I started writing a review of Birthmarked (Caragh M. O’Brien) and stopped because I couldn’t come up with anything positive I wanted to say. I had to force myself to finish the book despite yelling at the audiobook several times. That is the best I can do for a “review” of this book. I am instead going to use it to talk about dystopian novels.
Dystopian novels work best when doing one of two objects: presenting a case wherein current actions/ideologies come to disastrous or painful fruition (Hunger Games & Farenheit 451 fall into this category) or as personal explorations of “the human condition” in some form or fashion (I would argue Z for Zachariah falls here). Great dystopian novels explore both (1984 and Handmaiden’s Tale).
Hunger Games, The Giver, and Farenheit 451 are all books which examine some ideology or societal ill that if left unchecked might cause pain. There is of course some examination of character and how people respond to these events, but it is not the focus. The real focus is uncovering the ills of the society and seeking solutions (or dissolution of the architecture which causes the problem(s) in the first place). These are stories which we read and can walk away from changed – looking at our government differently.
Z for Zachariah and Ready Player One are both stories which focus hugely on the character learning about themselves – in a potentially terrible, unjust world which has some of the “government went bad” mentality but again – the 2nd half of the equation isn’t the focus. In Ready Player One, the “government” has basically been subsumed by corporate powers, but even the corruption of these corporations isn’t the focus – it’s really about a power-hungry CEO and a poor kid who wants to make the world a better place (or at least not have a sucky life himself).
The truly great dystopian novels try to do both: examine what could happen if something goes to the extreme-end of it’s power (Handmaiden’s Tale: religious fervor) and an examination of the character discovering their own path (Ofred deciding she can’t live within the oppressive society anymore). The balance 1984 walks between having Winston explore his own feelings and uncovering the depths of government control is delicate. Orwell’s novel is still read and studied because of that balance. That delicate thread-thin line of character and world.
As a writer, I have considered writing dystopian, and after reading Birthmarked I actually want to try it more rather than less. If I take something in our world to it’s extreme end and twist it slightly, where will it take me? Now, put someone into that world – what catalyst(s) might cause them to question this status quo? How would they react to this new information? – I actually wouldn’t mind exploring the “wrong” reaction in someone. In Hunger Games, Katniss responds “right” – she wants everyone healthy and happy – equal or something. What happens if someone reacts “wrong” (immorally)? Could I write the novel that makes the reader sympathize with an immoral act? More than in 1984 where the character is subsumed by what he hated, could I write a character (and keep readers engaged) who follows an immoral path based on a dystopian worldview?