Dystopia in Color

Elysium2I saw the movie Elysium when it opened earlier this month. This dystopian movie includes a multicultural future, with Matt Damon plays Max daCosta,  a Hispanic anti-hero in future LA.   This look at a Hispanic main character given the chance to change the world or save his life (he can’t do both) was a break from the usual round of science fiction in general and Dystopia stories in particular, where the man or woman who rights wrongs and changes society is usually white. A search of recent young adult and middle grade books led me to several that provide readers with a future filled with heroes of different backgrounds, ethnicities, locations and circumstances.

silver sixThe Silver Six is a middle grade dystopian graphic novel written by A.J. Lieberman, and illustrated by Darren Rawlings and published in 2013 by Graphix.  The cover shows the six heroes: Phoebe,  Hannah Yoshiama, Patel, Oliver, Rebecca, Phoebe, and Ian. Their scientist parents are assassinated after they discover a cheap form of power that would free humanity from bondage to Craven Mining, the world’s only energy  supplier.

The children meet at an orphanage where they are assigned silver jumpsuits, a sleeping pod, dangerous jobs, and little food (the future is truly cruel to orphans). Thus begins a story that will have young readers turning pages as the children learn the value of friendship and sticking together, and work to find a place they can call their own. They discover that their parents’ deaths was not an accident and find a way to beat Craven Mining and have their own, peronal paradise. The science is more fun than real, but the pages are full of heart and love and self-discovery, the graphics are fun, and kids who are into science fiction will enjoy this story.

shadowsShadows Cast by Stars was written by Catherine Knutsson and published by Atheneum Books For Younger Readers in 2012. In this future world, the government is hunting Cassandra Mercredi and her family. Not for the aboriginal girl’s connection to the spirit world, but for her blood. A plague has devastated the world’s population, but thanks to genetic diversity, aborigines are immune. The government intends to drain her lifeforce “for the greater good.” She flees across an energy barrier that keeps outsiders out and the spirit world in, hoping for safety. But the creatures of the spirit world want something from her as well. wants something from her as well.  Aboriginal mysticism and beliefs are at the root of this story about a strong heroine who knows what she wants, including the tribal leader’s son.


In Tankborn, written by Karen Sandler and published by Tu books in 2011, readers find themselves on Loki, a world with an unbreakable caste system, where wealth and skin color intertwine to determine your place in life-unless you are like Kayla, a GEN born in an artificial tank with animal DNA used to enhance your human genes. Considered sub-human, tankborns have no wealth, and her status is defined by the tattoo on her cheek. When they become of age, their job is to work. In Kayla’s case, the added genes give her a skill set, or sket, of increased strength and a job in the home of a Highborn. GENS have no business ever touching a Highborn like Devak, her employer’s grandson. And she certainly must never fall in love with him. Even if he does seem to see beyond her tattoo and is willing to help her track down what is happening to GEN children.

ScorpionThe House of the Scorpion, a 2003 Printz Honor book written by Nancy Farmer and published by Atheneum, features a dystopian society funded by the opium trade. Matteo is a Hispanic boy, a clone stamped with a tattoo that reads “property of the Alacran estate.” Legally he is livestock, and destined to become spare parts, the seventh new heart that will be used to  perpetuate the rule of the the all-powerful drug lord. Like Pinnochio, he wants to be a real boy, and while some treat him as property, or an an animal, or even as a piece of vermin, others love him, help him learn that he is indeed human, and sacrifice their lives to save him from the surgeon’s knife.  But is he human enough to make the right decisions when he is given the opportunity to return and become the new El Patron, and continue the legacy of terror that accompanies his genetic code.

ship-breaker-paperbacksmIn Ship Breaker, the 2011 Printz Award winning title written by Paolo Bacigalupi and published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers,  an environmental disaster has made life for the inhabitants of America’s Gulf Coast region a struggle for survival. Nailer, the Hispanic main character, knows he has to work with his crew, or die alone. He is a part of a light crew, children small enough to fit in between the walls of abandoned tankers in the gulf and find salvage and all he has to look forward to is growing up and becoming too large for light crew and too small to hope for a role with the huge men and women of heavy crew. He and his crew boss, an African American girl called Pima, find a wreck with one survivor, and Asian “swank” named Nita. He has to chose between doing the smart thing and finishing Nita off so he can claim the salvage rights, or being foolish. He lives to regret the foolish choice and the three of them have to fight for survival against people who want to use Nita as leverage against her wealthy family. This is not your usual love triangle, but is a real look at a disturbing future.

In the introduction  to Diverse Energies, a dystopian anthology edited by Tobias Bucknell, a man of British and Caribbean heritage, Bucknell talks about growing up and loving science fiction, but being disappointed by covers that always featured tough white guys with chiseled chins; that none of them ever looked like him. DiverseHe decided to do something, and put together a collection of dystopian futures (and presents) that feature diversity in every story. Each of the stories offered unique perspectives on the given dystopia– including LGBT characters, and teens of different cultures and ethnicity, not just the expected Caucasian damsel-in-distress or kick-ass-heroine.

This anthology holds numerous varied worlds and characters.  There is only one problem with good short stories. There is never enough. Here is a short look at the eleven stories in Diverse Energies:

“The Last Day” by Ellen Oh is a great and powerful start to the collection.
World War II between the forces of the President of the West and the Emperor of the West has gone on for fifteen years, longer than Kenji and Akira have been alive.  After an atom bomb destroys their city, the emperor’s soldiers come to make sure there are no survivors to spread the word of the enemy’s power. One boy must sacrifice himself to give the other a chance to escape and spread the news that might end the war.

“Franshee’s Frogurt” by Daniel Wilson
This story was reprinted from the Robopocalypse collection and involves a gory and painful to read fight between a berserk household robot and two humans.

“Uncertainty Principle” by K. Tempest Bradford
Iliana’s world keeps changing and she’s the only one who knows it’s happening until one day her parents aren’t her parents anymore. She broadcasts her experiences on the Internet and someone contacts her and tells her she is the only person who can put things back the way they were.


“Pattern Recognition” by Ken Liu
This dystopian world is a company that recruits and controls “bright, promising children from the slums of India, China and Africa,” and trains them to hone their pattern-recognition skills. The children are isolated from the real world and used in a human-based computing set-up. (BTW, human-based computing is a real technique in use today) The children are trained that “outside” is deadly so they won’t try to escape. Until one boy steals a teacher’s cell phone.

In many ways it reminded me of Kashmira Sheth’s 2010 novel on child labor, Boys Without Names.

“Gods of the Dimming Light” by Greg van Eekhout
Edward Darmadi, a San Diego native of Indonesian descent, is told he is a direct descendant of the Norse God Odin and offered a position in an army of heroes out to fight to the death in a coming Armageddon. But the only hero he wants to be is the kind who takes care of his family by putting food on the table and paying the bills to keep the electricity turned on, even if only for one last night.

“Next Door” by Rahul Kanakia
The “haves” of the world use their visual implants to retreat into a virtual world where they can ignore the “have-nots.” Many never even notice when the poor squat in their garages or even inside their homes. Aakash and Victor are two boys in love, have-nots that just a squat of their own, where they can be together forever.

“Good Girl” by Malinda Lo
Kyle, the good girl, is mixed race (African and Asian) in a world where the government decrees that races must be kept pure.  While searching the underworld for her missing brother, she falls for a “bad girl” who pretends to love her while using her to escape the city.

“A Pocket Full of Dharma” by Paolo Bacigalupi
Wang Jun lives on the streets and tries to survive among conniving adults. He finds the Dalai Lama’s soul imprisoned in a computer, unable to be resurrected unless the computer is destroyed.

“Blue Skies” by Cindy Pon
The few old people still alive remember the days when the sky was blue instead of a dirty brown; the days before pollution and disease brought life expectancy down to the forties. Like the rich in Elysium, the wealthy escape in enclosed compounds, only venturing out while wearing environmental suits and accompanied by bodyguards. One young man plans to change things. But first he has to have money, and that means kidnapping a rich girl and exposing her to the real world.

“What Arms to Hold Us” by Rajan Khanna
Indian children labor in a mine, their brains attached to a mining “golly,” or robot programmed by the Mages. Children are used to control the machines because their brains last longer.  They also believe that working hard will mean a better life. and the kids who disappear have been promoted. Until one boy finds his friend’s body and is recruited to assassinate the High Mage.

“Solitude” by Ursula K. Le Guin
An anthropologist uses her son and daughter to explore and study a tribal culture on another planet. They absorb the culture, and the daughter refuses to leave the society she considers home.

These are the books I know– I would to hear about any other dystopian stories featuring diversity in the main characters.

-B. A. Binns, currently reading Open Mic: Riffs on life between cultures edited by Mitali Perkins, and listening to Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

10 thoughts on “Dystopia in Color”

  1. Haven’t seen the movie, but Elysium is a bad example since they whitewash the main character, don’t you think? This would have been a great opportunity to cast a Latino man in the role.

    The rest of the list is great though! I’m adding a few to my to read list.

    1. I was thinking the same thing about Matt Damon–they couldn’t find a Hispanic actor to play the role. But Barbara, I REALLY appreciate this huge list of books that you put together for us!

  2. I’m glad you like the list, and hope you enjoy the books you added. I have already added a second book by Greg van Eekhout to my reading pile, and a third by Paolo Bacigalupi.

    I agree it would have been nice to have a hispanic actor play theDaCosta role in Elysium, but the mere fact that Hollywood created a movie that acknowledged that Los Angeles would be heavily hispanic in the future was interesting. I get why they went for the Matt Damon name, but the character could easily have been a generic Caucasian who happened to have some Hispanic friends. Instead he does a credible job as an orphaned Hispanic, a member of the community and one of the guys. I’m not praising the movie so much as saying I am glad that books and moves are becoming more inclusive and expanding their basic hero/heroine types.

    I am also of two minds about the coming Ender’s Game movie. We have Ben Kingsley playing Major Rackham, a Maori character in the book. In fact the book made a big deal about the differences between his background and those of most other officers. That is a role I fear will be whitewashed.

  3. I saw the movie and I didn’t think he was Hispanic at all. I just thought he was an orphaned white boy in a Hispanic city.

    As for the list there are so many great books listed here. I have to check some of these out for sure.
    Thanks for the list.

    1. That’s the beauty of art (and I consider both books and movies art forms). Two people can look at the same thing and see something different. I wanted the hero to be hispanic, so with the name DaCosta (yeah, I know it could be Italian, but it is also a Spanish/Portuguese surname) and the Spanish language, and his comfort with the beggar kids, the old woman, and other characters, in my head he was a light-skinned hispanic)

      I promise I will be more careful with any movie comparisons I draw in the future.

  4. Well, I commented but the bot ate my post. I think the security question box wasn’t obvious enough. so I said something about how I also thought Damon was an orphaned caucasian and thanks for a great write up on diversity in fiction.

  5. YA SciFi/Fan seems to be getting more diverse, which is wonderful! Some of my favorites lately are:
    “Vessel” by Sarah Beth Durst, 2012. Liyana is raised to abandon her body when her goddess comes to claim her. When the goddess does not come during the ceremony, Liyana is abandoned by her desert tribe. The trickster god, Korbyn, finds her, and together they unite the other ‘vessels’ to try to free their trapped gods.
    I loved the setting, and all the different tribes, and mythology of the world.

    “The Girl of Fire and Thorns” by Rae Carson, 2011. Now a trilogy, the third of which was just published, Elisa is fat, timid, and married off to a neighboring king. Throughout the trilogy she discovers her own powers, gaining political influence as well as developing as a person. Not only is Elisa a chubby heroine, she is dark skinned and lives in a desert land.

    Malinda Lo is also gathering traction as a writer who puts a non-traditional spin on the traditional story. Included in the anthology of short stories you mentioned, Lo is also the author of “Ash” a Cinderella story, and “Huntress” a fantasy/fairy tale, both with an Asian/LGBT twist.

    Lastly, Gail Carriger’s “Etiquette and Espionage,” a steampunk, boarding school fantasy, features a black character as both sidekick and romantic interest to the upper class white main character. Although it would be nice to see him as more than a sidekick, the multi-racial relationship is still nicely refreshing in a genre that still avoids this type of relationship.

    1. I think science fiction has always embraced diversity more than other genres. As a teen (longer ago than I want to admit) I remember reading Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 with an Asian heroine, Rydra Wong; the many Apache and Sioux heroes in Andre Norton’s books; and the Day of The Drones by A. M. Lightner about a post-apocalypse world with a black heroine in an Africa that is the world’s sole superpower. The Paranormal genre is a bit behind the curve. I’ve met Malinda and read both Ash and Huntress, she is the author of one of the short stories in Diverse Energies and I love the way she is forging her road in that genre. You’ve given me more books for my TBR pile (which is already bigger than I am) so thank you for the info.

      BTW – the realistic fiction genre is also becoming more diverse, I will be highlighting a few of those books in my next post Books Outside the Box post in October.

  6. Greater diversity is the trend in every activity, literature and everything else. Soon, there will be no dominant group and that’s not a bad thing.

    It seems YA dystopian is a fad right now, like vampires were a few years ago. However, a lot of the plots you described could have happened in any age in the history of literature. If they had been written a few years earlier, they might have been called main stream science fiction.

    1. I agree, Dystopia is just a name for a type of Science Fiction with special characteristics that usually include a futuristic government working against the good of it’s people until a hero rises to fight them. Those types of science fiction stories have been around for some time, I could rattle off a list from my childhood. There is very little new under the sun on on the pages. The good thing about having the dystopian sub-genre is it alerts readers in advance and makes it easier for those who like this type to find it. I have a friend who will only read robot stories (don’t get her started on Roboapocalypse) and others who prefer the good old western in space. I would still call these stories mainstream science fiction.

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