Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Measuring Stick

There are certain books that I consider to be a measuring stick of the genre. The Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter series are my measuring sticks for children's books; THE HERO AND THE CROWN is my measuring stick for fantasy; ENDER'S GAME is my measuring stick for science fiction.

In thinking about dystopia, I realize I have two measuring stick: one for children's/YA dystopia, and one for adult dystopia.

For younger dystopia, my measure is Lois Lowry's THE GIVER. Although now a common middle school selection for required reading, THE GIVER hasn't always been this popular, despite the shiny sticker of approval on the cover.

THE GIVER is a much quieter book than I usually prefer, but it's still what I consider to be the ideal model of young dystopian literature. The government isn't a powerhouse Big Brother, but it is still controlling and selective about the information it releases to the public. The hero isn't a fighter--but he's still a rebel.

And the end of the novel is that mix of triumph and hardship: the hero wins, but the battle's not entirely over.

Any time I read dystopia, I compare it unconsciously to THE GIVER. Not so much in style and plot, but in the feeling I get when reading it. THE GIVER reminds me to question the world, and that's what I seek in dystopian lit.

In adult dystopian lit, I lean towards Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD. It, too, has a shiny sticker seal of approval, but my reason for liking THE ROAD and comparing other adult dystopia to it is the same as with THE GIVER: the end leaves triumph and battle.

[Spoilers ahead--not too spoilery, but still: highlight to read]

At the end of THE ROAD, there's a scene that people tend to either love or hate, where the author describes flashing fish in a river. It's an odd little end--we still have questions about the future for the boy, and we want to know what else will happen--but here's a short page and a half about fish.

But--in my opinion--this is McCarthy's way of leaving us with hope. Just like the fire the boy and his father mention over and over, the fish (which represent all of nature) are something that's true and permanent. No matter how bleak the world is, love and hope remain in the world. The world itself is the carrier of the love and hope.

So there you have it: my measuring sticks for dystopia. What are yours?
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