Sunday 30 October 2011

Technology, Dystopia and Young Adults

This list has been updated: a newer, expanded version can be found at
17 February, 2017
I was recently asked about the young adult (YA) novels I have been reading as part of my academic work in Children's Literature. To that end, this is a list of the relevant novels  (in no particular order) I have read recently with the briefest of descriptions against each one. The common thread is the incorporation of technology within the novels and this frequently means they portray dystopian visions of a possible future.

There is a range of labels which could be applied to the texts (including, but not limited to, speculative science fiction, science faction, magical realism) but this is not the place for an academic discussion about that or the concept of dystopia. Rather I hope it might be a glimpse of books written in the past decade that are all worth discovering in their own ways.

All of the images link to Amazon where fuller descriptions and reviews can be found (along with the obvious ability to do some shopping!)

Be More Chill - Ned Vizzini (2004)
A teenager ingests a squip - a new organic supercomputer purchased on the black market - which advises him how to behave in order to win the girl of his dreams.
Little Brother - Cory Doctorow (2008)
Set in contemporary San Francisco, the teenager protagonist stands up for civil liberties having been falsely accused of a terrorist offence and plays a game of cat and mouse with the government in which both sides are using technology to their advantage.
iBoy - Kevin Brooks (2010)
An accident leaves the teenage protagonist with an iPhone embedded in his brain but rather than it killing him, he harnesses the iPhone's capabilities.
Dangerous Reality - Malorie Blackman (1999)
The Virtual Mobile Interactive System developed by the hero's mum is the subject of industrial espionage and people's obsession with technology is shown through their actions.
Feed - M T Anderson (2002)
In a dystopian vision of the future, everyone who's anyone is connected to the feed. The typical rich boy/poor girl story follows a teenage couple's relationship when their feeds are hacked.
Hybrids - David Thorpe (2007)
A virus infects humans causing them to fuse with an item of technology they use a lot and the resultant hybrids are feared by the uninfected humans.
Metagame - Sam Landstrom (2010)
Computer gaming becomes a way of life and the players' limits are explored in the virtual world where the winner takes all.
Dot.Robot - Jason Bradbury (2009)
Technologically proficient children are recruited to use the latest technology in a classic tale of good versus evil.
The Game of Sunken Places - M T Anderson (2004)
Two boys visit the mansion of a distant relative and their discovery of a board game leads to an adventure which takes place beyond the confines of the board.
Skinned - Robin Wasserman (2009)
A popular teenage girl is involved in a near fatal traffic accident, and her brain is downloaded and installed into a new body and she has to discover her new identity.
ttyl - Lauren Myracle (2004)
Written entirely in instant messages, the lives and loves of three girls are shown through their conversations over a few weeks.
The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins (2008)
Twenty-four teenagers are selected at random and are placed into a reality TV game in which the winner is the last person alive.
Uglies - Scott Westerfield (2005)
When teenagers reach the age of sixteen they are made Pretty and they are told this is their lives' purpose. Not everyone agrees and this novel follows the story of a girl deciding to follow the rebels.
So yesterday - Scott Westerfield (2004)
This novel explores the world of following fashions and the creation of new trends in contemporary New York.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Twenty-first century implications for the implied author

Imagine the scene: as a teenage reader in 1991 you are particularly taken by a particular contemporary writer’s work. Having diligently paid attention in your library lesson at the start of Year 7, you turn to an encyclopaedia to try and find out more about them. Unsurprisingly, you draw a blank. Where else do you turn? Beyond the briefest of biographical information on the dust jacket or – if you are lucky – a magazine interview with the author that a friend of a friend of your grandparents’ neighbour remembered seeing some time last year, you can find nothing else out about your newest idol. You return to the books, scouring them for clues as to who the author, the implied author is.

Now, bring yourself twenty years forward: back to the present. You are particularly taken by a writer’s work and you sadly reach the final page of the book. As the finished book lays closed on your lap, you take out your smartphone and either google the author’s name or visit the web address printed on the book's back cover. Within seconds, you have accessed articles, interviews, blog posts, tweets, and Facebook pages which can give you a CSI Cambridge-like forensic insight into your newest idol. The book falls from your lap; you know who the author is, the real author, and their feelings about and motivations behind their writing.

In an age when books live beyond the page and authors are in a position to interact directly – both out of choice and necessity – with their readership through new media, new opportunities are afforded the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the text as texts’ boundaries and authors’ roles become less clearly defined. I believe that the changing concept of the implied author (and the question of for how much longer it can remain a valid concept through the real author’s increasing use of epitextual material) make consideration of an author’s intentions important.

For example, in Ned Vizzini’s Be More Chill (2004), the protagonist buys and ingests a black market 'squip'. This is a piece of nanotechnology, a quantum computer which, he is told, will help him achieve his aim of finding a girl friend by telling him what to do and how to behave. It is sold to him as a ‘cool pill’. The implant fails and the novel’s conclusion is ambiguous, but the impression the reader is left with is that messing with nature is not cool. However, in an interview reproduced on Vizzini’s website, he says that ‘in high school I would have tried out a squip. I was a pretty big dork. I would’ve tried almost anything’, and his FAQ says that as a teenager he was aware of ‘so many products advertised around me that promised to make people cool’. While he identifies recognisable social concerns of the stereotypical teenager in his novel, these admissions (and his collection of articles relating to implanted technology) show his belief that the human – especially the dork – can be improved – or made ‘cooler’ – by playing with untried and untested technology. The epitextual material guides the reader to a clear reading of the text and the real author can clearly be seen in his protagonist.

While Vizzini exemplifies the effect of epitextual material, peritextual inclusions (not only saving the reader the need to google) reveal much about authors too. Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (2008) is concerned with the ways in which technology can be used to control people’s lives, and the reader is left feeling wary about the prevalence of CCTV and records of electronic transactions in today’s society. If the reader goes beyond the final page of the novel they are presented with two Afterwords: one by the Chief Security Technology Officer at BT, Bruce Schneier, and the other by Xbox hacker Andrew Huang (to whom the protagonist refers in the course of the novel as a hero). Both Afterwords exhort the reader to question the world around them, but having the same idea repeated from two opposing ideological perspectives adds weight to Doctorow’s implicit warnings throughout the text. The exhortation to do further research is supported by a bibliography which provides a few lines’ explanation of why each text might (and should) appeal to an adolescent reader. Doctorow’s intentions in writing the novel are clear. Indeed, should the reader’s interest be piqued, a quick google reveals he describes himself as a ‘technology activist’, confirming his call to examine the ways in which technologies are used.

These are two brief examples from a particular genre of YA texts, but as critics continue to debate the concept of the implied author and the validity of considering an author’s intentions, it is now possible for the reader to consider the real author's authorial intentions in an informed manner. Indeed, in a time when books and authors blur the boundaries between media, and information is so readily available, it is difficult for the reader not to allow the way in which they read to be influenced by peritextual and epitextual information.

originally written for the Children's Literature at Cambridge blog and first posted there earlier today