new worlds: cinder, worldbuilding, and current ya sci fi

I want to talk about worldbuilding in sci fi and dystopia. And just the qualities of sci fi itself. Lately it’s my favorite genre of television, but I can’t quite figure out why. It’s pretty elementary to identify social fears and how they transfer into imagined technological advances, but that’s part of what makes it such an ever-relevant genre. There are always new societal fears and scapegoats and advances and changes that lend themselves well to commentary in the form of fantastical re-imaginings. But when too much sci fi or dystopia comes out during the same era, especially when that era is also characterized by fast, serial publishing, hyper-commodification of literature, and technology-dominated culture, it ends up all the same and ends up being derivative of itself, rather than clever or astute.

I know I’m kind of writing my own dystopia right now, but I’m satisfied that it’s more speculative than outright sci fi dystopia, and I think it’s fairly different from a lot of other YA dystopia. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be better, but we’ll see how it goes when it’s done. But in the meantime, I still want to read in my one of my favorite genres, and I get disappointed when it all starts to be the same old story: society controls teens as far as who they marry, and some plucky young girl decides that that’s not right. Touchscreens run everything, people have silly names, and daily life is controlled by a faceless, totalitarian government. Obviously that’s the hallmark of most sci fi because it’s the fear of most societies, but the plots are starting to run so similar that it’s dull as doornails. Not even the execution of the same old ideas is unique anymore.

So I’m so, so happy that I got to read Cinder, the start of a four-book series by Marissa Meyer, due out this January from Macmillan. It’s awesome, because it combines two genres I love: sci fi and fairy tales, and yet it’s not overly derivative, not tightly controlled by the tale it’s based on, and does an excellent job of worldbuilding. It takes place in the city of New Beijing, for one. Need I say more? Also, it incorporates the fairy tale we all know into other recognizable tropes and stories of warring nations, long lost princesses, cult leadership, and human rights, all while just going about its business of being its own story about a cyborg who doesn’t long for anything except to be left alone. By having that as her central problem, rather than the desire to be a regular girl again, or to find her birthparents, or to save the world, Cinder remains firmly a girl of a YA novel, rather than an MG or adult novel protagonist who just happens to be of teen age.

Props for the most interesting teen job in a book yet: Cinder is a mechanic. Also, sidekick props: Cinder’s best friend is a technically imperfect and badly made android who is boy crazy. Also, this could just be because my sci fi knowledge is actually pretty limited, but I’ve never read or watched anything about cyborgs before, and I find the issues there fascinating, especially since cybernetic technology and organisms actually already exist (thanks, Wikipedia!). Cinder nearly died in a car crash, and as a result, her body had to be put together again with computer bits, so she’s about 33% inorganic. That has interesting implications for human rights in the story as well as for medical advancements. She meets the prince of her nation when he comes to her to fix his android, and they keep running into each other again. Like any good modernized or YA-ized fairy tale retelling, she’s totally not into the prince, and her disinterest is a complete turn-on, so he pursues her even though she’s really just trying to save him, because the prince can’t love a cyborg!

That part actually bothers me. I hate how, especially in YA, girl characters are either obsessed with a boy or just totally not into them at all, no temptation. It’s especially strange to me that in sci fi that otherwise does an excellent job of discussing current society and its pitfalls and obsessions by creating a new society, the idea of gender conditioning vs. feminism vs. biological impulses never comes into play. Why can’t a character be a normal human who is hormonally attracted to someone? And why can’t that be compounded by the fact that our current society, at least, tells us that we should be attracted to them? Why is the problem of unrequited crushes or saving someone the trouble of dating a problem protagonist never addressed with regard to the fact that it is totally natural for humans to want to have sex with other humans? I don’t buy that Cinder is totally uninterested in Prince Kai, and I wish she had to struggle with mentally not wanting him versus emotionally wanting him based on the fact that he’s a prince charming, or that she had to struggle with the idea that she’s maybe not into him, but she’s into someone, because it’s pretty natural that teen girls would be sexually interested in SOMEONE at SOME POINT IN TIME for SOME REASON because humans tend to desire sex. Why are fairy tale retellings populated with asexual, unaffected by social conditioning girls who don’t get butterflies?

But that’s a conversation for another time.

As far as plot devices go, this is still a very plot-y book, and one way of reading it would definitely be just to go through and, at each chapter, ask yourself, “Okay, who’s the fairy godmother going to be?” “What twist do I think is coming?” “What does this reveal have to do with the other problems going on in the book?” “Is that a trap for the character, or is that a trap for me the reader to fall into because I think it’s a trap for the character but actually it’s not?” The fact that I’m thinking about this makes me wonder if I’ve been reading too many “simple,” “easy” books, or if all books are basically like this, and if identifying it has just made me incapable of totally enjoying a book ever again without also analyzing it. Because probably all books, good and bad, highbrow and lowbrow, literary and commercial, can be reduced to some of those questions.

I know I just made it sound like there is too much going on in this story, but there isn’t, precisely because not one of the things I mentioned is overdone, out of left field, or standing alone. There is a mythology here that is American enough to offer the cool look at our own lives that sci fi does, but it’s also creatively fresh, satisfying my more literary and writerly interests in finding a story that’s not like every other book being published. As I read less and less fiction for pleasure, I’m so glad I made room for this one, and now I’m really pissed that I have to wait even longer for the next one because I read the first one early. Cinder was the perfect fairy tale retelling for me, and at the same time, it was the perfect sci fi book for me. The fact that those two disparate things come in one package makes me very interested to see what comes next.

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