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Writing Excuses 8.39: Dystopian Fiction with Cherie Priest

Writing Excuses 8.39: Dystopian Fiction with Cherie Priest


Key points: Dystopia, a terrible place, is the opposite of a utopia. Dystopian fiction focuses on a person or group struggling against some form of oppression. Why do we read it? Boom times push weighty questions, bad times give rise to comedies. One flavor of dystopian is "the world ended yesterday, here's what happened next." Dystopias are fascinating, like the dark underbelly of utopia, because of the richness of the conflicts, and the question of how do you survive when everything changes? To write one, you can either decide how the world ends, and then what society looks like after that OR you can decide what you want the society to look like, and then figure out how we got there from here. Be aware, many dystopias are being built without worrying about the connection to our world, more as thought experiments -- what if X? Do you want an open dystopia, where everyone knows it sucks, or a hidden dystopia, where the dark secret is hidden underneath?

[Howard] Howard here. Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson is out! It's about a young man who is trying to assassinate the epic Emperor of Chicago. I loved it, and I think you will too. has generously given Brandon several copies to give away, but as tyrannical epics ourselves, Jordo, Mary, Dan, and I think you should suffer for them. Confess your epic weakness to us and to the world on Twitter. Your tweet should read something like this, "My epic weakness is room-temperature chicken salad and the chance to win the Steelheart audiobook from @writingexcuses." Do this on Monday. Tuesday we'll pick a winner and use their epic weakness to kill them. Mwahaha... I'm just kidding. We'll use their twitter handle to send them a direct message with instructions on how to pick up their audiobook. If you'd like a template from which to cut and paste the non-chicken salad parts of your tweet, check the liner notes for this episode at If you don't tweet or feel unsafe confessing your epic weakness for some reason, you can also visit, start a trial membership, and download Steelheart for free. Note: my weakness is not room-temperature chicken salad, so don't try anything. Now here is this week's episode.

[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 39.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Dystopian fiction.
[Mary] 15 minutes long, because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star Cherie Priest.
[Cherie] Hello...
[Yeah! Whoo!]
[Cherie] I like this room.

[Brandon] We're in Mary's parents' basement once again at the Writing Excuses retreat. Cherie, thank you for coming. Tell the listeners a little bit about yourself.
[Cherie] That's not one of the questions you said I'd have to answer.
[Brandon] Hopefully it's an easier sort of question.
[Cherie] It's an easy one. Yes it is. My name is Cherie Priest. I write books and stuff. I've had about 14 published. Anytime anyone says, "I read your book," they mean Boneshaker. That's okay. I'll take it. Just bought a nice house. Thank you, Boneshaker.
[Cherie] I've got a few things coming up. We've got one more in that franchise, the steam punk franchise, coming out this fall. It's called Fiddlehead, and a couple more projects with another company next year.

[Brandon] Excellent. We're going to talk about dystopian fiction. When we do these sorts of podcast on a specific genre, I like to ask for a definition up front, just in case those listening don't know what we mean by dystopian fiction. So, Dan, what is dystopian fiction?
[Dan] Oh, you give me the hard question.
[Brandon] What? You wrote an entire dystopian trilogy.
[Dan] Yes. But the thing is, depending on how granular we want to get, that definition gets really cloudy. At its most basic form, I would say that dystopia means terrible place.
[Brandon] Okay. Opposite of a utopia.
[Dan] It's the opposite of a utopia, it is a bad place. So dystopian fiction is something that focuses on one person or one group's struggle against some form of oppression in whatever form that takes.
[Brandon] Now would you say that the post-apocalyptic genre is a cousin of dystopian or a subset of dystopian or dystopian like... How do those two relate?
[Dan] Well, it depends. It's kind of the... Old-school dystopias are things like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 which are literally trying to say this is a government or a society out of control. Today, there's lots of dystopias that are much more free-form. Partials, for example, the first one does have an oppressive government in it, but the rest of the series is dystopian only in the sense that you would never want to live there. They don't have that oppression anymore, but it's just a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

[Brandon] Right. All right. So dystopian stories have been around since like the beginning of science fiction. One of the... You could even argue that some of the origins of science fiction are the concept of the... Things going wrong once when we think we can control everything, and how that just goes so horribly for everyone. So what is it about dystopian that draws us to it? Why do we want to read about it? Everything from 1984 to Uglies have been bestsellers and hit the collective unconscious and things. Why?
[Mary] Well, this is actually an interesting thing that people tend to do... Kind of for a long time before we had names like dystopian, which is that when society is in a boom time, when things are flush, we tend to have leisure time to focus on big, weighty questions. In fact, that's when you start seeing things like dystopian fiction pop up. When things are going really, really badly, when you got lots of recessions, great depression, wars, that's when comedies and musical theater go to arise. So I think that one of the reasons that dystopians were being so hot there for a while was that we were in a boom time. I think we're starting to actually see that swing around to the other direction.
[Dan] Well, to counter maybe a little of what you're saying, I don't think it's a coincidence that the massive, massive wave of YA dystopia has followed so closely on the heels of us getting involved in now an 11-year-long war. We're seeing a lot of dystopian elements creep into our real world society, and so we're interested in reading about it.
[Mary] Absolutely. But those elements are also things... Because for the majority of the people in the United States going about their day-to-day life, that 11-year war does not have a direct impact on them.
[Dan] Very true.
[Mary] They may know someone, but it's not having a direct impact on them, but they are thinking about it. But because they were in a boom time, a leisure time, they had the leisure to think about it. That is different than being in a period of distress where you want a relief from the distress. That's when comedies and musical theaters tend to rise.

[Brandon] Okay. Cherie. You said you have written some dystopian. What have you written that you would categorize as dystopian?
[Cherie] Well, probably the best-known stuff is the steam punk stuff, and that is... At least the first one. Anything set in Seattle is dystopian, so Boneshaker and...
[Brandon] Because it's Seattle?
[Cherie] Partly because it's Seattle. It's a cold, dark, wet place filled with hostile entities. Then I put zombies in it and [sealed?] it off. Seattle was very, very kind to me, but I'm from the Gulf Coast. I found it a little difficult. The thing for me about dystopian, the brand of it that I like in particular, because like Dan was saying, there's a million and one different kinds of dystopian. I like the ones that go, "Yesterday, the world ended. Here's what happened next." That is always... Like, like... Kind of the conceit that begins the steam punk stuff in Boneshaker is like well, the city was destroyed and abandoned and here's what happened next. Then it's about everything that is... Well, clearly some other things happen and clearly... People will reorganize themselves. They'll reestablish themselves. People are incredible vermin, you can't get rid of them. So [garbled] what is their society look like in here. That kind of thing is always terribly interesting to me. This will maybe sound like a strange angle to come at it from, but I love the economics of it. Like the first thing I think about when I'm trying to build anything, even if it's dystopian, if it's YA, if it's mystery, whatever... Where is the money coming from? How do people earn a living here? But, like I said, I'm from the Gulf Coast, there's a lot of shrimpers, lot of fishermen, a lot of seafood. Also true in Seattle. There are a lot of mariners and a lot of people... Oh, my God, the Copper Hill salmon was wonderful. I'm sorry.
[Brandon] I would say... No, no, say it.
[Cherie] But, yes, that was really delicious.
[Cherie] The idea is like, well, how are people earning a living, and so now you know roughly what the structure of your society is. In that franchise, it's basically drugrunning because there's not... There's nothing left to sell. So this is what you sell. So then you have drug runners, but that means you have people who produce the drugs, you have people who buy the drugs and distribute the drugs. Starting from that, you can kind of start to populate your world. Dystopia is interesting because it breaks down all the stuff that you already know and says now you have... All those tools are gone. Start over.

[Brandon] I think there's a lot of things that draw me to dystopia. I love reading dystopian, I enjoy writing it, I haven't done as much. But you could really argue that Mistborn is a dystopian fantasy novel. Oppressive government, all this sort of stuff. So I'm fascinated by it for a couple of reasons. Number one, utopias are boring. Right? If we start reading about one, we know we are reading a story. We're going to look for the dark underbelly of it because... If everything is going well, we don't have a story. Stories are about things going wrong. So this idea of everything being wonderful, but this sort of dark underbelly is just I think fascinating to us. But beyond that, just the idea that everything is awful and everything sucks, there's so much conflict going on, and that means so much story to tell. But it also kind of means that there is so many... There are so many interesting places to go with stories like this, because everything's out the window. All of these social structures you talked about have been broken down, and we can get to this idea of how do you survive in this half-familiar, but half-bizarre environment? I think it makes for an excellent stories.

[Brandon] Now let's go ahead and do our book of the week. We are actually going to do Dreadnought by Cherie Priest by coincidence. Cherie, will you tell us about this book?
[Cherie] Dreadnought is basically a follow-up to Boneshaker, but not a direct sequel. The number one piece of criticism disguised as feedback I got with regards to Boneshaker was because it is loosely set against the backdrop of an American Civil War that runs for 20 years, people wanted to see what was actually happening with the rest of the country. Because, let's be honest... Seattle? Not a lot of Civil War action. So we start in Virginia and we follow a Civil War nurse across country in a quest to go find her father. There are spies and there are trains. The train called the Dreadnought that's a Union war machine that she ends up on. And zombies and monsters and the James gang makes a cameo appearance. Basically, it's just an awful lot of fun. Although the first chapters are kind of sad, I'll just warn you now. In fact, when my editor got them, she sent me an email. She's like, "So, these first three chapters? Can we just like have some puppies or something?"
[Cherie] "Can we just... Just a joke?" I mean, the first three chapters are set in a Civil War hospital, sad things happen.
[Brandon] Perfect for a dystopian conversation.
[Cherie] But it turns into an adventure novel. Exactly. What's more dystopian than a protracted Civil War?
[Brandon] Exactly.
[Cherie] Against a backdrop of zombies and drug trafficking. I mean, come on now.
[Brandon] You guys can all go get a free copy of Dreadnought by heading to where you can start a 30-day free trial, download, enjoy Cherie's book. Have it read to you and also support the podcast.
[Mary] And I'm just going to put in a plug that this is a book that I absolutely loved.
[Cherie] Why, thank you. It's one of my favorites too, actually.
[Mary] I love Boneshaker but I actually liked Dreadnought better.
[Cherie] My dad and my stepmother were both military nurses, most of my life. So this was kind of the book to them, for them. So...

[Brandon] Wonderful. Well, for the second half of the podcast, as I usually like to do, let's turn away from the defining what it is or what makes it interesting and talk about how to do it. The idea being how... Let's say our audience is out there listening, saying, "Wow. That sounds awesome. I want to write dystopian too." Number one, you're enjoying that too much, because you need to get to a more difficult place if you're going to write dystopian. But what do we want them to do? What suggestions do we have?
[Cherie] Drink, apparently.
[Dan] Wallow in despair.
[Mary] You have two ways you can go about it. One is that you can decide how the world ends and then what the society looks like after the. The other is that you can decide what you want your society to look like and how we got there from here. But either way, you have to know at some point what it is that caused things to be the way they are. The reason is because, as we talk about with any world building exercise, there will be moments when if you haven't thought it through, you will come up with something that will just totally kick your reader out of the story. Like the... Well, we've completely lost all power, but look at all of these elevators.

[Dan] Now, you're right for a big portion of the audience. But one of the things that I have learned as I tour with the Harper books and all of the really... The YA market science fiction, rather than the kind of general market science fiction, is that a lot of the dystopians that are big right now, they have no connection to our world.
[Mary] Oh, interesting.
[Dan] Divergent by Veronica Roth is a great example of this. She literally describes that as a thought experiment. She says, "I'm not concerned with how our society got from A to B. I just thought B was really interesting and I wanted to see what happened to it."
[Brandon] I've seen a lot of those, too, recently in particular. There's a big one that my wife read, which I... The name escapes me. Oh, I should have found this, but the idea being that... Unwound... Unwind or something like this, where when your teenagers get to a certain age, the parents can just decide to have them executed. So if you're not a kid growing up, it was... You can just be executed at like age 13 or whatever it is. Your parents can give you up. They get that one chance. When the premise was told me, it sounded completely ridiculous. I'm like... The idea was that the pro-choice and pro-life people got together and made this sort of deal.
[Brandon] It just sounded absolutely ridiculous, but...
[Dan] Which it does.
[Brandon] The idea is not for that story that it really happened, or that it really could happen. It is the what-if you could send off your teenager to be unwound and they'd use their body parts for dying people and things like that. What would that do to teens? That idea is awesome. The how did you get here, the science fiction writer in me wants to say, "But, no. There's no way." But the storyteller in me says, "I can see how you really want to tell that story. Let's see how it goes."
[Dan] So this is a case where you really need to consider who your audience is going to be and who you're going to sell it to. You would not take one of those kind of flight of fantasy what-if stories to Tor necessarily. Certainly not Tor adults.
[Cherie] The parents of teenagers perhaps [garbled]
[Dan] But if you're going for a teen audience, Ally Condie's books, Veronica Roth's books, Cassandra Clare... No, not Cassandra Clare, I'm thinking of somebody else. But anyway, that is... There's a huge audience for that right now. You just have to know it.

[Brandon] Now one of the things I would say if you're thinking about writing dystopian is you might want to consider is it the open dystopia or the closed dystopia? Like, for instance, is... Does everybody know that this sucks? And they're just trying to get along and that there's got... It's kind of this... Regime in charge is oppressing everybody? Or is it the sort of thing where there's the hidden dark secrets like Westerfeld's Uglies? Everyone gets to be gorgeous as soon as they get to whatever age it is... It's like 16 or 18. Everyone has plastic surgery, they're made gorgeous, and life is wonderful and they just party all day. But there is a deep, dark secret that's going to screw this all up.
[Dan] That's one of the things I really love about dystopia is the idea that for some or arguably most of the population, it is a utopia. They just haven't seen the other half or they're not affected by it.

[Brandon] Right. So, is dystopia overplayed? Those who are wanting to write it, is this a worry, is this a concern? Because we just talked about this big string of dystopian stories. Is this... And you, Dan, said you thought that it might be hitting a certain wave where... Or was it you, Mary, where we're getting happy or getting sad...
[Mary] I think...
[Dan] I think both of us were having a conversation about that.
[Mary] I think that we are starting to see things swing towards people wanting escapist, ways to escape. Which would probably indicate a decrease in interest in dystopia. On the other hand, it is a genre now and there are lots of questions to be explored within that.
[Brandon] I always just say, "Write what you love." Right? You may want to be aware of the fact that these might be... These might start getting harder to sell. But you know what, every time I've talked to somebody who broke in, it's seemed like they were doing something that was harder to sell for a while. Then either the market came around or they made the market come around by getting published and writing a great book.

[Dan] This is a case where it all comes down to what you write in the cover letter. Because while dystopia might be on its way out, or at least its footprint is getting smaller, science fiction, especially in YA, is exploding right now. We used to have so much... Thanks to Westerfeld's Uglies and thanks to Hunger Games, we had this huge boom of dystopia. That's not decreasing so much as it's just broadening into science fiction in general. So you could write whatever you want, any kind of this dystopia we're talking about, the closed or the open or the zombie Seattle...
[Mary] What you need to do is a comic dystopia.
[Dan] The really funny dystopia.
[Mary] That way you cover both.
[Dan] Then you take it to your editor and if it's a good book, they'll say, "This is a great book," and they just won't put the word dystopia on the cover, if they think that would hurt it.

[Cherie] But the great thing about young people in particular, no teenager reads a book and goes, "This is the greatest book ever," and puts it down, "and I shall never read another." No, they go, "This is awesome and I have to tell all my friends and I want more like this."
[Dan] Exactly.
[Cherie] So there's room for the genre to continue to boom. Like you are saying with the rise and fall, the curve and whatnot, some years back, I was trying to sell a novel about an obsessive-compulsive vampire. Nobody would touch it with a 10 foot pole. Then Twilight broke and everybody went to my agent going, "Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme. Didn't you have one about a vampire, there was something funny about it? It didn't sparkle, did it? Here, give it here."
[Cherie] So then those books came out. But every time you think it's dead, something will pop right back up. Young adult is really leading the charge because, well, for one thing, somebody figured out somewhere along the way that teenagers get parents' money for things that they think are useful and helpful and maybe aren't video games or porn, so they give them books. They read a lot. They're wonderful. I'm about to do a young adult project, so I'm very interested in making young people interested in my material and it's not dystopian at all. But... But it'll be cool anyway.
[Dan] But you're right. One of the great things... I agree with you, YA is leading that charge. In part because teens will read anything. They're not yet... So many of us adults are like, "Well, I'm a science fiction reader" or "I'm an epic fantasy reader" or "I'm a horror reader." There's no Western readers.
[Cherie] Kids are like, "What's this?"
[Dan] Kids have not solidified into a genre yet, they'll read anything.
[Cherie] They'll pick something up off the table, just because they're sitting around... I'm serious, I hear different people, "I don't know, my kid found this on a desk somewhere and read it. What's this?" They're just bored.
[Mary] I would read... Just read the cereal box.
[Cherie] Exactly. We used to fight over cereal boxes to such an extent that my parents... Well, my grandparents. We were all... Me and my... I'm one of nine cousins and we all lived together at one point in time or another. The grandparents insisted on buying the generic cereal because we fought over the cereal boxes so badly at breakfast. It was tragic.
[Dan] You used to write your own stories on the side of the boxes [and that's how you got started writing?]
[Cherie] [garbled] In my tears.

[Brandon] [garbled] Mary, give us a writing prompt.
[Mary] So the writing prompt this week is to base a dystopia on breakfast cereal.
[Dan] Awesome.
[Cherie] Nice. [Garbled] Cheerios.
[Brandon] All right. You guys are out of excuses, now go write.
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