Over the weekend, I engaged in an Important Debate on goodreads.com when fantasy writer Jay Kristoff posted the following status update:
Calling your book a dystopian when it’s actually just a romance with dirty windows is kinda like lying.
This post isn’t meant to call out Jay in particular. But I think that the core question he raises is an important one, particularly within the sphere of YA.
In the ensuing argument, several passionate debaters stepped in to complain that they, too, had been surprised by romantic content in books that had been touted as dystopian novels by publishers and bookstores. They favored a label more like “dystopian romance,” which might warn them in advance of a high proportion of romantic stuff. I sympathize that it’s difficult to find books to one’s tastes, and that publishers and bookstores often don’t make this process any easier.
What’s more, I also despise the publishing practice of labeling any young adult science fiction work “dystopian.” One of my first articles here at the Academy was one delineating the differences between dystopic and post-apocalyptic literature. I know that my standards for definition of these terms are a bit higher than they are for some readers–a “pear-shaped” society filled with corruption isn’t enough for me. I prefer that the term only be used for fictional worlds that are outwardly utopic (either through scientific or political means) but whose perfection hides a sinister interior. In my eyes, futuristic worlds that simply suck are just part and parcel of the broader category of “science fiction.” I’ve seen many YA works mislabeled in this way–Anna Sheehan’s A Long Long Sleep was one that wholly lacked any dystopian worldbuilding but was still saddled with that label by its publishers.
What’s more, I’m not keen on giving a pass to books with bad worldbuilding. If one complaint about these so-called “dystopian romances” came up over and over again, it was that their worldbuilding was weak or underdeveloped, a facet which these readers took as evidence that the authors simply intended the dystopian society to be a contrivance meant to keep young lovers apart. I’m distracted by poor worldbuilding–that’s why Sean and I decided to include a “viability rating” on all of our reviews. However, I don’t think that a science fiction novel with bad worldbuilding is “not science fiction.” Instead, it’s simply “a sci-fi novel with bad worldbuilding.”
There are several reasons why I’m reluctant, however, to take away the dystopian badges from authors like Lauren Oliver and Ally Condie–writers whose widely celebrated YA dystopian novels were high on the romance but low on the sci-fi plausibility scale. First, even under my rather pedantic definition of “dystopian,” both the worlds of Matched and Delirium fit the bill. These aren’t just societies gone pear-shaped, or bad places in the future. They are, in fact, worlds where the ruling social class made hard decisions in order to exert absolute social control. Outwardly, both novels present worlds that are Utopic; Matched presents the picture of a perfect suburbia; Delirium‘s is a world without crime or mental illness. Though these settings are undoubtedly utilized to up the emotional ante for our young heroines as they fall in love, they do also contain subtle social commentary. What price are we willing to pay to live in a world that is idyllic and peaceful? Is it good to give up free will, art, or labile emotions in exchange for apparent perfection? Perhaps for some readers, these themes are too understated; perhaps they feel the social criticism takes a backseat to the romance to these novels’ detriments. But these aspects are certainly present enough to justify the “dystopian” label. And, after all, classic dystopian works have often heavily featured romance, too. The connection between Julia and Winston in 1984 provides the incitement for the entire plot.
My second reason for resisting this labeling is a bit more complex–and a whole lot more political. I worry about the sci-fi world’s still-violent reaction to girl cooties in literature, particularly as it pertains to just about the entirety of young adult science fiction (or, as marketing departments would call it, “dystopian YA”). It’s a genre largely created by women and consumed by girls. And it’s been remarkably successful; I think the existence of the Intergalactic Academy and the steady flood of YA speculative works we’ve reviewed are a testament to the growing power of young adult science fiction as a genre. Publishers marketplace shows that YA sci-fi writers are making money; the New York Times bestseller lists regularly feature YA sci-fi writers like Veronica Roth and Beth Revis. It’s undeniable that these YA sci-fi works are different from what’s currently popular in adult sci-fi. Novels tend to be character-driven and fast-paced. The science, when present, is rarely very hard. And it’s likewise rare to read works of YA sci-fi where romance doesn’t at least come into play.
But as Debra Doyle wrote in the above-linked girl cooties rant, including romance in SF has always been a dangerous choice:
We start by positing the existence of a body of sf readers and writers (numerically perhaps fairly small, but nevertheless extremely vocal) who are deathly afraid of getting girl cooties. “Hard sf” is their science fiction of choice, because it has the fewest girl cooties of any of the sf subgenres. No subjectivity, no mushy bits, none of that messy relationship stuff getting in the way of the classic sf values of hardness and rigor (and no, I don’t think the elevation of those particular values is coincidental.) Admixtures from other genres are allowed provided that the secondary genre also provides the reader with a low-cootie environment. Westerns don’t have girl cooties, for example, and neither do technothrillers. Men’s action-adventure is about as cootie-free as it’s possible to get. And so on.
Romance, on the other hand, is absolutely crawling with girl cooties, and any sf which contains, or appears to contain, romance elements is going to be viewed with alarm by this set of readers. It’s often possible to offset the presence of girl cooties by including a sufficient number of explosions and fistfights and rivetty bits, or (in cases where even violence and rivets aren’t enough) by the inclusion of an appendix full of knotty-looking equations — but the readers are ever-vigilant and you can’t fool them forever. The incorporation of romantic elements into a work of sf, therefore, has to be done with considerable care, not to say deviousness.
It’s not difficult to find lady speculative fiction authors who have dealt with dismissals due to the apparent girl cootie-ness of their work. On a post about SF author Judith Tarr’s experiences dealing with gendered dismissals of her work (which is worth a read in itself), fantasy writer NK Jemisin wrote:
The trend of using classification as a way to dismiss “undesirable” work continues [ . . . ] a lot of readers wrestle with the fact that there’s romantic content [in my work]. The romance is superfluous to the plot, but because it’s there, I’ve seen any number of epic fantasy fans vehemently insist that my books should not be part of the epic fantasy canon (::looks heavenward::) and should instead be dismissed as bodice-rippers. Which tells me that these people haven’t read any bodice-rippers, for one — but it also tells me that some readers have a vested interest in thinking of their preferred genre as a “manly” one, and defending it against the encroachment of Cootiedom at all costs. Somehow, despite Le Guin and Friedman and Rawn and Elliott and all the other bestselling women, they’ve claimed it as a genre for men.
Then again, I’ve seen those women’s books dismissed as bodice-rippers too, even when they contain no romance — so it’s nice to be in good company.
I find it interesting that dismissals of these works as not-truly speculative fiction focus solely on romantic content. Works with equivalently sketchy worldbuilding, but with a focus on action–”sufficient number of explosions and fistfights and rivetty bits” as Debra Doyle writes–have their sci-fi cred questioned much less frequently. This, despite the fact explosions are no more inherently science fictional than kissing. I’ve yet to see any goodreads status updates calling for a new subgenre called “action dystopian.”
You might suggest that this is because action has a long history within sci-fi. Patrick Ness’s choice, for example, to write a boy’s picaresque adventure complete with lovable hound in The Knife of Never Letting Go was not a particularly unusual one in science fiction. But sci-fi has a long history of embracing romance, too. As a reader who grew up reading soft-SF of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, I never blink at romance-oriented plotlines in young adult sci-fi. After all, McCaffrey’s Brainship books were plenty romantic, as were the works of Lois McMaster Bujold and CJ Cherryh. Romance is, after all, an important part of the human experience–particularly the human adolescent experience. It seems odd to cordon those works off from the rest of science fiction, particularly now, after a tradition of romance-related plotting in sci-fi has already been established.
I’m not sure that the suggestion of shelving any dystopian with a romance-centric plot is good for romance readers, either. There already exists a genre called “SF romance,” and its tropes and traditions are well-established. Books like Matched are not written with these readers in mind and are not particularly likely to satisfy these readers any more than Anne McCaffrey’s novels were. It’s not as if “romance” is–or should be–a dumping ground for any sufficiently mushy book. It’s a genre in its own right, and dismissing any romance-heavy work as a “mere” bodice-ripper does an injustice to bodice-rippers and the readers who love them.
I’m also highly aware of the fact that it’s female sci-fi writers particularly who face increased scrutiny of the genre-cred of their work. Both Mike Mullin’s Ashfall and Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go heavily feature romance–but I’ve yet to hear the reading public dismiss them as romance writers. I can’t help but fear that what has already happened in literary fiction could easily happen in YA–where books by men are taken as the unmarked science fictional default, read and reviewed widely by readers of both genders, while books by women are dismissed as chick-lit, romance, frippery. This, despite the fact that the works are in content very similar. Will women who write YA sci-fi have to try twice as hard to justify their genre credentials? Will they have to squeeze in an explosion to counterbalance every kiss lest their work not be seen as worthy of meriting intergender appeal?
Or has the above already occurred? It’s not as if young adult science fiction has merited serious widespread consideration among adult SF fans despite the profitability, popularity, and flat-out stellar quality of many of these works. Might it be because they’re too romance-heavy, character-driven, and ultimately romantic?
I’m not sure what the answers are. While again, I understand on a reader-level the desire to have more clearly delineated subgenres, the suggestion that “dystopian” literature be split into “dystopian romance” and “regular” dystopian seems to me overly gendered. Though likely unintentional, it’s difficult for me to read this as separate from a continued effort to diminish the writing and experiences of women and girls through false categorization (something Joanna Russ discusses at length in her integral volume on the sexism of the literary world, How to Suppress Women’s Writing) and the privileging of one set of experiences over another. For the time being, at least, I intend to continue calling a dystopia a dystopia–whether the main characters fall in love or not.