So, the modern crop of YA dystopians tend to explore a lot of different themes. (No, wait, don’t run away! I’m not complaining about YA this time, I swear.) Most often it’s things like societal collapse and oppression (The Hunger Games books), the destruction of the environment (Wither, The Water Wars, too many others to count) and scientific hubris. Those themes and issues have practically become synonymous with ‘dystopian’ in recent years. The other big one is class – fictional dystopian societies tend to be heavily stratified based on wealth, possession of scarce resources or, more rarely, on personal merit.
Generally speaking, I don’t think these kinds of stories are done well in science fiction. Near-future class-based societies tend to be ridiculously organised, to the point where each social class will often have its own official name. To me, this would be like if people in the real world got a passport that had ‘Working Class’ or ‘Lower Middle Class’ printed across the top; it’s just a little too neat and convenient.
But anyway, that’s not what I wanted to write about. YA dystopians also tend to feature romance subplots, in which it is fairly common for the two characters involved to come from different social ‘levels’. This accomplishes two things, if done right: it adds immediate tension to the relationship, and it lets the reader see more of the fictional society than they would have if both characters had identical backgrounds. Note that I said ‘if done right’ – there are a lot of traps you can fall into when you’re writing this kind of story, and too many authors blunder straight into every single one of them.
Rather than going with a genre title as an example, I’ll use E.M. Forster’s Maurice, a bona fide literary classic. What makes this example particularly bad is that it’s ostensibly about the strictures places on people by society, yet it ends up recapitulating the classist assumptions that it’s supposedly criticising.
Maurice is possibly more famous for its publication history than for anything in the novel itself. Forster started it in 1913, but shelved it because it he was afraid it would prove too controversial. His fears were probably well-founded, given that readers at the time most likely would have reacted badly to a novel about gay men that has a happy ending (the very idea). It was eventually published in 1971, after his death. (Note that this is probably the only case where I’m entirely comfortable with an author’s shelved work being published posthumously. Unlike the situation with J.D. Salinger, Forster wanted to published Maurice but felt that he wasn’t able to.)
The novel opens just as Maurice Hall, the main character, is fourteen years old. On his last day at a small private boarding school, a teacher attempts to explain sex to him. Maurice comes away from this slightly confused and feeling that the teacher has probably withheld something from him. (Incidentally, I’m not sure which is more difficult to take seriously today: the idea that a teacher would be allowed to give an impromptu sex education lesson one-to-one on a deserted beach, or the idea that any fourteen year old boy would need such things to be explained with diagrams.) He arrives home for the holidays later that day, only to discover that George, the garden-boy, was either dismissed or decided to leave at some point during the previous term. At this revelation he bursts into tears, although nobody else in the house thinks to connect the two events.
These opening pages are incredibly skillful in what they leave unsaid. We’re never explicitly told what kind of relationship Maurice and George had until much later, yet all the signs point to them being much closer than they should have been. One of the first things Maurice says to his mother upon arriving home is ‘Where’s George?’, something he repeats twice before she even registers the question. The novel is cleverly subversive of class boundaries well before any of the main characters turn out to be gay (or ‘an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde variety’, as they consistently put it).
Fast forward a few years, and Maurice is in his first term at Cambridge. There he falls in love with
Hugh Grant Clive Durham, whose family is much wealthier than his own.
This is totally how people at my college dress.
Their relationship is entirely platonic (literally; Clive justifies it by quoting from the Symposium), and continues for two years. At that point Clive abruptly realises that he’s attracted to women after all – either that, or he’s just caving to social expectation that he marry and carry on the family line. It’s never made entirely clear. Maurice initially resolves to do the same thing and throws himself into his mundane job as a stockbroker, until he meets Alec Scudder, a young groundsman on Clive’s estate…and this is where things kind of start to fall apart.
Forster is very good at characterisation. Almost everybody in the novel is fully developed by the time it ends, and not always in flattering or straightforward ways. Maurice himself is a bit of a patriarchal dick to his mother and sisters, yet he retains the reader’s sympathy because we know more about him than anybody of the characters who eventually come to dislike him. Alec, by comparison, is given almost no characterisation at all. We know his family background, sort of, we know a little bit about his aspirations (to emigrate to Argentina), and…uh, that’s sort of it. There’s a brief exchange where he mentions that being a servant sucks, and there’s a lone scene where the omniscient narrator focuses on him for a few pages, but apart from that he’s almost indistinguishable from the the homogonous mass of working-class characters going about their lives on the novel’s periphery.
This is despite the fact that he’s supposed to be the fulfillment of the story’s themes. You know, the ones that were set up in that opening chapter with Maurice coming home from school and finding that his friend George has disappeared?
It’s as if Forster, having introduced him as a character, has no real idea what to do with him. In my opinion, that’s the number one mistake that authors make in this kind of story. Don’t introduce two characters of different social standing if you’re only planning on fleshing out one of them – and certainly don’t do it if they’re both supposed to be main characters.
You would think that fantasy and science fiction authors would have an easy way around this, since they’re free to come up with any background they like for their characters, but…well, it doesn’t always work. Actually, I’d say it rarely works.
But that’s going to have to wait until next time, when I’ll talk a bit about Raymond E. Feist, George R.R. Martin and other people who do those things I just mentioned.
So apparently the last book in the series finally has a release date. I honestly thought it would never happen.