I recently started reading Neal Shusterman’s Unwind, a book that seems to have gotten almost universal praise from everybody who read it. I couldn’t finish it – in fact I lost interest sixty pages in, which is fast even for me.
My problem was that the premise felt as though it had been grafted inexpertly to a plot structure that didn’t suit it. In case you aren’t aware, the book is set in a future society where ‘unwinding’ unwanted teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18 is a common and near-universally accepted practice. Being unwound involves being taken apart piece-by-piece and having your organs (and other body parts) donated to those in need, a process which is not seen as killing the person it’s being done to in the book’s world.
If that last point sounds a bit unlikely…well, it is. I also found it extremely difficult to believe that unwinding could ever become such an accepted part of any society, and you can bet my incredulity wasn’t helped by the ‘explanation’ given at the beginning of the book. (Apparently unwinding is an alternative to abortion – yeah, I don’t know either.)
Putting all of that aside, however, the premise is an emotional goldmine. Keep in mind that an unwind order doesn’t come from some shadowy, arbitrary government – it comes from a person’s parents. The book’s opening chapter involves one of the protagonists discovering his unwind order before his parents have told him about it, which prompts him to get a kind of petty revenge by bringing his mother flowers unexpectedly and happily informing his father that he might be able to bring his grades up ‘by the end of the semester’.
I know, right? Ouch. I was honestly expecting the book to be difficult to read after that opening…until the viewpoint changed to the second main character. And then the third. And then Shusterman literally crashes them all together in order to kick-start the ‘run away, start rebellion’ formula and that’s about where I stopped reading.
Why is it that the default plot for a lot of dystopian novels seems to involve the characters making a mad dash away from the most interesting aspects of their imagined society? For me the appeal of the dystopian genre lies in seeing how people cope internally with whatever odd or harrowing situation the author has made them live through.
Uglies is another example. The main character has a fairly mundane concern – ‘Does my friend like me the same way I like him?’ – made fresh and interesting by the odd way her society divides people into ‘Uglies’ and ‘Pretties’. That premise is not primarily concerned with the Uglies/Pretties divide or with any of the book’s futuristic aspects, but is instead merely shaped by them. I didn’t like Uglies either, but I was still intrigued enough to pick it up because I wanted to see what it would be like to live in a world that so explicitly divided people based on how they look…and then the rebellion plot started and I lost interest.
I’m not saying that that kind of story can never work, only that it often feels like the laziest option available. It basically involves taking a world where people believe things that the readers finds strange or disturbing and then choosing to focus on a character who may as well have been plucked from somewhere in America or Britain in the year 2000. The ‘rebellion’ character will almost always want to alter their society so that it becomes our own (‘our’ referring to the intended readership). If they live in a society which is structured along extremely unfair economic lines, they will want to correct the situation according to values that would be instantly familiar to anybody reading the book regardless of whether those values could reasonably exist in that historical context. This makes about as much sense as writing a work of historical fiction where a character in the early Byzantine Empire is passionately in favour of laissez-faire capitalism as it is conceived of today.
Obviously, this isn’t always a bad thing. In Unwind it actually does work because the book’s society is virtually identical to our own except in one or two major areas…although that does lead one right back to the credibility problem I mentioned at the beginning of this post. However, the more strange or unfamiliar your society is, the less sense it makes for it to produce people who think exactly like your average American teenager.
I may have criticised The Declaration for a lot of things, but I have to give it credit for (almost) sidestepping the issue I’m talking about here. The Surpluses in that book have bought into their society’s ideology so completely that most of them would never want their situation to be improved. That parenthetical ‘almost’ unfortunately becomes necessary as soon as you stop to consider two things: the ones perpetuating the ideology in its most ruthless form don’t believe it, turning them into villains rather than heroes who may as well be from our world, and the requisite Underground Rebellion wants to end the Surplus system, stop the use of Longevity drugs and…well, turn the clock back to the year 2000.
How often does this ever happen in real life? How many people ever truly rebel, physically or mentally, against the unfair or prejudiced or nonsensical rules keeping them oppressed? Hell, how many people even notice them? We do not live our lives preoccupied by the worst aspects of our world. We’re too busy thinking about other things, more immediate things, to spare much thought for the structure of whatever society or culture we find ourselves in. Too often in fiction the situation is reversed and anybody can and should drop everything in their life in order to take a shot at changing the world. Rarely if ever are we given a character who is too entangled in their family or in their job to be able to run off and join the rebellion. Almost never are we given a character who just doesn’t care about fighting The Man and only wants to improve things in some small way for themselves.
Why is that? It couldn’t be that those stories are boring, because they’re the ones people are telling every day in other genres – and, as I’ve already pointed out, they have the potential to be all the more interesting and affecting if they take place in the harsh world of a dystopia.