In Defense of Dystopias (and Vampires …)

dystopiaWhile vampires and dystopias are probably the most overdone areas of young adult fiction today, there is still space on the bookshelves for an author who does something new with these genres, particularly if it’s something profound that speaks to the nature of who we are as individuals, and our roles within a culture. The first book in Julie Kagawa’sBlood of Eden” trilogy, The Immortal Rules, for example, fits this bill. Kagawa’s plotting is intricate, her characterization rich. However, what makes the novel stand out in an overcrowded marketplace are the themes with which she deals: racism, bigotry, and religious zealotry. She uses the now-familiar conceits of vampires and dystopia as an accessible entry-point for her readers, who may not consciously recognize her underlying themes while reading.

Rather than standing on a soapbox and writing didactically about prejudice and intolerance, Kagawa turns the tables by creating a caste system of humans, some serving their vampire masters and some seeking to survive on their own in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The heroine, Allison Sekemoto, starts out as a scavenger trying to survive on her own. On the brink of death after a monster attack, she chooses to become a vampire. She thus has to face being the “other” that she hates. Her new existence tests everything she knows about what makes her truly human.

Allison struggles to retain the core of her humanity in the face of what she is becoming. Her struggles intensify when she teams up with a crew of religious zealots and is forced to pass herself off as a human. Naturally, one of the main targets for religious intolerance is vampirism and her new friends hold these views with a vengeance. Nevertheless, she is drawn to Zeke, the leader’s son, and the worst person for her to form an attachment to because of his prejudices against vampires ingrained by his father. As the story unfolds, both characters come to question everything they’ve been taught about the nature of identity and the extent to which one’s culture and background determine who one ultimately allows oneself to become.

What Kagawa is really talking about are the fundamental questions of discovering one’s identity and remaining true to one’s ideals despite external circumstances beyond our control. The use of racial metaphors – Allison is an Asian-American and Zeke is an ultra-religious Caucasian – emphasize the themes of the book in a subtle manner. The way Kagawa manipulates the dystopian world and its populations of monsters (human and otherwise) illustrates how fantastical fictional settings can serve as an accessible entry point for younger readers to engage with deeper questions about the nature of humanity.

Alex London recently achieved a similar effect in his futuristic dystopian YA novel, Proxy. Like Kagawa, he uses his dystopian setting as an entertainingly accessible allegory to consider questions of prejudice and victimization that derive from our own world. And like Kagawa, his hero is a minority character: a homosexual African-American boy. The fact of his minority status as it relates to our world is secondary to the challenges he faces in his own fictional world, but it is still there on the page. Astute readers will relate it back to the overall themes of the book (prejudice, bullying, and intolerance) to much the same effect as Kagawa creates with her Asian-American heroine.

An examination of books like these illustrates that dystopia should never be declared “dead” in the market, and perhaps neither should vampire stories. As long as the dystopian and vampiric elements are incidental to a story that resonates with deeper themes, the book can be an important contribution to the literature. The advantage of using fictional worlds and species to support plots such as Kagawa’s and London’s is that this approach is less overtly threatening, less overtly didactic, and thus more accessible to younger readers.