I Miss Monsters

When I read a blurb for Dayna Lorentz’s No Safety In Numbers I misunderstood.  It mentioned something strange being discovered at a suburban shopping mall causing teens to battle to survive.  So I instantly assumed there would be monsters, probably zombies, involved as haven’t there been a number of films where survivors take refuge in a mall where there is access to food, clothes and potential weapons?

Well without giving too much away I will say that the mall part was accurate, but instead of monsters, there is a device discovered that has deadly consequences.  Have I become too hooked on monsters as an element in dystopian fiction?

Not all YA dystopian fiction has to have monsters to be good reads.  In books like The Hunger Games, Tomorrow When the War Began, Delirium and plenty of others, the monsters are really just us, humans.  Even in the Rot & Ruin series which does have zombies, the bounty hunters and cult fanatics are the bigger monsters than the actual monsters, which is why I am loving that series so much.   Maybe that’s the problem, maybe I find it actually more comforting when I read about a dystopian world where the ‘bad guys’ are someone other than us.  It’s easier to blame the woes of a post-apocalyptic situation on monstrous creatures, than to look to ourselves and our flaws that create disastrous events or worlds.  It hits to close too close to home when we are our own worst enemies.

It’s funny that I got to a point where I had to reduce time spent reading and watching news reports because I felt like I was drowning in a sea of bad news….dictators and authoritarian governments who control their citizens, environmental crises, violence and a loss of civility, and the greed of the rich and powerful.   I reduced my news absorption a few years ago, then a couple of years ago I got completely hooked on YA dystopian fiction!   It’s so ironic.

I am asking myself do I find it more palatable to face these issues in a work of fiction rather than real life?  At least in books, there are heroes; sometimes I am not sure whether there are many heroes or good leaders left  in real life.  However, that’s the thing I guess about apocalyptic or dystopian events, until one happens you never know how people will react, sometimes it’s the most ordinary or unassuming people who arise to meet the challenges at hand and emerge as heroes.

Sometimes it feels safer to read about a disaster between the pages of a book than to observe one in real life or to wonder who I would become in a crisis…


Dust & Decay – talk about a generation gap!

Talk about a generation gap!  It’s been over a decade since ‘First Night’, the event where people inexplicably died and reanimated as zombies killing billions of people.  The adults of Mountainside who remember the world as it was before First Night, and survived the terrors of that event, are content to reside behind the fences and to never venture into the Rot& Ruin, the area outside.  Even though there is plenty of farmland, houses and supplies outside the fence, they are not motivated to expand the fence’s boundaries or try to reclaim things from the world before.  Benny is one of the town’s teens and his friend Nix finds the complacency of the town’s adult’s maddening.  She thinks people should try to reclaim the world and even had a plan to head for the Catalina Islands, where the water would protect settlers from zombies and there is plenty of farmland.  Once the population has increased, then she thinks people should start taking the world back.  That’s her plan until she and the others who traveled in outside in the first book spotted a jet plane that came from the east, sparking their hopes that somewhere people have more than just survived.

While Nix may have a point, the teens in the book can’t really understand the older generation.  They were toddlers or babies without much memory of First Night, so they don’t have the same psychological trauma as the adults.  Imagine a society where every adult suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, can the adults who remember a world of billions of people realistically think that a few thousand people can take back the world?  No one has figured out what caused First Night anyway, they only know how some basic hard won facts about zombies, that everyone who dies will reanimate as one and will need to be ‘quieted’ by severing the motor cortex.  Beyond that, they don’t know if the zombies remember anything, why they exist, and why they only attack living flesh and not each other.

The adults in Benny’s world have manifested their PTSD in different ways.  Some try to forget, some live with debilitating sadness and depression, some throw themselves into work and family, but others have become warped by the experience, such as many of the bounty hunters whose livelihood is based on killing zombies and the proprietors and spectators of Gameland, a horrifying place where children are thrown into pits to fight zombies while people place bets.  Like any good western though there are white hats who fight to hold onto decency such as Tom Imura, Benny’s older brother, and his bounty hunter friends who are only killers out of necessity.

In Dust & Decay Tom trains his brother and friends so that they can set off to find the truth about the jet, but the journey becomes a showdown between those adults and teens who haven’t been warped by First Night and those who became twisted by it. The very nature of YA fiction means the emphasis is placed on the teen characters, but I think shedding some light on the adult perspective of the post apocalyptic world vs. a youth perspective makes for an interesting question and one I might even turn into a story some day.

Ashen Winter

Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin follows his first book Ashfall.  Mullin takes a different approach than many YA authors.  Instead of the books continuing one main story line across all the books in the series, each book has its own journey or goal.  In Ashfall, teen Alex stayed home for the weekend while the rest of his family went to visit his father’s brother, not knowing that a supervolcano was going to explode and change everything.  Alex makes a heroic journey across a desolate landscape to reunite with this family.

In Ashen Winter, Alex and Darla have been living with his sister and uncle’s family when an unexpected event turns up an item that was in his father’s possession, spurring him to leave earlier than planned on a new mission to find his parents.

This book doesn’t have the type of monsters that many other YA dystopian books have.  There aren’t any Dusts as in Pure, no zombies as in The Forest of Hands and Teeth, or freaks as in Enclave.  However, what Alex discovers is a monster of the worst kind, man.

From the corrupt paid mercenaries, Black Lake, who round people up and imprison them in dire conditions in FEMA camps because they are paid by a quota, to flensers, bandits who have become cannibals, Alex struggles to do what he must to survive and protect his loved ones while still maintaining his humanity and morality.  It is this inner struggle that is the heart of this book, though physical journey he takes to reunite with his loved ones is full of action that keeps readers motivated through nearly 600 pages, unusual in fiction of this kind.  Alex has had to kill to protect himself and the people he loves, but he feels a tremendous sense of guilt and responsibility for his actions, even when justified.  He is often taken aback by the hardness in some of the people whom he loves who have been baptized by the violence.  In a world where a former accountant becomes a kidnapper and killer, who can predict how the actions you must take to live, will affect your personality, morality and ethics?  And if the only way to survive is to change into something your previous self would be horrified to see, is surviving worth any cost?


Glitch by Heather Anastasiu is a mashup of the Matrix, The Blue Lagoon and 1984.  It doesn’t have quite the maturity that most YA dystopian books lean towards these days crossing over between YA and adult fans, but it’s still a decent read.  An underground civilization is full of people who are linked literally by the Link, an implanted chip that also dulls all emotions and independent thought.  The society works somewhat like a beehive with the adult work drones all assigned work tasks that keep the environment running.  The Chancellor who rules this society is rather like a queen bee surrounded by Uppers and Regulators, the former are a combination of police and spy, trained to look for anomalies.  You see, some young people experience ‘glitches’ despite their implanted chips and can experience emotions, color and thoughts of their own.

Zoe, the main character, thinks she is the only one experiencing these glitches are has been so trained by her society that she almost turns herself in, an event that could cause her ‘deactivation’, until she starts regularly running into a strange boy with aquamarine eyes whom she suspects may be a little anomalous too.

Zoe has been taught that in the old world emotions were dangerous and led to terrible nuclear wars and it does make me speculate about the many negative emotions that seem to grip society today.  Wars fueled by hate, jealousy or fear.  Of course the flip side is all the positive emotions human beings experience such as joy and love.  It’s a fine line though when statistics show that people are more likely to be murdered by someone they are close to.   So what’s better, living in a society where people are at the mercy of all kinds of negative emotions or living in an environment where negative emotions don’t exist, but positive emotions are so dulled?

What About the Before in YA Dystopian Books?

So I rented and watched the film Seeking a Friend For The End Of The World last night.  First, I thought it was interesting that Hollywood would even dare make a movie about the end of the world, usually the only time they do is when the heroes of the movie manage to divert the disaster, such as Independence Day.  However, I guess if you have actors such as Steve Carell and Keira Knightley signing on, anything is possible.

Anyway, the fact that the plot takes place BEFORE the apocalyptic event happens got me thinking about all the YA dystopian fiction I have read.  Most all of it has taken place after an event, and oftentimes generations after an event.  Even the couple of books I have read which are exceptions, take place right before the event such as the amazing, Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer.  The event in this book, likethe movie is an asteroid, but in the movie civilization knows the event will be happening enough in advance that we get to see how people might handle it.

Since it’s a movie and it stars Steve Carell, most of the reactions are absurd and funny.  Carell’s character, Dodge, continues to show up for work as ironically an insurance salesman.  Many people in the film do which seemed strange to me, as I thought in real life no one would, but it did start me wondering how many people maybe would continue at work either because they find the routine comforting or because they think somehow the crisis will be averted.  Scenes in the film of wild parties with drugs and orgies  taking place seemed more accurate, as were later scenes of riots.  Also, the idea of people wanting to find closure in their lives, or reaching out to lost loves or families happens in the film. I guess no one truly knows how they themselves would react if they knew such an event was coming, but how do you think you might behave?

I thought to myself that this is untapped territory in dystopia fiction, writing about the lives of characters before the event.  Yes, books like Pure make references, but the main characters were children and the book is written when they are teens, therefore they don’t understand the enormity of the loss as they don’t remember life before very well.

I would like to read a book that develops characters through a transition from young innocence and carefree years to having to mentally and physically adapt to a coming disaster.  Many zombie books take place right after the zombiefication of the world like in This Is Not A Test, so we get to see some of the evolution of characters such as the teen pothead who becomes a leader by default.  However, if there was a book where there were weeks of advanced notice beforehand, what would happen?  What would people’s reactions be?  Would they cling to hope?  Would they not prepare because they don’t believe the worst will happen?  Will they rebel against what is happening by acting out through drugs, violence or sex?  How will their relationship with their parents be effected?  How will they deal with the idea that the milestones they have not hit, such as graduation, college, marriage and children might never happen for them?   Will they be more resilient than adults in a crisis?  Maybe the state of the world before the event happens is one which the characters find hard to survive as things spin out of control.

What do you think about a book like this?

Dystopia vs. Sci Fi

I have been thinking about dystopia fiction vs. sci fi fiction while reading Maria Snyder’s Inside Out, a dystopia book with a sci fi bent.  It’s funny but I was having a recent discussion with some friends about how I don’t read traditional sci fi books, yet I have such a passion for dystopia books.  They both have imaginative world building in common, so why are my tastes so clearly in the one camp and not the other?

I guess it boils down to the fact that in dystopian novels, despite an event that changes the world or society dramatically, the settings in these stories are still recognizable as similar to our own civilization even if they have been distorted by an apocalyptic event.  This can be true of the sci fi genre, but the very nature of science fiction allows for unrecognizable technology or creatures.  Anything the author can imagine goes and that’s probably what fans of this type of fiction love.  Me, I like reading about a world that our current one could become if dangerous events come to pass.  It’s that grain of truth in the world building that appeals to me and the way a good author builds on that grain and extends it to the extremes.

In sci fi books, there is too much focus on technology for me…technology for weapons, space travel, communications etc. and the liberal use of these devices can be what assists or saves the characters.  In dystopia fiction often technology has been lost or at least reduced, and the characters must rely more on their own inventiveness, willpower and strength to survive situations in their world.  Maybe because I didn’t have smart phones, tablets and ipods as a child, I relate more to characters who can take action without relying on technology.   Recently I was in Portland, Oregon and needed some directions and was amazed that no one seemed able to provide them.  Even people who hadn’t grown up with so much technology whipped out their phones instead of just telling me where to turn left or right to get to my destination.  I was both fascinated and a little horrified on how quickly people have become completely reliant on a gadget for such a basic skill.  Maybe it’s just me, but I much prefer Katniss’s bow to a computerized weapon…

In Inside Out Trella is a scrub who lives on the lower levels though her job cleaning the pipes of Inside gives her glimpses of the world of the uppers.  The scrubs are menial workers who live in overcrowded conditions without any choice as to career, having a family or any control over their lives.  Trella, like the rest of the scrubs, resents the uppers and the chip on her shoulder even alienates her from the rest of her fellow scrubs, with the exception of her friend Cognos.  It’s because of her fondness for Cognos that she is pressured to see the latest Prophet who spins stories of hope and a world of other possibilities.  Because Trella wants to protect Cognos from falling for the Prophet’s message, she sets out to prove that he is lying, but then discovers there may be more to what he says.   This leads her on a journey to discover the truth, the truth about the uppers, her fellow scrubs and even herself.   Although there were elements of tech in this story, they were secondary to the characters and the plot which was a mashup of Attica, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Anthem and Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.  Read it and see what I mean.

Breaking Point

It must hard to be in the middle.  There are plenty of jokes and references to being the middle child – think Jan Brady, “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha.”  The oldest and youngest children get all the benefits of their unique positions and all the attention.  I think it’s similar for trilogies.  The first book is exciting.  It’s breaking ground by introducing us to its world and its characters.  The final book in a series sends us hurtling toward the conclusion while letting us spend some final quality time with the characters we have become emotionally invested in, the final book also reveals the answers to questions and secrets in the plot.

Breaking Point by Kristen Simmons is the sequel to Article Five and as such it has a tough job.  At this point it’s already clear who the bad guys and the good guys are, well with the exception of Tucker who seems more of a writer’s device to try to inject some tension into the story.  After all, the romance between Ember and Chase isn’t adding any tension or heat, it’s been clear to readers how the characters feel even though the characters were slow to reach the same conclusion.  Yes, there is plenty of physical action and plotting, but it all seems a little bit A-Team.  There’s another plot twist that relates to Ember’s mom which also feels like an obvious ploy to add some excitement to this sophomore effort.

This may all sound as if I didn’t like the book, but that’s not exactly the case.  As I’ve said, it’s hard hold the middle position and if I judge this second book by the difficult role it has to fulfill as the middle of a trilogy, it does ok.  It’s unfair to think it’s going to hold my attention the way a first story always does.  The first book of a trilogy is like a first kiss with someone, it’s all new and exciting, you learn about the structure of the dystopian world the author has imagined.  You fall a little in love with the characters, though they are still a bit of a mystery as later books tend to reveal some unexpected reactions, emotions and histories. The second book is, well, comfortable.  The initial heat has subsided a little and while there is a cozy familiarity with the world and the characters, it can be a little routine.  The relationship is too good to just turn away from, but you long for that first rush of feeling and hope that the third book will fulfill that early sense of promise felt.   The third book is the one that may not have the excitement of the first, but readers’ relationships with the characters and the world they live in deepens.  I hope Kristen Simmons is able to do that in the next book.

No Movie or TV Zombies, Just Book Zombies

I have never bought a ticket to see a zombie movie, though I admit I did catch part of one on TV once.  I don’t watch the currently popular Walking Dead.  Yes, it’s true I downgraded my satellite TV package to the lowest I could get, but even if I had that channel, I don’t think I would watch.  However, for some reason I enjoy zombies in YA dystopia books.

It may not be the zombies themselves, if it was the creatures I would watch zombie movies or I wouldn’t make a face when people in Seattle talk about Zombie Days where locals for some inexplicable reason think it’s fun to dress and act like a zombie with other people for the day.  I just don’t get it.

I think I am only liking zombies as part of dystopian fiction because there have been some kick ass YA authors including them in their books.  The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan reads like a lyrical poem to me and filled me with a drowsy sadness like a watercolor painting dissolving.  This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers  fascinated me because it is the only YA dystopian novel I have found yet in which the protagonist is missing a strong survival instinct, well it’s not just missing, she wants to die even if by means of a horrific zombie death.  Now I just finished Jonathan Maberry’s Rot & Ruin, another so-called zombie book which really has very little to do with zombies, and much more about people and our humanity.

Benny, only a baby when the zombies arose, lives what appears to be an almost normal teen life.  Unlike the heroes in my post-apocalyptic novels he actually lives in a house, has enough to eat, goes to school and hangs out with his friends.  Yeah, ok he lives with his older half-brother who is a zombie bounty hunter and the community he lives in is fenced in to keep the zombies away and no one uses electricity anymore in a backlash against the modern ways and technologies that superstitious people blame as part of the cause that turned people into zombies.  However, this book is not nearly as grim as so many others of its kind as Benny doesn’t have to constantly fight hunger and monsters to survive.  I think that’s one of the things I liked about it, the shades of normalcy and even some pop culture references that lulled me as a reader into thinking that the world he lives in is pretty safe.  However, zombies are not the only horrors that fill this world, what Benny quickly learns is that there isn’t any malice in the zombies who attack because of a deep seated hunger, but not out of malice.  Instead people it’s who are truly vicious because when they act badly, it’s done with forethought and emotions.  This is really the story of a boy who matures into a man as he begins to believe that everything he has believed in may not be the actual truth.

The Indians said that whatever happens to the beasts will eventually happen to us

I thought I would take a detour today from my regular book reviews on this blog.  I just read read an AP article online about the decline of the Monarch butterfly population.  What does this have to do with YA dystopia fiction?  Well, many of the post-apocalyptic worlds of these novels involve an environmental or natural disaster and makes references to the struggle to survive by both people and animal populations.  I remember learning in my biology class in school about interconnected ecosystems, that a change to one species can also affect another species.

For the past few years I have been following news reports of the decline of the honeybee population because if these pollinators die out, the effects on our food supply could be drastic.  I have actually done more than read news and watch documentaries, I have had a hive installed in my backyard for a few years.  What I wasn’t aware of until this article was the ominous drop in the number of Monarch butterflies making their annual migratory trip: http://news.yahoo.com/monarch-butterflies-drop-ominously-mexico-023630858.html

While perusing the responses to the article, someone wrote, “The Indians said that whatever happens to the beasts will eventually happen to us” which I decided to use as the title of this post.   Do you agree with that statement?

What environmental news are you aware of that you think a dystopian author could incorporate into their next books?


Article Five

Article Five by Kristen Simmons takes place in a world not too difficult to imagine.  In this YA dystopian novel, an internal war had taken place in the United States and the country has come under the control of the Federal Bureau of Reformation, a type of moral militia, under the leadership of President Scarboro and his totalitarian government.  Teenage Ember Miller finds herself targeted as an Article Five violator simply because her mother gave birth to her out of wedlock.  Not that she and her mom have had it easy over the last several years anyway.  The economy is shot, jobs have been hard to find and keep, food is rationed and the military has had carte blanche to surprise search homes for anything that might be considered against the Moral Statues – it’s not a huge stretch to understand the setting of the story when we observe what’s been happening in the economy and government of the past several years.

Ember’s world comes crashing down when Chase, the boy next door she has loved since childhood, returns as a soldier to arrest Ember and her mother.  The women are separated and Ember is sent to the Girls’ Reformatory and Rehabilitation Center, a brutal place run by the Sisters of Salvation, who are less than holy or charitable in their treatment of the girls interned there.  Ember is desperate to escape and find her mother and the story is one of a female hero in a world where women have been marginalized and even brutalized and the citizenry as a whole has had their rights violated.

This book reminded me strongly of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I guess when I really think about it that was probably the first book I ever read of the dystopia genre, though it’s not YA fiction.  I was so fascinated by the story that I read it nonstop finishing it in one day.  The reason I remember it so vividly is that I was on a beach in Miami at the time, and I was absorbed in the world it presented, that I ended up with the most severe sunburn of my life.  What I liked about that book, and this one, is the way the authors are able to take actual truths and events from current times, and extrapolate these out to their extremes, so that the world building is both very familiar and therefore all the more chilling.

As a woman I was particularly fascinated by the denigration of the female characters and the backlash against women’s liberation.  In a world where women make up the majority of degree holders, but head less than 10% of companies, where there recently was a bitter fight over the healthcare plan’s inclusion of contraceptives and a congressman called one activist a ‘slut’ for testifying, these books touch upon the unease I feel whenever women’s issues are raised, or buried, even in supposedly modern and enlightened times.  Sadly, The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985 and it doesn’t feel as if some of society’s opinions and treatment of women have improved much in the almost thirty years since the book came out.  I am happy that Article Five has carried on with raising some of the questions and themes explored by its predecessor.  I also don’t think it’s any coincidence that so many current YA dystopia fiction novels are filled with strong female protagonists, do you?