and I have an expression, "killing the baby." For us it means that moment when an interesting thought experiment ceases to be interesting because there is a clear moral choice. (It comes from the moment in Lois Lowry's The Giver
when, in my opinion, no reader can continue to think that there's a moral option in not destroying the protagonist's society. Although I have definitely learned over years of teaching the book that for many students that moral decision comes much earlier. Never seems to come later, though.)
One of the things I find frustrating about most dystopian novels is that, well, they are clearly dystopian. We don't have a word for Potential Utopia, Sort of Dystopia, Chetzi-Chetzi Dystopia/Utopia. By definition they are Bad Places™.
Yet for me, they're more interesting, not just as philosophical thought experiments, but both aesthetically and viscerally as stories
, if it's more complicated than that. I don't want the dystopia to hold my hand and show me why a certain societal structure is wrong, I want the story to make both me and the story's own protagonists think about trade-offs. Is the society in The Giver one that has benefits that might offset its costs? Is the Empire really that much worse than the decadent final days of the Old Republic?
Of course usually the answer to these questions are easy. Usually there is some disastrously evil act the dystopian society participates in: infanticide, having a comically ugly evil dictator, secret slavery. But all this disastrous evil does is prevent us from having to consider the pros and cons of the two structures. All it does is make reading too easy.
I've talked about this before when I addressed my feelings about the difference between The Hunger Games the novel and The Hunger Games trilogy
, how after book one I still thought the trilogy might be the dystopia I had been waiting for, the one that shows contemporary American society's dark mirror without
requiring a cackling evil overlord.
Can you think of any dystopian societies where it's not that cut and dried? Ones where, ultimately, there's not a correct moral answer? And are any of them created for young audiences?
(What I think might come closest that I can think of is The True Meaning of Smekday
, which isn't a dystopia at all, it's an alien invasion story. But within that alien invasion, there are constant reminders that what is the right versus wrong way to run a society is complicated. But alien invasion stories have their own genre conventions, and finding complication in your relationship to the other is, well. It was thinking about Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," that made make this post, but now I am inclined to think about her "The Word for World Is Forest" as an example of the alien-is-us trope. My first exposure to it was probably Enemy Mine
. It's different, is what I am saying.)