A Recipe for Dystopia
Having dethroned The Angler’s resident Literature writer from her bookish chaise longue, I declare you all under the rule of
my iron fist. The Divergent film is set to hit cinemas this month, and we are midway through The Hunger Games film
adaptations: in the young-adult genre (if you insist on calling it a genre), I believe it safe to say dystopia is trending, and not
just on Twitter. In that vein, I am bringing my personal one-issue regime to The Angler’s literary feature.
Dystopias are, of course, not a twenty-first century phenomenon, and most certainly not exclusive to swooning sixteen-year-olds. So let us pop into the TARDIS and extend our reach to the stars above — or rather, to an age when youngadult novels were not filled with perspiring — sorry, sparkly mythical creatures. Let us travel back twenty-two years ago.
In 1992, P.D. James published The Children of Men, which, for the comic fans among us, raises a dilemma similar to Y: The Last Man (or so I am told). It is 2021 — told you the TARDIS would come in handy — and it has been over twenty-five years since the last child was born on Earth. Britain is ruled by the Warden of England, who conveniently happens to be the cousin of our main character, Theodore “Theo” Faron. On his fiftieth birthday, Faron begins a journal, claiming not to write for posterity or alien life, yet launching into the history of global infertility. He carves lines marking off the different groups, as there always are in dystopia, and chronicles his adventures with a ragtag group of budding rebels. Many contemporary dystopias share elements with Faron’s story. I present you with a comprehensive guide to making the best of your own, should you ever find yourself in one.
Despot that I am, in the rest of this article I blatantly spoil some twists in The Children of Men, although I have attempted to keep the revelations to a minimum. There are also one or two very mild spoilers for The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken, but if you have brains you will be able to predict them anyway. Point is you have been warned.
1 quick-witted protagonist
Virtually any story will benefit from a wisecracking band of misfits (more on that later), but more importantly, there should be someone at the wheel (more on that later too), making the tough decisions and telling the readers which group they should root for. Usually, the protagonist is or grows into the role of the leader. In The Children of Men the wisecrackers’ dependence on Faron is evident from their first approaching him. Without him, they have no access to the Warden. Without The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, her little sister would have been swept away to the Games. Without Sam Temple, the whole cast of Michael Grant’s Gone series would have lost their one ray of hope — literally and figuratively.
Though some will value brains over guts, instinct is often enough for the protagonist to jump at the call and take initiative. Faron may be reluctant at first, but needs little convincing to come knocking on his cousin’s door. After that, he is the one to approach the aforementioned band of misfits, not viceversa.
The protagonist gets bonus points for sarcasm. As Miriam, one of Faron’s new allies, points out: “We know you’re clever and sarcasm is your way of showing us just how clever” (145). For leaders, cleverness is key. If things get particularly bleak, spice that cleverness up with a dash of light-hearted wit, and soon the best will emerge from any situation. (Or, depending on where you rank on the sliding scale of cynicism, the worst, in which case you have dibs on “I told you so”.)
The main advantage of being your own rebel group’s leader is the fact that, though you will need to rise to the most daunting of challenges, in most cases you will make it out alive and fairly unscathed. The same cannot be said for your companions (though it probably can for your love interest). So let us move on to those companions.
3 to 4 society misfits
You have to be one hell of an excellent writer to make a solitary (wo)man’s actions compelling. The best way to spruce up any dull situation, such as the inevitable road trip, is by giving your protagonist (or yourself, in case you are in the story — not composing it) a few companions. Three buddies are manageable, but ideally you have a fiveman band, if only because it will earn you an entry on TV Tropes. The Children of Men actually begins with a five-man band before Theo butts in as a pseudo-sixth ranger, contesting for the leading position. (Numbers start dwindling soon enough, so not to worry about how ill “six” compares to “five”. We are not here to ponder the beauty of odd numbers.)
There are multiple ways to turn a ragtag group of under-equipped humans (or humanoids, depending on whether you have been able to secure otherworldly “homeboys”) into a loveable Crew with a capital C, but my personal favourite has to be witty banter. Seriously, toss me some snark and I am on board.
Further, not just anyone can join your Crew. Everyone needs to be useful or got rid of. The bombs have been placed and the red buttons pushed: sensible thirty-something (with the glittering-eyes enthusiasm of a fourteen-year-old) Gascoigne has fulfilled his role. With nothing left to add to the rebellious movement, he is the character you forget about in a radio play because he hovers in the background, lips pressed shut. In short, he has to go.
Warning: skip this paragraph if you want to avoid the worst of spoilers. Or take Miriam, a former midwife. Not the ideal occupation in a childless world, but oh-so handy when — shocker — the love interest turns out to be pregnant! (This is the plot twist that occasions rolling thunder and cloud-breaking lighting.) In need of some guidance? Luke is there to fulfil your spiritual needs. (And your sexual, but let’s not go there.)
To complete the picture, you will need someone to clash with. Whether that person turns out to be your most loyal companion or a betraying coward depends on how poorly you have chosen or who you have been unlucky enough to pick up on the road. An excellent example of the former appears in Alexandra Bracken’s The Darkest Minds, wherein smart-arse “Chubs” brazenly suggests ditching the main character on multiple occasions, yet he never really sells her out. The latter is embodied by Rolf in our main book: when he discovers his wife has cheated on him, he hardly hesitates to perform a “face-heel turn”. Not that he did not have his head turned to profile throughout the whole story — at least if we are to believe Theo Faron.
I would elaborate on the love interest as well, for s/he has many uses in any dystopian adventure, but I fear I have dramatically exceeded my page count for this issue already, and we are still a far way from overthrowing the government. Besides, any good dystopian story knows that overthrowing world-threatening evil is more important than kissing scenes. Yes, really.
1 corrupt government
Now that our heroes have gathered, it is high time we face the biggest threat. And because governments can never do anything right, there tends to be little debate on whom is to blame. The government has the worst solution for every problem. Kids develop freaky powers or die? Send the live ones to work camps (The Darkest Minds). Consider love a disease? Develop a cure (Delirium by Lauren Oliver). Or, to return to The Children of Men, when your society is ageing like nobody’s business, encourage group suicides for the elderly.
Oftentimes, the government will be embodied in one person, like President Snow in The Hunger Games or the Warden of England. Other than that, you might run in to a handful of nameless grunts (of the unimportant kind — see Maj’s article, Ode to Names). In short, the government can be as peripheral as you like, so long as it is an Obvious Evil. This is why my motivations for moving to the literary department of The Angler shall remain shrouded in mystery.
1 to 2 antagonising groups
Exactly because the government leans towards elusiveness, you can hardly go wrong with some more immediate threats. In The Children of Men, this position is filled by the so-called Omega generation. As the last generation to be born, they have no hope for the future. They have also been pampered to death. The Omegas decide. The Omegas are never opposed. It matters not how violent they become, and Faron and friends get a taste of this cruelty on their road trip (in case you were wondering — we will be getting to the road trip soon enough). Although conquering the Omegas is never the Crew’s main goal, they are a hurdle that cannot be overcome without scraped knees, so to speak.
Other than acting as an obstacle, these antagonists push secrets to the surface. If you are hoping to get to know your pals a little better, now is the time. This is true in The Children of Men — horrible secrets are revealed, dramatically altering the story’s course — and seen, too, in The Darkest Minds, to name an example — the main character is forced to reveal her biggest secret to her companions to avoid capture. In a striking resemblance to the “clash character”, an encounter with this enemy group can go in two ways: it tightens the Crew’s bond, or it provides the Crew with a reason to fall apart. To stick with our examples, The Darkest Minds illustrates the former, whereas the latter is exhibited in The Children of Men. Interestingly, clash character Rolf’s betrayal results from this enemy encounter. So be on your guard: your group might rise to a higher plane of BFF-ness, or you might end up scorching your feet. And anyone who has had the experience will know moving forward on burned feet hurts like hell.
Let us evaluate, shall we? After laying the foundations for an adventure of epic proportions, we have a Crew with a leader, a corrupt government, and some other interfering party. Chances are the Crew must flee someplace for sanctuary, as in The Darkest Minds. So if you dig road trips, this is why you might love dystopia. The Children of Men features a similar trip with destination: safety. As most dystopian road-trip vehicles do not survive the journey, maybe don’t take your Spyker.
Basically, since the government can handle itself (but not the country), all you have to do is squish your Crew into a vehicle, whether it is the train leading to the Capitol (The Hunger Games) or three cars to a remote forest (The Children of Men). Expect a few obstacles on the way, like spilling a bottle of spicy, antagonistic sauce into the blend. Expect betrayal. Expect the heart-wrenching, preferably gruesome loss of a Crew member. Then you are pretty much set should you ever find yourself in futuristic America (because, for some reason, most dystopias take place in the USA). Oh, and always bring your towel.
By Valerie Brentjes
James, P.D. The Children of Men, London: BCA, 1992