So I read Matched recently. There’s been a fair amount of hype surrounding it, and a fair amount of reaction to the hype. I had decided to read it, so I could say I had, but I knew it was in the dystopia genre and I am very Done with that group of books. Anyway, I read Matched and…I liked it. (That’s the surprise.) It’s not my favorite book–actually it probably won’t even make it onto my favorite books of 2011–but neither did I close it and go, “Well THAT was a waste of time.”
See, my major problem with the current crop of dystopias, besides the fact that they all seem to play out in exactly the same way, is that they don’t spend enough time setting up the world. I’m going to pick on Birthmarked for a minute here, because it was the last one I read, but believe me, it’s not alone. Okay, so we have a society where most people live outside the Enclave and are pretty badly off and manage to scrape by somehow. On top of this, there’s a quota of children who are taken from their parents at birth and given to the Enclave, where life is better, there’s more food, etc. Our narrator, Gaia, is supposed to be a pretty sharp girl, but it takes her a significant length of the narrative to realize that the Enclave is really kind of evil. I could have told you that on page two. The problem is, when it’s so obvious that your government/society/dictator/general power structure does not have its people’s best interests at heart, several things happen. Your narrator starts to look a bit dumb for not figuring it out sooner, and the reader starts to wonder why, if things are this bad, anyone would want to be a part of the society.
Now one way to deal with this problem is to make it very clear that there’s not a lot of choice involved. I’ve only read the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy (I know, I know) but I think Collins does a great job of this. Everyone knows that things are bad, but they don’t have a lot of options, and they don’t quite know just how bad it is. This works for me.
Another option is to go the route Pam Bachorz did in Candor–to have your narrator/main character perfectly aware of how bad things are under the surface, but to have them playing along to reasons of their own. In this world, things look great on the surface, and most of the characters think they are; it’s only Oscar who really knows just how twisted his town is.
Matched is a little different. Here we have a Society where everything is regulated, but people are guaranteed work, and food, and a long, healthy life. Most diseases have been overcome. Even though your marriage is arranged, most of the couples in the book seem quite happy. What Ally Condie gets really, really right here is the seeming-good. Given the world she describes, I can totally see why people would not want to go against the Officials; it’s not just the threat of retaliation, it’s that you have so much to lose. For me, I find that so much more believable than the normal “My neighbor got shot last night, but that’s okay!” version.
That may be because I can’t escape from the history of the word ‘dystopia.’ Despite what Wikipedia says, it’s not simply a futuristic, repressive society. In my opinion, it’s the opposite of a utopia, but an opposite that looks like what it is not. Its surface appearance should be that of a perfect society, with whatever flaws it holds hidden underneath. To make the flaws too apparent from the beginning undermines the narrative and takes its power away.
Please feel free to violently disagree with me–I’d like to hear your thoughts.