In the Eye of the Beholder? The Unadulterated Beautiful and the Threatening Grotesque in a Selection of Young Adult Science Fiction Narratives

Rebecca Hutton, Alyson Miller, Elizabeth Braithwaite |

Science fiction, according to Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. (2008, 187), “elicits from its audiences a feeling of hesitation facing two intertwined but distinct questions about the imaginary world represented in the text. On the one hand, it asks whether the imaginary changes are possible; on the other, what their social and ethical implications might be.” In the August 2014 edition of Deletion, we approached aspects of these questions in regards two young adult science fiction narratives: Monica Hughes’ Invitation to the Game (1990) and M.T. Anderson’s Feed (2004). These two texts employ visions of the future where boundaries between the artificial and the organic have been blurred. In the respective futures each represents, the environment and the bodies of the young are subjected to revisions and hybridisations that call into question just how far we can remove ourselves from technology and still survive. Our intention in this paper is to look more closely at the aesthetics of the bodies and landscapes that we addressed previously – the flesh, the wires, and the pixels – to consider the complicated relationship between the often “unadulterated” beautiful and the “threatening” grotesque in these (and other) science fiction narratives that involve the hybridisation of the artificial and the organic.

Forms of the grotesque such as those evidenced in Hughes and Anderson’s texts align with Csicsery-Ronay Jr.’s concept of a “modern” grotesque whereby the grotesque figure is “suffused with threat” (184) rather than the carnivalesque Bakhtinian grotesque. This threat is one that Csicsery-Ronay Jr. aligns specifically with the “foundations […] of science and technology” (184). It is not unusual to see bodies dichotomised into the untouched and seemingly virgin skin of young protagonists and their followers/friends/comrades, and the grotesque modified or hybrid bodies of antagonists, monsters or victims in young adult science fiction narratives. In James Dashner’s The Maze Runner (2009), the Gladers are terrorised by semi-mechanoid monsters called Grievers that hunt, infect, and murder children; in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (2008) deceased Tributes become genetically-engineered muttations, human-animal hybrids that devour the surviving Tributes. In both cases, these aberrations from the “norm” are set in opposition to – and as a significant threat to – the young characters of the narrative. The grotesque “turns […] attention intensely towards the object” (Csicsery-Ronay Jr. 2002, 83), with the object here just as much the body of the young person as it is the “monstrous” being that threatens them.

The Feed book coverThe threat of the trajectory of technological development on both body and environment in Western society is overtly addressed throughout M.T. Anderson’s cautionary tale of the “feed” – an electronic implant that is meant to make life easier by allowing information, infotainment and advertising to be sent directly to the brain. In addition to manipulating the social and political awareness of the population, the feed appears to impede cognitive development, and the production of the technology contributes to the collapse of the already besieged environment in the novel. Such frightening repercussions are paired with subtler scenes that draw on the grotesque to further the text’s assault on technology but that also complicate this prophesised threat. In the scene in which the protagonist, Titus, and his girlfriend Violet visit a meat farm the reader is positioned to see how far this future world is removed from the organic and natural in its privileging of technology. The farm is both beautiful and grotesque. It calls upon the discourse of the pastoral to define this beauty with its “huge hedges”, smell of the country, “perfect afternoon”, and “beautiful sunset” (142, 143). However, the hedges are of meat tissue, and rather than the traditional lush green, the hedges are red, with “beautiful marble patterns running through them”, and the maze through which Titus and Violet run is not made of plants, but of “beef hallways” (142). Titus’ remark that “I like to see how things are made, and to understand where they come from” is ironic, as the implied reader – familiar with the knowledge that beef comes from cows – can see very well that Titus has no real understanding of meat production at all.

Through the visceral imagery, the meat farm is also reminiscent of an abattoir. In merging farm and abattoir in relation to a genetically engineered feat that removes the necessity to slaughter sentient animals, the landscape in this scene not only conflates flesh with environment but also prompts readers to think about how meat is produced in the real world – something that, in contemporary Western societies, is for the most part actively avoided (Fitzgerald 2010). What is perhaps most complex about this scene is that reforms to slaughterhouses in the nineteenth century to industrialise the process were “closely linked […] to the emergence of new technologies” of the time (Brantz, 71). This process involved both benefits and new risks to the health of the population (see Fitzgerald 2010). By placing the reader in a moment of discomfort through the grotesque, the text forces the reader to turn attention to the advance of technology – past, present and future. Rather than an exclusive affront to technological intervention in all aspects of life, the text instead simultaneously calls into question the potential ethics of resistance to technology.

MazeThe ethical impetus of Feed, however, becomes less ambiguous when considering representations of the human body. When the “activity of American industry” (93) begins to affect the populace by producing skin lesions, notions of beauty and the grotesque are redefined within the narrative whilst leaving the young reader’s perceptions of each intact. Titus may call Violet’s necklace-like lesion “beautiful” (22), but the weeping, gaping sores retain their nature as symptoms of societal malady, culminating in the description of Titus’ mother who “had lost so much skin you could see her teeth even when her mouth was closed” (284) by the end of the narrative. The characters may not react to the horror of the lesions but the reader, conditioned by real world stigmatisation and phobias of symptoms of diseased bodies, is encouraged to adopt such revulsion via Anderson’s repeated descriptions. Alice Curry (54) argues that the text also employs an “eroticisation of the grotesque” as part of the narrative’s critique of consumerist behaviours. “The deterioration of the body”, she posits, “is here appropriated into the realm of female beautification” (55) as the character of Quendy has surgery to increase the number of lesions on her body because they have come into vogue. This reversal of the beautiful and grotesque is then further addressed via links to the artificial and natural in a scene where Calista (whose name means “beautiful”) comes to “SchoolTM” with artificial lesions on her neck. The lesions have become a fashion item, but Calista’s are “not even real”, being made of latex (183). The allegation of not being real is somewhat ironic in this world, because it is not clear if anything is “real” even within the constraints of the fiction – the perception the young people have of themselves is given to them by the Corporations that literally “feed” their feeds. A symptom of this technology-addicted society, the narrative seems to suggest, is in locating beauty in the grotesque: which in turn implies technological reliance to be a sick addiction.

Where texts such as Feed, The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner employ manifestations of the grotesque through hybridisations of the flesh, Monica Hughes’ Invitation to the Game locates the threat in being unable to see beyond the beautiful, artificial façade constructed to force participation in a virtual laboratory that teeters between a promise of hope and annihilation. In the narrative, The Game creates a computer-generated reality replica of a new world, functioning as a means of preparing young people for interplanetary colonization. In contrast to the sterile and unwelcoming urban space that the young protagonists inhabit on their home planet, The Game offers an exotic dream; a “never-never land” (75) that fulfils fantasies of space, freedom, plenitude and natural beauty. Yet as one character notes, “The Game is like a soap bubble. If you poke it to see what the rainbows are made of, it bursts and you have nothing” (75). Indeed, while the virtual world offers respite and pleasure, it is nothing other than a mirage; or, more insidiously, a series of illusions induced by government officials to manipulate its young into self-sacrifice. Made dependent on a series of simulations, the group of young people become progressively obsessed then haunted with the prospects offered by The Game, the experience of which is described in rapturous, addicted, if not hallucinogenic, terms: “We lived for The Game. Every moment in that place was magic. Every day in the dingy city was only a preparation for a return…” (112). Yet when the participants are eventually relocated to the real world replicated by The Game, the effects of the virtual space – manufactured to intensify the colour, pleasure and safety of the environment – ensure reality is, perhaps unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly disappointing. Their vision of beauty is marred, as the planet appears “as if someone had painted a grey wash over all the brilliant colours. It’s not the same” (117). Indeed, the natural world, complete with the discomforts of insects, predators, unpredictable weather changes, lack of shelter and an unknown food supply (117-125), is ironically transformed into a site of the ugly and the surreal: “I looked around, trying to recapture the delight of those earlier visits to Game country… But instead I saw sopping vegetation and felt the ache in my bones and the chill of clothes not quite dry, the discomfort of the sleepless night” (131). Thus as with the infected consumers of the “feed” in Anderson’s text, the participants of The Game are lured into locating beauty within a surreal sense of the grotesque, in which simulation (produced via an injection of chemicals) enables a falsified sense of escape. In this scenario, the natural environment is ironically rendered as a horrific parody of a virtual space, initially unwelcomed and unwanted.

Invitation to The GameIn both Invitation to the Game and Feed, Western society is haunted by technologies that actively seek to dissemble understandings of the “natural”, in terms of both the body and the environment. The result of such a breakdown is a form of sickness that sees the young adult protagonists addicted to simulated worlds that supersede the degeneration of those they actually inhabit. In a macabre twist, in which the boundaries between the natural and the organic are systematically eradicated, participants in The Game and recipients of the “feed” not only make normative the bizarre conditions of their “new” worlds, but are also seduced into celebrations of their beauty, despite the annihilating effects of technological intervention, and the deterioration of both self and the environment.


Anderson, M. T. 2004. Feed. Walker Books: London.

Brantz, D. 2008. “Animal Bodies, Human Health, and the Reform of Slaughterhouses in Nineteenth-Century Berlin”, in P. Young Lee (ed.) Meat, Modernity and the Rise of the Slaughterhouse, University of New Hampshire Press: Durham, 71–88.

Collins, S. 2008. The Hunger Games. Scholastic: New York.

Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. I. 2002. “On the Grotesque in SF”, Science Fiction Studies, vol. 29, 71–99.

Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. I. 2008. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press: Middletown.

Curry, A. 2013. Environmental Crisis in Young Adult Fiction: A Poetics of Earth. Hampshire Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke.

Dashner, J. [2009]. 2011. The Maze Runner. Chicken House: Frome.

Fitzgerald, A. J. 2010. “A Social History of the Slaughterhouse: From Inception to Contemporary Implications”, Research in Human Ecology, vol. 17, no. 1, 58 – 69.

Hughes, M. 1990. Invitation to the Game. Simon and Schuster: New York.


Rebecca Hutton is a PhD candidate in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University, Australia. Her research focus is young adult texts, particularly dystopian fictions and GLBTQ narratives.

Alyson Miller teaches literary studies at Deakin University, Geelong. Her research focuses on scandalous texts, with a particular interest in issues relating to gender, sexuality and identity.

Elizabeth Braithwaite is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Memory, Imagination and Invention at Deakin University. Her main area of research is post-disaster fiction for children and young adults.

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