Sunday 22 April 2012

Can A Book Change The World?

by Julie Bertagna

The cash machine had just swallowed the cards of two women in front. I went to another bank, slid my card in the machine. Nothing. I thought of all the banks crashing in the financial crisis. I hadn’t seen the news that day. Had there been a crash while I'd been out? What if I couldn’t get any money?!

Eventually, I did. But for a surreal moment I felt like Offred in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale who can’t get money from a cash machine one day because women’s bank accounts have been seized by the government - for the good of the nation. And suddenly she is plunged into a terrifying dystopia... 

That fictional moment, when everything changes in an instant has stayed with me since I was young. It made me wonder: what if our freedoms are more precarious than we think and could be snatched away if we don’t guard them?

Today’s young adults were small when the twin towers fell on 9/11 and I’ve often wondered how growing up in an ‘Age of Terror’ with daily images of war and violence would affect them. My daughter doesn’t know what it’s like to board a plane without shoes and phone, even a lipgloss, examined for bomb-making materials...  

In the years after 9/11, US publishers weren’t keen on my YA novel about young survivors in post-apocalyptic future, kicking back against a brutal world empire. 

Teenagers wouldn’t want dark, dystopian fiction in such troubled times....would they? 

But young readers were seeking books that held up a cracked mirror to the world. Lots wrote to me saying, I’ll never forget your book, it’s changed the way I see the world. 

        Does a book really have the power to change the world?

Neuromancer by William Gibson was a stunning vision of cyberspace that influenced techiesdeveloping the web. Space scientists find their ideas in science fiction. Watch this brilliant vid from European Space Agency. 

Nineteen Eighty-Four  by George Orwell predicted a Big Brother world full of CCTV. 

If ideas in books can seep into reality, could the craze for dystopia change our world?

Why does dystopia grab you? Is it pure escapism? Or something deeper? Does it make you fearful? More sussed about the world? Is it a kickback, via imaginary characters, against the forces that control a teenager’s life - parents, school, politicians, and other forces that threaten to stamp all over your future?

What if fictional events really happen? A 'live' death on reality TV? Governments controlling the internet ‘for our own good’? (This happens in my new book.) What if young rioters mysteriously disappear, once arrested? (Slated). Are controlled futures like Matched and Divergent possible? If the Earth’s climate changes, will we survive by building domed cities (Under The Never Sky), towering sky cities (Exodus), or traction cities that can trundle across parched lands? (Mortal Engines). Or will we abandon Earth? (Across The Universe
Is the future destined to be grim? Or full of amazing new discoveries? Will it be a brave new world? Or new worlds?

Nobody controls the future - it’s still to unfold. Anything might happen. 

And anyone (maybe you?!) could be a pivotal part of the future in some way you can’t yet imagine. Maybe that’s the appeal of Katniss in The Hunger Games, Kyla in Slated, Laura in The Carbon Diaries, Nailer in Ship Breaker, Josh inThe Joshua Files, Tris in Divergent, Mara and Fox in my Exodus trilogy... ordinary teenagers who do extraordinary things to survive.  
In a YA dystopia, lead characters change events in some crucial way - their victories, large or small, offer hope. In adult dystopian fiction, characters tend to be ground down by the system. Their defeat is a warning to the reader: do not take this path!

What dystopian or futuristic books do you love? What scenes and characters will live on inside you?  
The kids and young adults of today will be in charge of the world soon! So, what kind of future do you want? 


  1. Unwind will keep me thinking about it forever. So will Battle Royale. So will many others that I can't name right now. I want a future where the UK government actually does something useful for a change.
    Great post!
    PS. Did you see this?

  2. Thanks, both.

    Confession - I still have to read Unwind. Thanks for the nudge, Nina.

    Stroppy Author, loved your Writing Like Nicotine post! Will just go and add you to our blog list if you're not already there.

    1. oh you MUST read Unwind. It is one of my absolute favourites!

    2. Seconded! Unwind is a more closer-to-present time, and sometimes edgier type of dystopian.

      I heard a couple of people complain that is mispresents the abortion debate (with the main element being a "compromise" between the two sides, both which went too far), but the setting is otherwise fantastic with what elements that are given.

  3. I like the sort of dystopia where I can recognize something of the real world. Hunger Games for example rang with truth because I could see a reflection of the divide between the wealthy world and the poor world. Great post!

  4. Hello Julie beautiful space, a pleasure to read your letters,
    if you like the poetry I invite you to my spaces,
    Happy Sunday.
    a greeting.

  5. Fantastic post! And I really liked the pictures you choose.
    I like dystopian, but it's not my favorite genre. I loved Divergent, and the Hunger Games was good, too. But my absolute favorite is Battle Royal. I think nothing can top that book.

    I'm a new follower of your blog and looking forward reading more from you.

  6. Thanks for following! I must read Battle Royale as so many people rave about it.