Dystopian fever grips our world.
The Hunger Games movie opened to generally copious praise and astonishing box office numbers—grossing $153 million opening weekend and nearly $680 million at this printing. Dystopian TV shows, such as the upcoming Revolution on NBC, pop up across the networks. New young adult dystopian series, like Veronica Roth’s Divergent series or Marie Lu’s Legend series, appear just about every week (or so it seems).
At first blush, Julianna Baggott’s Pure might appear to be just another novel riding this YA dystopian wave. Her novel, however, brings a great deal more to the table. She blends together prototypical new feminists and inventive Machiavellian schemes for a new world order inextricably linked to depleting natural resources, atomic bombs and genetic mutation. She teases these themes out to imminently possible—and absolutely terrifying—extremes. Doing so, Baggott crafts a richly nuanced dystopian landscape that begins where Hunger Games and many other YA dystopias end.
Besides an intriguing story, Pure also tackles one of the greatest mysteries in the worlds of dystopian literature today: How did things get so bad?
In many of these novels, the dystopias exist in a distant future, far removed from events that led to the dystopian state. Too many books gloss over these inherently fascinating genesis events for the sake of simply getting the reader quickly beyond the collapse and restructuring of the society and right into the story. The past becomes obscure, something like the ubiquitous and blinding fog of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic landscape in The Road. Readers understand transforming events have happened, but never truly perceive them.
Importantly, the reader gets an unwarranted reprieve—intentional or not, recognized or not—with such hazy, abstracted depictions of social decline.
Pure begins another way. Baggott’s world stands mere years from the bombings that created the desolate and dying terrains of her novel. These bombings, which stratify survivors, leave “Pures”—people with bodies unmarred, who live safely in a place called the Dome—and the rest of humankind, genetically mutated and physically disfigured, who struggle for survival in the desolate remaining world.
Pressia and Partridge, 16 and 17 years old respectively, remember the world before, even as they filter the new world through awakening young adult consciousness. The youngsters live vastly different lives. Partridge receives shelter and nurture as one of the chosen few who live inside the Dome. Pressia struggles outside to survive in a world devastated by Detonations. When Pressia becomes a fugitive, fleeing from militias that will either use her for target practice or induct her into their murderous ranks, and Partridge escapes the Dome, searching for the truth about his mother, worlds collide and realities shatter.
Baggott presents a crystal-clear image of the warring ideologies that caused the orchestrated apocalypse. She deliberately traces the ways those ideologies linger on to inform the brave new world that emerges from a man-made Judgment Day. This element—naming cause—elevates her fiction in Pure from the rank-and-file of dystopian works of today.
Baggott’s book will remind many readers of Octavia Butler’s Parable novels (Parable of the Sower, 1993, and Parable of the Talents,1998). Both bodies of work occupy the same sort of in-between zone, at a fictional level and on a meta level. Butler’s novels, just as Baggott’s Pure, do not depict a society already sunk into some abyss of fascism, a trope that with tiresome frequency is a de facto setting for dystopian novels. Instead, Butler’s novel shows American society in the midst of steep decline. It coalesces in a vision of a nation where fundamental natural resources like water grow scarce and costly, while unnecessary resources like gasoline prove equally difficult to come by.
Butler’s novel imagines the trajectory of a nation that finds employment, housing, and safety in short supply. She does not gloss over those issues. Instead, she confronts them, unflinchingly and deliberately. Doing so, she also forces her readers to confront cultural degeneration in all its gritty, violent magnificence.
Octavia Butler names these things because Lauren, her heroine in the Parables, cannot afford to ignore them. Observing and understanding those realities pains her— literally, because Lauren suffers from a disease called hyperempathy, meaning that she acutely shares the pain of others. Still, her disease holds the key to her survival; Lauren must experience those pains in order to understand the dangers they represent. Butler means to say, of course, that steadfastly ignoring societal ills gives rise to dystopias.
Perhaps Butler’s experiences as an African-American woman came fully into play here. (Butler passed away in 2006.) As a black woman, she had to be hip to the racism, sexism and classism that others could not—or would not—see. Her perceptions, on a daily basis, helped her successfully navigate obstacles she encountered, inflecting her take on the dystopian narrative.
Do we catch Baggott so candidly looking the same issues in the face? Does she see a world where rhetoric about decreasing global resources in the face of a ballooning global population pops up almost innocuously, fashionably even, in the most unexpected places? Where women’s rights are insidiously attacked and dismantled? Where nuclear weapons proliferate seemingly with no real objections?
Does Pure caution that to ignore even the few whispered complaints invites frightening futures?
Baggott and Butler’s dystopias stand apart because both take the time to illustrate exactly how things got so bad. They don’t allow the reader to escape by turning away, by skipping over the mechanisms of decline. I call Baggott’s and Butler’s dystopian universes The Blindside—the unnamed realities frequently (or conveniently) obscured in too many works of dystopian fiction. Both these writers fearlessly name the human foibles and follies that cause societal breakdown, and they unblinkingly depict the chaos left in the ashes.
Pure and the Parable novels insist that we take a sort of responsibility for the formation of dystopian worlds. As readers, we get no free passes. We are not absolved of guilt but rather implicated in the creation of dystopias if we participate in or condone ideologies and social practices that lead like paving stones to them. There is power in this precocity. Baggott and Butler believe that by perceiving—by naming—these realities, we may possibly avoid or curtail dystopian futures.
Pure has the same action, intrigue and haunting characters that populate so many dystopian novels … but I insist on calling Baggott’s Pure precocious. Why? While definitely YA (all major characters in their teens), the novel nonetheless tackles challenging and fraught issues very deliberately, in a landscape still—for the most part—fantasy.
Pure also shows something else—The Blindside. Its edgy directness makes it a novel ready and waiting for the sinking teeth of young adults and full-fledged ones.
L. M. Davis loves great storytelling. She needs nothing more than a good book and a comfy chair to be happy. Born in the South, raised in the North, she has a few English degrees under her belt. She is the author of the YA Shifters Novel series. Find out more at www.shiftersnovelseries.com