Rainbow of Dystopia

Paolo Bacigalupi is a very talented writer. I recommend his novel Ship Breaker, a peak oil YA adventure story with a racially diverse cast of characters. That’s why I was so taken aback by his article “The Invisible Dystopia.” Bacigalupi begins by saying that LGBTQ youth live in a dystopia. That’s a striking argument, and even though I think a lot of queer youth are very happy with their lives and don’t need to be cast as victims, I can certainly see his point and it’s a clever way to frame it. But then he goes on to suggest that the objective for LGBTQ characters in dystopian YA would be to educate straight readership. But that even better would be a dystopia where heteros are persecuted.

Imagine that this article had been about the paucity of African-American characters in dystopian YA (also a problem worthy of an article.) This article would argue that black youth are being discriminated against and shot down in real life, so they already live in a dystopia. Only by writing a story where white people are the victims of racism could you open the eyes of our true target audience, white kids, to the nature of racism. Bananas, right?

What I took away from the article was, “Don’t bother to write LGBTQ characters; people can only identify with straight ones.” I’m 100% sure that is not what Mr. Bacigalupi intended. I also didn’t like the implication that the only reason to have LGBTQ characters is to teach a lesson to straight people. LGBTQ characters do not have to act as symbols of oppression, or be there to educate. They can be regular characters who are queer, just like how in real life there are a lot of teenagers who are queer. It can also be very affirming for LGBTQ teens to see themselves in fiction, not as a “problem storyline” or example of victimization in society but as a cool character in a dystopia. You’re not really normalized until you’re the star of the show, not just the “very special episode.”

I also wouldn’t be looking forward with bated breath to another YA novel about a sexual minority teen who has “an overwhelming sense of loneliness.” For me, that theme has been played out. Speaking of played out, this “a world where heteros are oppressed” plot is so hackneyed in the queer spec fic scene that I’ve seen magazine guidelines saying that they don’t want this plot. But the amazing thing about writing is that if you do it well, anything can become fresh again, so I shouldn’t scoff.

I was puzzled why the readers we’re trying to reach are bigoted young people. A lot of YA readers are very chill and they’re ready to identify with anyone. And LGBTQ readers matter too. But I think Paolo Bacigalupi knows all that, and it unfortunately did not make it into the article. I admit when I first read the piece, I was seriously downcast. Like, here’s a guy who’s on our side, and this is what is running through his mind? But then I realized, this is how the magic happens, we talk it out. I respect Bacigalupi for his writing and for being an ally who wants to draw attention to bigotry. I hope being criticized doesn’t embitter him against exploring these issues in a fuller way.

Probably the reason I took this article so much to heart is that my debut novel (The End) was an apocalyptic YA novel with lesbian, bisexual, and genderqueer main characters. Then I wrote a lesbian dystopian YA novel, about two girls who fall in love as they learn the truth about enslaved clones and join the fight for their freedom. This novel has just been acquired by Bold Strokes Books, and will be published in 2013. (Edit: This novel, Swans & Klons, was indeed published in May 2013.)

Writing dystopian stories is probably my default setting, and for that you can put the blame on John Christopher, who just died last month. Dystopian wasn’t a big theme in YA yet when I was a kid, but what I came across I ate up with a spoon. Particularly Orwell’s 1984 which I read when I was about thirteen, and a lot of John Christopher novels. John Christopher’s amazing Tripods quadrology, Sword of the Spirits trilogy, and standalone novel The Guardians are all socko dystopian YA novels. He never left anything black and white. You could spend three books rooting for the humans to get rid of the evil aliens who ruled planet earth, and then the last chapter wishing that the aliens were still around because they weren’t so bad. If anyone is pining for another novel where teens from each region compete in a contest and are offered up as sacrifices to the ruling elite, then may I direct your attention to The City of Gold and Lead from the Tripods series. I was so heavily influenced by the ending to this series, that I completely ripped it off created a loving homage for the ending of my debut novel The End.

It is sadly true that LGBT-themed dystopian YA is a rare, elusive unicorn. Let me mention a few (technically they’re more post-apocalyptic.)

  • Nightsiders by Sue Isle (Twelfth Planet Press): a really terrific collection of linked short stories set in a climate-changed Australia. My favorite story is about a trans boy who must make a dangerous journey to Melbourne, a city that still has infrastructure, for surgery.
  • Water Seekers by Michelle Rode (Prizm Books): about people wandering around in the desert a generation after a nuclear disaster. The main character is a straight boy but a lesbian-positive storyline is woven into the book.
  • The Culling (Torch Keeper #1) by Steven Dos Santos: upcoming in March 2013 from Flux Books. About a boy in a post-apocalyptic world who is forced to compete in a series of deadly challenges, and falls for a dreamy boy.

Two LGBT dystopian novels that read like YA in terms of characters and writing, but which both have a lot of sex:

I also want to point out that there is a genre of YA novel called “gay utopia,” created by David Levithan in 2003 with Boy Meets Boy. Interestingly, I think Boy Meets Boy fulfills what Bacigalupi wants from LGBTQ dystopian YA, as it subtly critiques the reality we live in and makes you think about whether prejudice would survive without institutional support.

Conversations about YA, and what should be included in it and why, always seem to take place without any input from the young people who are the target audience. YA novels go through many adult gatekeepers (agents, publishers, booksellers, librarians, parents) before they reach their target audience. I love to read book reviews by high school and college-aged readers, and they typically write as well or often better than their adult counterparts. If you’d like to do the same, take a look at the right hand side of my website and you’ll see a list of Young Reviewers. Do QUILTBAG youth live in a dystopia? How do teen readers feel about queer characters? I’d like to hear what teens themselves think, because they’re the only ones who can say.

UPDATES: Because of the responses he got to his original Kirkus article, Paolo Bacigalupi expanded on his original article in a thoughtful way. Yay!

Also, I’ve noticed that many readers come to this page looking for dystopian YA starring characters of color. (I’m not psychic, I know this from the statistics for this page that show Google searches.) I don’t want anyone to go away disappointed, and I started wondering about this myself. So I’m pleased to tell you that the good bloggers at Lee and Low (an awesome independent book publisher that specializes in racial diversity) have just created a list of  dystopias that either have a main character of color or are written by an author of color. Happy reading!