening of the plot to include the changing world of the Haden society.
Last week, I discovered there was a sequel to Lock In on the library shelf and eagerly checked it out. Head On is billed as a stand-alone, but I personally don’t think you could read it without having more knowledge about this world-built view than is given in the opening synopsis.
FBI agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann are back, investigating the mysterious death of a professional athlete during a game of Hilketa, a rather medieval sport in which all the players are Haden’s Syndrome folks, using “threeps” to play the game. (It features swords and hammers, and a lot of tearing off and punting of heads through goalposts. Yes, literal robot heads.) What follows is a multi-city investigation involving adultery, deception, personal and corporate speculation, and a sports league in which suddenly murder and violent crime are everywhere, as someone desperately tries to cover up their plan to pervert the sport for their own profit.
I enjoyed this; but not with quite the same pure sense of enjoyment I had from the first book. Again, it’s more of a police procedural than it is a science fiction novel, but with the novelty of Haden’s people being able to jump from town to car to office as long as there is a threep available to receive them, while not being able to do some of the things regular people consider second nature. As a vehicle for speculation about such wide-ranging themes as sexism, ableism, socioeconomic status, and so on, it was admirable; but for me, the story got unnecessarily convoluted with the addition of shady character after red herring after reluctant ally, to the point where I got the corporate guys’ lawyer’s name mixed up with that of a Haden caregiver’s, and misunderstood one passage rather badly until I got that straightened out. I did enjoy all the mayhem, but felt like I needed to understand a little better what was going on as it happened, instead of waiting for the big reveal at the end.
It’s an odd hybrid of fast pacing with extensive explication that I’m not sure would work for either someone in search of a thriller or someone who wanted a complex sci fi story, so a reader needs to be either a fan of both those genres, or have tolerance for one while reading it for the other. As a fan of both, I enjoyed it quite a bit.
Are you a person who enjoys reading about reading? Who loves it when a book has an author as its character, is set in a bookstore or a library, or involves you in some magical aspect of story? If so, here is an eclectic annotated list for you. Some are written for teens, some appear in sci fi or mystery, and some in general adult fiction, but all are great reads for readers:
The Telling, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The planet Aka used to be a backward, rural, but culturally rich world. But once it came into contact with the Hainish civilization, abrupt changes were made by its ruling faction to transform it into a technologically advanced model society. Sutty, an official observer from Earth, has been dispatched to see if the disconnect has been too great. She learns of a group of outcasts living in the back country who still believe in the old ways and practice a lost religion called the Telling, and seeks them out, at some personal risk to both herself and them, to discover what this society is missing. (Science Fiction)
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
This is the story of foster child Liesel Meminger, who is living just outside of Munich during World War II. Liesel steals books (thus the name) and–once she learns to read–shares them with her stepfather and also with the Jewish man hiding in their basement. The novel is narrated by Death. The language, the imagery, the story, the unusual point of view are all stellar. I’m not sure why this was pigeon-holed as a teen book, because it’s a universally appealing story. (Young Adult Fiction)
The Thirteenth Tale,
by Diane Satterfield
Biographer Margaret Lea lives above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. One day she receives a letter from one of Britain’s premier novelists. Vida Winter is gravely ill, and wants to tell her life story before it’s too late, and she has selected Margaret to do so. Margaret is puzzled and intrigued (she has never met the author, nor has she read her novels), and agrees to meet with her. Winter finally shares the dark family secrets she has long kept hidden, and Margaret becomes immersed in her story, which is a true gothic tale complete with a madwoman hidden in the attic, illegitimate children, and some ghosts. (Adult Fiction)
The Book of Lost Things, by John Connelly
David’s mother has died, and the 12-year-old has only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him, leading him through a magical gateway to a series of familiar, yet slightly skewed versions of classic fairy tales and aiding him to come to terms with his loss and his new life. (Adult Fiction or sometimes shelved as Young Adult)
The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son in post-Spanish Civil War Barcelona, falls in love with a book, only to discover that someone is systematically destroying all other works by this author. A combination of detective story, fantasy, and gothic horror. (Adult Fiction)
The Eyre Affair,
by Jasper Fforde
In an alternate-history version of London in 1985, Special Operative Thursday Next is tasked by the Special Operations Network with preventing the kidnapping of literary characters from books. When Jane Eyre disappears from the pages of the book by that name, Thursday is determined to prevent the trauma experienced by its fond readers. (If you like this one, there are many more in the series.) (Adult Mystery)
Inkheart (plus sequels Inkspell, Inkdeath),
by Cornelia Funke
Meggie’s father, who repairs and binds books for a living, has an unusual gift that became a curse in their lives: He can “read” characters out of books. But when he is reading a book to young Meggie, some characters escape into their world and her mother gets sucked into the story! Now it’s time for Mo and Meggie to change the course of that story, send the book’s evil ruler back into his book and maybe retrieve the person dear to them both…. (Children’s Fiction)
Not as directly reader-related, but with twisted versions of fairy tales interspersed throughout its exciting contents is Cornelia Funke’s “Mirrorworld” series that starts with the book Reckless. Again, this series was billed and sold as a series for children and teens, but it’s really a powerful and sophisticated fantasy about an alternate world that will appeal to all ages. There are three books, and more to come, according to Cornelia! (usually shelved as Young Adult Fiction, but…)
People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks
The historical saga of how a book–the Sarajevo Haggadah–came to be, and its storied history down through five centuries, written from the point of view of a curmudgeonly rare book conservator. Inspired by a true story, and beautifully written. (Adult Fiction)
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
Clay Jannon, a website designer who has lost his job as a result of the dot-com disaster, finds part-time employment on the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s Bookstore. But soon the strange goings-on at the store have Clay and his friends speculating about how the place stays in business; there are plenty of customers, but none of them ever seems to buy anything, and Clay is forbidden from opening any of the dusty manuscripts they periodically arrive to peruse. But when he gets bored and curious… (Adult Fiction)
Ink and Bone,
by Rachel Caine
This series is set in an alternate world, in which the Great Library at Alexandria never burned down. Centuries later, having achieved a status not unlike the Vatican in contemporary life, the Great Library and its rulers control the flow of knowledge to the masses. Paradoxically, although anyone can order up any of the greatest works of history from the library (via alchemy), personal ownership of books is forbidden. Jess Brightwell’s family are black market book dealers, but Jess decides he wants to play it straight by entering the service of the Library. Or does he? The sequels are Paper and Fire, and Ash and Quill. (Young Adult Fiction)
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
Fikry, the owner of Island Books on Alice Island (think Martha’s Vineyard) is in a bad way: His beloved wife has just died, sales are dismal, and someone has just stolen his rare edition of an Edgar Allen Poe poem. But then an unexpected discovery—an important “package” abandoned in his bookstore—changes his perspective on everything. (Adult Fiction)
There are probably dozens more books about books, reading, and writing; when I discover them, I’ll share!