Last week, Vicky Smith, Children's & Teen Editor, referenced Paolo Bacigalupi, speaking on the overwhelming heteronormativity of teen dystopias. We asked Bacigalupi to expand on the subject, and he graciously agreed.

Looking at recent trends in young people's lit, I've sometimes joked that the term “dystopia” actually means a story where “The Man” screws with someone's love life. But in fact, dystopian literature has a long tradition of screwing with people's love lives—it's an ideal invasion that emphasizes the power of the state.

When I was recently asked why more gays and lesbians weren't seen in dystopian novels, my off-the-cuff response was that our present day is plenty dystopic enough. Some future-tastic police state isn't going to be more horrifying than what GLBTQ teens experience now in modern America. We're a veritable checklist of dystopian tropes:


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  • Politicians outlawing/demonizing you? Check.
  • Fellow citizens denying you the rights “normal” people enjoy? Check.
  • “Therapy” to fix your deviance? Check.
  • Religion spewing hatred about you? Inciting followers to fear/revile/reform you? Check.
  • People who will abuse—or even kill you—if they discover your true nature? Check.

It's actually difficult to think of many dystopian novels that persecute their protagonists to this extent. And that's the real horror. We are a dystopian society, and we don't even notice. We're the evil state, crushing the individuality out of everyone who doesn't conform conform conform.

For me, the real objective in writing a dystopia about being gay would be to rattle a shockingly complacent straight readership into something approaching empathy. A really effective dystopia takes the reader to a distorted future, so that when they close the book, they see their own world, in a new light. 1984 was a wild distortion, but it was seeded with ideas we were missing in the present.

So instead of writing a story about being gay, create one about being straight. Create a world where heterosexuality is a shocking desire.

Charles Coleman Finlay did this in his poignant short story “Pervert.” For a heterosexual reader, the experience is an overwhelming sense of loneliness as the straight character navigates a world where no one can imagine why he would “choose” a perversion like heterosexuality. The story resonates because it twists our present norms and reflects them back at us. It's painful and saddening, and mightily effective because at last, you, the “normal” reader, can experience a society that reviles you, simply for your basic nature.

Dystopias should be insurgent. They should force readers to question who they are, what their society is like, and what they take for granted. A good dystopia will illuminate the horrors right before our eyes, and one can hope that if it does its job well, it will create empathy and humanity in world that is sorely lacking.

Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of the Printz Award–winning novel Ship Breaker. His companion novel, The Drowned Cities, will be out May 2012.