The Dystopian in YA Dystopia

Dystopian fiction is one of my favorite genres. It's fun, and thought provoking, and I usually associate the genre, as a whole, with a very liberal sentiment, promoting equal rights, freedom of thought and religion, and other wishy-washy feel-good elements of the "liberal agenda." But dystopian fiction has become the new It Girl of young adult literature, and, like paranormal romance before it, that means a flood of novels, good and bad, trying to capitalize on the trend. And while some of them are excellent, thought-provoking stories, many of them  have dangerous messages and old-fashioned, bigoted stereotypes wrapped up in dystopian packaging.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a big kerfuffle over Victoria Foyt's self-published novel Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls, which explored a world in which African Americans were the majority and caucasian people were the oppressed minority. In my opinion, this isn't an innately problematic premise. British author Malorie Blackman wrote a very interesting novel on this premise several years ago, called Noughts and Crosses. But, as many people have pointed out, even the title of Foyt's novel is problematic. Even in a world where black people are the oppressive majority, they are the "coals," while the hated minority are precious and rare "pearls," who must be "saved." Although I haven't read the novel myself, and so can't make any assertions about its content, other reviews suggest that it is an anti-equality text in the wrapping of a progressive genre, using a thought-experiment setting to promote old racist and sexist stereotypes. I also recently heard about a similar self-published YA dystopia, in which the protagonist is subversive for falling in love with someone of a different gender in a world where same-sex relationships are the norm.

But in the end, these are self-published novels. Through luck and fandom furor, they've come to the attention of the mainstream media, but no publishing house is supporting them, and I've never seen any commentary defending them.

Unfortunately, this reassuring observation didn't hold up for long. I was recently unlucky enough to read a book called The Glimpse, which is a traditionally published dystopian YA novel set in England. It's based on the premise that society is divided into the "pures" and the "crazies," or into sane people and people who are predisposed to mental illness. The novel's ultimate message is, of course, that such distinctions are ridiculous and without scientific basis, but the novel fails in one big way: it has no respect for people who actually suffer from mental illness. The horror of the mistreatment and abuse is focused on people who are falsely accused of suffering from mental illness, who are completely "normal" but end up locked up in institutions anyway. We learn, throughout the novel, that these people aren't really "crazies," and so don't deserve this treatment. But "crazies" still exist in this novel's perspective, and those people are given no sympathy or voice (unless, of course, they're only "crazy" because the government interfered and made them that way). In fact, actual "crazies" are portrayed as murderers and rapists, right through to the end. And the major "crazy" illnesses in the novel? The ones that are portrayed as the cause for all the violence and pain the protagonist witnesses? Depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. In the end, the message of the novel seems to be that you shouldn't treat people differently... unless someone actually suffers from a common mental illness that is no harm to anyone but the person themselves. Because those people really do suck.

I wasn't sure that I could find anything in YA more worrying and annoying than that stalker-vampire-love trope of paranormal romance. But thanks to the new flood of dystopian fiction, I have been proved wrong.