All posts by Charles Cagle

For the dystopian heroine, as for the young adult reader who shares her despairs and triumphs, the quest for agency is the principle focus of the ascent to adulthood. In the realm of utopian literature, one can scarcely conceive of a society absent agency as anything other than a disaster.

In my conference presentation, A Sympathetic Tantalus: The Scorpion Rules and the Broken Promise of Agency, I will be discussing the role agency plays in young adult dystopian narratives, and more importantly the role young adult dystopian literature plays in developing a sense of agency in our youth. The talk will focus on Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules, following Princess Greta’s development from hostage schoolgirl to tortured captive, and finally to awe-inspiring trans-human intellect. Will we cover the intricacies of goat husbandry, or the intrigue of princess/goddess/farm boy love triangles?

“Goats — the shapers of history.”

Probably not. We do have our time constraints. Nevertheless, you will not want to miss the classic dystopian staples: ecological disaster, global war, genocide, filicide, panopticism, un-nerving robot intelligences that make us question the very nature of humanity, and more. We will also be forced to consider Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, painfully immediate though it is. Remembering the rumbling of dissatisfaction with the fate of Marcus’ revolution, the continuing existence of the DHS, and the absence of any true punishment for the dreaded Severe Haircut Lady, we will consider the efficacy of the ambiguous ending in literature as a spur to real-world action.

I argue that this pattern is greater than fear alone and more affective than mere hope. It is a thing that unsettles and forces a response. Having experienced the arduous road to revolution and the crushing defeat that follows, how do we choose to fill the void in our hearts and the vacant space the author leaves for our own story?

Works Cited:
Bow, Erin. The Scorpion Rules. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2016, New York.
Doctorow, Cory. Little Brother. Tom Doherty Associates, LLC., 2008, New York.
Elgaard. Goat in Argan Nut tree, Morocco. Wikimedia Commons, 22 Feb. 2015,

As young adults come of age, one of the essential duties of any society, dystopian or utopian, real or fictional, is the preparation of those young people for their roles as productive citizens. In The Scorpion Rules, Bow presents a story set in what is both a prison and a school for future world leaders. They learn, hands-on, humility and the principles of sustainable agriculture. In the classroom they are taught history, philosophy, and the futility of standing against the AI. It is this sense of powerlessness that serves as the cornerstone of many dystopian regimes, and it is in answer to this feeling that many writers choose to present an alternative to today’s youth.

The modern world faces dark times as the art of mass surveillance is perfected, the political elite seem bent on sewing division and dependence, and the great capitalist industrial complex refuses to respect our shared resources and habitat. How then do we entice our young people to abandon this despondence? How do we instill them not merely with a sense of vague, unjustified hope but with a sure and rational sense of social agency?

The Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen begins the series responsible for the survival of herself and her family. She is a capable and experienced provider, adapting to her environment with skill and cunning, yet she does not consider her potential to change the world. She refers to the games as “the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy” (18). Many young readers will empathize with this point of view. The rise from an obscure life of mere subsistence to become a true agent of revolution is a powerful and enviable story, though rather an emotional and perhaps unrealistic one. Don’t we need more than simple pathos in our appeal to the next generation? For my research, I intend to consider the rhetoric with which we teach agency, particularly focusing on the logical side of arguments. (Hopefully we can agree that young adults have logical sides to which to appeal.)

Works Cited:
Bow, Erin. The Scorpion Rules. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2016, New York.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic Press, 2009, New York.
Good, Thomas Altfather. Climate Protest UMaine. Wikimedia Commons, 21 Sep. 2014,

When rogue artificial intelligence Michael Talis saved the world from war he immediately assumed the burden of convincing the leaders of humanity not only to subjugate their nations to his rule, but also to offer their own beloved children as the collateral that would ensure peace (1-3). For many, this would be a difficult thing to accept, and surely the citizens of the world that empowered Talis could defeat him. Why has there been such resigned acceptance?

City goes boom. It's really not meant to be subtle.

Behold the power of propaganda. The word of Talis is known and studied by the leaders of the world, having been collected in a holy text known as the Utterances (20). His strategy is threefold. First, Talis portrays himself as the savior of the world, and mankind as short-sighted and incompetent: “. . . and of course people started shooting, because that’s what passes for problem-solving among humans. See, guys, this is why you can’t have nice things” (2). He would have us believe we are not fit to care for the earth alone. Then again, Talis is not above that timeless despotic classic, fear. When once a state dared attack a compound where his hostages were housed, Talis removed all trace of their capitol from the earth. “City goes boom . . . It’s really not meant to be subtle” (169). Indeed, Talis himself assures the people of earth that “resistance is futile” (32). This last quote is, of course, not original but is one of his many beloved movie quotes. Indeed, the third arm of rhetoric Talis employs is designed to subtly suggest a sense of humanity. His demeanor and tone are always lighthearted, jocular, reminiscent of a young boy, even when the subject matter is quite heavy. From Greta’s later experiences we know that the AI process information at startling speeds (351-352). We must therefore assume that any humor on the part of Talis is purely affected, that he disarming in more ways than one. Michael Talis, the benevolent, the omnipotent, the charmingly playful. I wouldn’t half mind giving him a chance.

Works Cited:
Bow, Erin. The Scorpion Rules. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2016, New York.
Mihan(AKA)Zed. Metro zagotovka. Wikimedia Commons, 19 Oct. 2008,

The defining characteristic of a dystopian narrative is the roots of its society in a utopian ideal. We see the startling, disgusting logical end result of some well-intentioned vision. The sweet promise of industry eradicating labor turns putrid as the rain turns to acid, and crops and wildlife wither and rot. Man’s great dream of economic equality and political freedom warps into the nightmare of mass poverty and the police state. The wonder of instant, ubiquitous communication, heralded as the haven of democracy, enables the surveillance of every aspect of modern life.

Surveillance camera

Science fiction dystopias display an even more pervasive fear of technological and scientific progress. The limitations on how quickly and drastically human society, and humans themselves, can change are lifted. Science fiction makes tangible our darkest, most distant dreams and enables our wildest fancy. The revelatory draught resulting from the blending of science fiction and dystopia is uniquely dark and bitter. Dystopias in this sub-genre are able to focus all the more sharply for their enhanced capacity to warp the lens through which we view our own society.

Mars transformed

When we consider Young Adult dystopias, there is a necessary change in the tone of the genre. Whereas we chastise adults for their role in bringing about the current state of affairs, we are gentler with the youth, merely cautioning them against our mistakes. Too, our perspective shifts, highlighting the way society treats the young. We are treated to a look at the system of education, the parenting, or lack of it, a grand insight into what forces form a dystopian adult. There are definite advantages to reaching the hearts and minds of the youth, as any utopian designer will attest, so young adult dystopias may well be the most impactful tool of social change available to the modern author.