Feb 2, 2012

Dystopia's Umbrella

In September of 2010 I wrote a post called The Problem with Dystopia where I addressed some of the issues with the term as a definition and a literary term. In it I said,
"Dystopian literature is gaining momentum, especially in the young adult market, yet no one seems to have a grasp on what words to you use to define, understand, and categorize dystopia."
And the interesting thing is that nothing much has changed. People are still struggling to pin down what makes dystopia dystopian. Yet, we have also come to accept the word into our speech patterns. We use it without being overly concerned with definitions. The more we try to pin down our understanding of the term and concept the more variations of it emerge. This is both confusing and amazing.

I am curious if and why people feel they have a firmer grasp on understanding dystopia than they did in the past. What has changed? I guess we all have that moment when dystopia is defined for us and whatever words were used in that moment sort of stick. It is interesting how in the past I spent a lot of time on Twitter and blog posts defining dystopia and now I rarely ever get asked. The term has become part of the contemporary reading lexicon.

It is easy to point to The Hunger Games as the book that turned a lot of things around. But it was more than one book that created an awareness. People read The Hunger Games then when they went to find more books like it they may have found the term dystopia along with a list of other enjoyable books. Does the dystopian explosion exist without The Hunger Games?

One of the consequences/results of the reaction to dystopian books is a surge in books that aren't exactly dystopian but get the tag just because someone knows it is a selling point right now. The unfortunate thing is that people have started finding books that didn't represent what they were looking for under this classification and have started to become weary of the term. And while I can TOTALLY understand that (I have definitely faced disappointment) I am okay with using the term dystopia as a general umbrella term. Maybe we would be better served to use a term like "hard dystopia" for those books most fitting of the classic understanding of the term. But post apocalyptic and apocalyptic books have fallen under this heading along with other strays. Some readers and fans really resent that, but at the end of the day the term dystopia still brings me to the type of stories I want to be reading.

I am not entirely sure any of us know what dystopia means any better than we did a few years ago. I think trying to pin down an understanding has only lead to more confusion.  Even though we are often faced with what Pam from bookalicio.us called a "branding" problem, genre exists for a reason beyond selling books. It helps us talk about what we read with a common language and find other readers who like the same books as us.

But Dystopia is inherently subjective. It can hinge on the world building, the psychology of the characters, or the quality of action. We all have different levels of enjoyment from different elements of any book, but it seem particularly prevalent in dystopian literature. From readers I have seen an expectation from the term "dystopia" that seems higher, more rigid, and more personal than readers seem to have from other genre fiction.  I think author Elana Johnson put the reason for this very well, "Because, really, one person’s idea of a perfect, ideal existence is often another person’s nightmare." And that very concept of perfection verses nightmare is at the core of dystopian fiction and the core of the varying reactions we can have to it.

What do you think about the term and branding of dystopia? Has it more often disappointed you or helped you find the types of books you want to read? I think that a shift in thinking can really change the whole experience when reading young adult dystopian literature. This is particularly hard for me since I have been dedicated to an academic understanding of dystopia for many years now. The dictionary definition of dystopia as "a bad place" lends itself to including more types of books and types of world building that are not traditionally dystopian.

One of the interesting experiences I will have over the next month is seeing how dystopian books work and don't work for me. And how this contrast with possibly unrealistic expectations from a misunderstanding between dystopia as an umbrella term and dystopia as an academic one.

Jan 31, 2012

PREVIEW - Starters by Lissa Price

I had the pleasure of meeting Lissa Price at a Mysterious Galaxy meet and greet in San Diego during the World Fantasy Convention. I wasn't able to attend WFC but I had a great time at the Mysterious Galaxy store seeing Cindy Pon again and meeting TONS of other great authors. It was a wonderful experience, full of surprises. Meeting Lissa was definitely one of those surprises.

When I went to this event at the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore I hadn't been keeping up with forthcoming books so when Lissa told me she had a dystopian novel coming out I was REALLY excited. We had a great time discussing the genre and she told me to get a sample chapter booklet out of the store. The first thing that struck me about Starters was the cover. I have seen pictures of it online and it just doesn't show all the amazing detail that you can really see in person. I begged Lissa to sign it for me and she was more than happy to.

I was instantly in love. The cover was overwhelming me, Lissa was wonderful to chat with, and I could not wait to read Starters.  But I did wait. I didn't want to read the sample and be left in agony waiting to read more of the book AND I don't like to know about a book before I read it. I know I say this a lot, but the more I start thinking about the concept of a book the more expectations I start to have. Usually there is no way a book can live up to them.

But in preparation for Lenore's Dystopian February kick off TOMORROW. I have read and am presenting to you a little mini review of these sample chapters of Starters. First I need to tell you that this book would have lived up to my expectations!

Lissa did not disappoint my overpowering need for strong world building in a dystopian novel.  The first two chapters of Starters were spectacular. World building in young adult dystopias can be a tricky matter, especially when they are written in first person. Lissa did a perfect job of revealing the world through the limited perspective of first person in a completely organic way. I really hope the rest of the book lives up to these opening chapters. Lately a lot of books have disappointed me by starting off strong and tapering off.

In Lissa Price's novel there are Starters, people under 20, and Enders, people over 60.  Everyone in between is dead. Callie is trying to care for her slickly younger brother. She learns about a program that allows Enders to rent younger bodies through a company called Prime Destinations.

Rules for Renters at Prime Destinations:
  1. You may not alter the appearance of your rental body in any way, including but not limited to piercings, tattoos, hair cutting or dyeing, cosmetic contact lenses, and any surgical procedures, including augmentation.
  2. No changes to the teeth are allowed, including fillings, removal, and embedded jewelry.
  3. You must remain inside a fifty-mile perimeter around Prime Destinations. Maps are available.
  4. Any attempt to tamper with the chip will result in immediate cancellation without refund, and fines will be levied.
  5. If you have a problem with your rental body, return to Prime Destinations as soon as possible. Please treat your rental with care, remembering at all time that it is an actual young person.

The concept of this body rental is both amazing and terrifying at the same time. And is extremely effective in grabbing the reader's attention. When I think about it, I am not sure what price I could possibly accept to let someone rent my body while I basically took a nap, but I am not in a desperate situation. Callie is worried about the health and stability of her brother and after being displaced from yet another living situation she decided she HAS to "volunteer" to become a rental body for the money to give her brother a better life.

Because I have not read more of the book I wanted to give you a little summary of what was presented in the sample booklet I had.  What I found while reading it was a compelling and thought provoking beginning to the book. I am extremely curious to see where the story is going next and how it will reveal more about this future world. So far the book is laced with complex concepts, fears, and possibilities for where the story can go.

I am definitely dying to read more, and I bet you are too.
And guess what? |

Lissa has graciously offered up an ARC of Starters to the wonderful readers of my blog. To be entered all you have to do is comment on this post with some aspect of Starters that sounds good or interesting to you.  Make sure your comment is connected to a way for me to contact you or leave you email address in the comments.

For an additional entry tell me in the same comment that you've added Starters to your GoodReads to read list.

The contest ENDS February 15th, 2012 at midnight  Pacific Standard Time.

Check back later in the month for my full review. Until then be sure to check out Lenore's dystopian reviews, interviews, and giveaways happening all month long.

Jan 30, 2012

How I Turned a New Page

Fantasy novels have been the bane of my existence since the creation of my blog. Why is that? you ask. Well, maybe bane is a bit over reaching but when it came to fantasy novels I had a huge road block keeping me from reading them. For me fantasy novels are often challenging because of the level of trust a reader must leave in the hands of an author.  The world can be so unknown with character names that are spelled weird and names of places that are insane to pronounce.

It is odd, because at it's core, there is something inherently appealing about fantasy concepts. What little girl doesn't go through the unicorn stage, or love fairies? But I often found that what I was reading didn't match the pictures on my wall. Or if they did, I couldn't read long enough to get to those parts. And since then I have tried to avoid fantasy books. I even resented when people recommended them because I was so convinced that these books weren't for me and never could be.

I can point to two novels that have significantly changes my views on fantasy fiction. Though I can't point to the things in myself that may have changed. I am sure it is a combination of finding the right book for my interests and maturing in some way and trying to be more open minded. Now that I am reading more science fiction and other speculative fiction, I have decided it may be time to expand my horizons a little more.

The first of the two transforming novels is Homeland by R. A. Salvatore. This book is by far the most fantastical book I have ever read. It wasn't some sort of crossover or fantasy book with an interesting premise that I could handle. Homeland was a pretty good amalgamation of many of the things that put me off about fantasy books. But the politics of this broken society made it easy for a love to dystopian to enjoy it. I also listened to this book as opposed to read it. I found that audiobooks may be the best way for me to deal with this genre of book. I still get the story without having to struggle over some of the words. Menzobarenzan was dark and brutal, and easy for me to fall in love with.  Finally I found a place I knew well in a fantasy novel. Drizzt's journey, like many through dystopia, is about the search for hope. He has a deep desire fgor things to be different from what they are. I didn't read Homeland because I thought I would find these dystopian elements in it, I just happened and I am sure there are more fantasy books out there waiting for me to read them that will also surprise me in this way.

The second novel probably impacted me even more than the first. Partly because I actually read it, instead of listening to it, and partly because there was nothing dystopian in the novel.  Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon has been one of my favorite books for over a year now. Previous to that you would have never been able to convince me that one of my favorites was a fantasy book.  The world of Silver Phoenix seemed more approachable by the Asian overlay for me. I accepted it was "foreign" and didn't resent it as a result. Even though Ai Ling was faced with situations that showed her weakness, she was not weak.  She is one of the strongest female characters I have yet to read in young adult literature. Cindy Pon created a balanced character who was able to maintain her femininity. Even with the guidance of a magical force it is Ai Lings's bravery that is her real source of power. Silver Phoenix is a hero's quest laced with the whimsical elements that made childhood magical. This feeling has made me want to find more fantasy books and see if they can create the same feeling. For the first time in my reading life I am actually searching out fantasy books to read.

Since reading Silver Phoenix I have been able to talk often with Cindy Pon on Twitter. She is such an amazing person who is willing to share herself with her readers. She is generous with information and quick to answer any question or chime in on a topic that interests her. She also doesn't hesitate to share and talk about other books she has loved reading. I am using these books that she has mentioned both recently and in the past as the start to my fantasy TBR pile. It can be a slow process because my bias is still present, it just isn't a brick wall anymore.
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