Special guest post from Days Like This author Alison Stewart on YA dystopian novels.

Earlier this month, we brought you a sneak peek at new Australian dystopian novel, Days Like This by Alison Stewart.

We’re now pleased to welcome Alison as a special guest to the blog as she gives us her take on YA books and dystopian fiction.

YA books should try to be riveting. If a book isn’t engaging, its existence is pointless.

But apart from the pure enjoyment factor, YA books can also be a way for readers to explore their world safely, to address fairly confronting truths and to work through what they really do value.

Dystopian and speculative fiction is particularly relevant because it is, as the Australian writer and academic Sylvia Kelso puts it, “the literature of ideas”.

Says another Australian writer, Kim Westwood: “There is a terrible lot of poetry in devastation. Those big themes we deal with in little ways every day can be interrogated really well in books slightly removed from reality.”

Some people sneer at dystopian fiction. I’m not sure why. Look at the great dystopian literature that examines important themes like the use of technology to control us, materialism, the sanctity of life, exploitation of the powerless and so on. Books like George Orwell’s Big Brother, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. And more recently, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a finalist in the 2005 Man Booker Prize.

Not that I would try to compare my book with these but the idea is the same – to encourage readers to look outside their world into a future whose course we do still have the power to influence.

The difference between YA and adult dystopia is that adult dystopia often has a dark outcome whereas YA dystopia favours the upbeat ending. I lean towards the optimistic. There’s nothing wrong with heavy themes but let’s not forget we’re the number one species for a reason – we’re adaptable!

Days Like This is set in a future city of Sydney. While the rest of the world struggles to deal with global warming, catastrophic weather, famine and social upheaval, the sinister Committee takes control of the city. As desperate people needing food, water and shelter pour in, the Committee fortifies the city, enforces rigid rules and uses its security forces to turn out those without wealth or connections.

Lily, the narrator, is lucky. With her twin Daniel, younger sister Alice and parents, she is allowed to stay within the Wall but the siblings soon wonder how lucky they really are.

Ever-increasing rules mean Lily, Daniel and Alice are imprisoned in their house and their parents become increasingly strange. When Daniel disappears just before his seventeenth birthday, Lily, isolated and lonely, knows she is in danger. She has to escape but what is out beyond the walls and will she survive?

Days Like This explores the ultimate alienation – when a society implodes right down to the point that parents forget to care for their own offspring. And then, more critically, how those offspring learn to cope.

This is not meant to be not a bleak novel but one of hope and redemption. Despite the confronting disintegration of a familiar world, I hope it tells us that there is room for a compassionate society that values decency and integrity. The story reflects my deep-held belief in peoples’ essential humanity.

And I hope the book will challenge readers to examine what they really value. Do they value a sense of historic and literal place, the natural environment and the dignity of the individual or would they prefer a world that satisfies them only materially?

Days Like This has some themes consistent with dystopian fiction. A critical theme is the rise of the individual, combined with the collapse of community. In Days Like This, people’s dismissal of global warming leads to dramatically diminished resources and a deeply selfish world. This savage individuality finds form in the pursuit of power at the expense of community and is taken to extremes in the manipulation of people to serve the desires of a few. 

Another important theme is class and age warfare. With money comes power. Age brings power. The retention of power must be at the expense of someone; in this case, young people and the poor.

Then there’s materialism. Our society tells us that only things will make us happy. This belief leads people to sacrifice family and community.

And finally, there’s the search for immortality. Is it immoral to try and dramatically extend life? Ethicists have used strong words about the selfishness of the endeavour. “It is evil to focus energy on trying to live longer than 80 years when many poor people now don’t live past 40,” says Audrey Chapman, director of science and human rights at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Others foresee a dangerous future where overpopulation leads to draconian rules about childbearing, and where only a favoured few are allowed to live a second century. Robert Pollack, director of science and religion studies at Columbia University, offers the reminder that one of Hitler’s favourite slogans was: “Politics is applied biology.”

Some say that to destroy death would be to destroy our own humanity. Not all agree. Says Rabbi Neil Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary: “God is life itself, and we are not only justified, but we are obligated to do everything we can to extend life.”

So I hope Days Like This offers not just a good story but an opportunity to think about the kind of world we want.

Thanks Alison. Days Like This is published on 1 August 2011. 

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