- Clones and Other Formulas in Science Fiction for Young Readers
In 1996, a sheep named Dolly changed the world. Headlines about a cloned sheep gave new life to an old science-fiction idea—made it real, in fact. Dolly clearly inspired a generation of writers for children and young adults, and the result has been numerous books in the past decade with genetic-engineering themes. Like most of these books, Simon Rose's The Clone Conspiracy, Lesley Choyce's Deconstructing Dylan, and Tom Henighan's Mercury Man are dystopian (in tone if not in form), cautionary tales, warning us about the dangers of biotechnology and demonstrating, to varying degrees, the formula established in this subgenre. Monica Hughes's Isis trilogy (reissued in one volume in 2006), Karen Krossing's Pure, and Ellen Dee Davidson's Stolen Voices are formal dystopias about characters who have been genetically engineered.
Genetic engineering offers young readers an unusually rich metaphor for the self and how it relates to society and family. Both young adult literature and science fiction examine social organization [End Page 184] and identity, and the two genres often intersect fruitfully.1 Genetic engineering allows writers to explore concepts of the self. If the body's DNA is programmed, does the self follow suit? Can the individual self exist in a conformist society that uses genetic technology to control its inhabitants? The dystopias in this group particularly engage in this debate. Protagonists are faced with mysteries of identity concentrated in their own DNA, an interesting take on the typical search for identity in young adult books. Similarly, genetic engineering inspires characters to confront parental control, another theme of young adult literature. Genetic engineering urges the protagonist to question what is human, fight for it, and thus exercise agency. But, having read dozens of books of this nature, and in examining the ones in front of me, I have to wonder: is this subgenre tired? Has it become formulaic and predictable? If so, what directions can authors take to energize it? Questioning underlying assumptions about the self, individualism, society, art, and science would be a start.
As seen in Pure, Stolen Voices, and the Isis trilogy, dystopian societies are far from ideal, however perfect they may claim to be. They are taken over by forces that honour social conformity over individualism and social hierarchies over equality. These books are post-apocalyptic: global warming, war, genetic experimentation, and overpopulation have made Earth a dangerous place, and these societies view themselves as oases in which order must be maintained to avoid the chaos. These totalitarian societies promise protection and harmony, but at the cost of individual freedom and expression. Art is either forbidden or strictly controlled. These elements are familiar to readers of dystopia from Nineteen Eighty-Four to The Giver—perhaps all too familiar. These authors unquestioningly follow what has already proven to be a successful formula. They assume that individualism is [End Page 185] the value that opposes the evil forces of dystopia, and that art is the principle form of self-expression. It might revitalize the form if authors challenged, or at least qualified, these assumptions.
Pure and Stolen Voices are instantly recognizable as dystopias. Pure features Dawn, a society run by the totalitarian Purity government, and a place where Lenni's parents have come "to escape the chaos of two-headed babies and designer viruses" outside its borders (36). It is, in essence, a gated community that forbids genetic engineering—which has run rampant in the Beyond—and that hoards resources, analogous to the current relationship...