Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hang On, Were You Trying to Be Sexist? (The Maze Runner)

In case you guys haven't picked up a trend so far, young adult dystopian fiction is kind of my jam. Whether it's The Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched, The Selection, Uglies, or pretty much anything else I forgot to mention but love uncontrollably, yeah, I like it a little bit.

Which is why I was so excited to finally get my hands on The Maze Runner and its two sequels. I love me a good yarn about oppressive governments and coming of age, and this one is widely considered to be one of the best. I settled down into my comfy ikea chair to read about a dude for once, and remembered fondly that the main character in this one, Thomas, is actually going to be played by Dylan O'Brien in the movie that comes out this fall, and all is right with the world. Except for the part where it's not. Because it wasn't too far into the book when I realized that crap, these books are actually incredibly deeply sexist.

Whoops.

So while some people read books like this and get swept up in the plot or the story, I actually read this entire trilogy with a single mantra in my mind: "Please be all in my head. Please don't actually be sexist. Please let Teresa turn out to be awesome."

Spoiler alert: it didn't get better. It actually got worse. A lot worse.

And now, to back it up for those of you who have no idea what I just said. The Maze Runner and its sequels (The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure) are all books written by James Dashner, and they focus on a group of teenage boys who have been abandoned, seemingly without purpose, inside a giant maze full of monsters and other things that could kill them. The boys are given food, shelter, equipment, and even the tools to farm and raise their own animals. But they aren't given any way out.

More than that, more boys keep arriving. Once a month, on the same day each time, the Box comes up, and in it comes another boy, roughly teenaged, with absolutely no memory of who he is or how he got there. All that boy will know is his name. And the other boys will haze him a little, before enfolding him into life in The Glade, as they call it. Some boys raise cattle, some boys farm the land, some cook the food, some clean the latrines, and some boys, just a few, run the maze every day before the doors close, looking for a way out.

Into all of this carefully constructed something comes Thomas, the new boy in the Box. Thomas has no idea who he is or what he's doing there, only that the Maze and the Glade seem somehow familiar, and that more than anything, he wants to be a Runner. But mostly he's just terrified and wants to go home, wherever home is.

It's with Thomas' arrival, though, that things seem to kick into high gear. Whoever put the boys in the maze to begin with is ready to take things to the next level, and the day after Thomas appears, something completely different happens: a girl comes up in the Box. She's a month too early to be their new Glader, and she's the first girl ever to arrive. Also she's in a coma and carries a piece of paper that says she's the last one, ever.

So totally not ominous.

She also appears to know Thomas because, moments before slipping into a coma, she said his name. This does not help with the Gladers, who are already suspicious because girl, and then suspicious because she has "WICKED is good" written on her arm, and also everything else is super not kosher. Thomas is just freaked out that she appears to be speaking to him inside his brain. And that she looks very familiar.

For the majority of book one, Teresa is in a coma. Then she wakes up, and, her memories now completely gone, she and Thomas try to solve the maze before the Grievers (horrifying monsters that roam the maze at night) kill them all. Or, well, Thomas tries to solve the maze. Teresa gets locked up for a while, then sits around in the map room making puzzles, while Thomas heroically sacrifices himself and runs around and is generally heroic.

Eventually (not really SPOILERS, but whatever), they manage to escape the maze, only to find that they have been held as part of an experiment held by the group WICKED, which is a really dumb acronym, and that the whole point of the maze was to test them against various Variables. Because the world has succumbed to a pseudo-zombie apocalypse, and clearly trapping a bunch of teenagers in a giant maze for two years was the most efficient way to deal with the problem. Totally.

In the second book, The Scorch Trials, the Gladers think that they've finally escaped, only to discover that, no, they haven't, and WICKED is still testing them. Thomas and company are "rescued" and taken to another location, only for Teresa to be kidnapped, because of course she is, and for the boys to find themselves abandoned in the wasteland that is The Scorch (a part of North America completely fried by sun flares), and beset by "Cranks" - people with the Flare virus who are at varying levels of zombification.

They have to walk through the Scorch in order to reach safe haven, and they have a deadline, because, again, of course they do. Also, Teresa is still missing, and probably in danger, and it seems that there is a second group of Gladers out there, this one a group of all girls and one guy (the guy is now with our heroes because we needed another dude). And also these girls want to kill Thomas. Because plot, I guess.

Thomas meets a pretty girl: Brenda. Brenda wants to kiss Thomas, but Thomas wants to kiss Teresa. Brenda is mad. Teresa comes back, only to be kind of mildly psychotic. Teresa kidnaps Thomas, tells him to trust her, and then declares loudly her intent to murder him.

Teresa tries to murder Thomas, with the help of some other people (mostly girls). Thomas is very unhappy for some reason with being stuck in a gas chamber in the middle of the desert. He and Teresa are not really friends anymore. Teresa claims that she was trying to save his life. By trying to kill him. They all make it to the safe haven, and find out that this was just another test, and also that WICKED is still monitoring them and studying their brains. Thomas is then taken away and put in a little white cell for a while, because plot, I think.

Book three: The Death Cure. Thomas gets out of his cell, and discovers that WICKED has decided to play with all of their lives because they are trying to make a cure for the Flare. But, because WICKED is super horrible, not all the boys are immune to the virus. Thomas is immune, but his best friend Newt isn't. Also, Teresa is totally sure that WICKED is great, even though Thomas is sure it isn't. Oh, and Brenda is actually working for WICKED but not working for them and still wants to kiss Thomas.

Blah blah blah, Thomas and some friends escape from WICKED and go on a rollicking adventure through a post-apocalyptic Denver, only to eventually end up back at WICKED, trying to save the immune people from being blown up. The series ends with Teresa dead (she died trying to save Thomas, because of course she did), and the rest of the immune characters escaping to a magical land where they can be safe from Cranks and repopulate the earth in peace. The end.

In case you couldn't tell by my tone in there, the books kind of lost me after the first one. Not only are these books where the entire cast is made up of guys, and the only female character spends all of her time either being useless or being an antagonist motivated by wanting to bone the hero, they're also just kind of badly written. 

It's sad, but true.

The problem comes from the setup of the story. I'm all for the idea of a story where it turns out that the characters are actually labrats in a giant experiment (I've actually got a great comic script like that kicking around), but the problem with this is how much it blames on that conceit, and how little sense it actually makes.

Thomas is stuck in the maze because of the experiment. Then he escapes, then he is rescued, then he escapes again, then he wanders in the desert, then he kisses some girl, then he escapes another freaking time, and all of these things - all of them - are supposed to happen. They're part of the experiment. What it does is degrade the stakes of the story. It makes it all feel meaningless. 

And I suppose that some part of that is intentional. Thomas and the others feel like labrats. They feel like their lives are being controlled, and that they have no power. Every move they make has been anticipated, and is actually playing into their captors' hands. Unfortunately, while that is conceptually interesting, it really blows in a book series.

When I am absolutely sure that my hero cannot win this battle, and that in fact it is wildly rigged against him, and then the story goes on to show me that literally every fight he is in is rigged against him, at some point I stop being outraged on his behalf, and I just start getting bored. I stop caring. It's too much effort, and I know he's going to lose. Whatever.

Plus, most of the "Variables" that WICKED puts Thomas through feel a bit more like plotlines that the writer wasn't comfortable fully committing to. Like when Thomas is trapped in the insane asylum. The second book ends with him locked away "for his own good", and then the third book starts with him being let out a few weeks later, everything fine, no worries, carry on. And it is never explained or really referred to again.

This happens, for the record, all the freaking time. All these Variables are actually just random excuses stuck in there every once in a while to say, "Oh right, yeah, there's an explanation for that! A good one! But you don't need to know what it is."

I find this rather frustrating.

And, like I said before, the sexism in these books is really remarkable. For starters, the only female character in the first book at all is Teresa, who spends most of the story comatose. Then there's the thing where there are only three notable female characters (Teresa, Brenda, and Chancellor Paige), and two of them are love interests for Thomas. The other one, Chancellor Paige, of course, is the secret mastermind behind everything and never appears in the story. At all. I think we glimpse her hand once.

All of this is annoying. The lack of girls in the maze, and the existence of "Group B", the girl group, are explained away as the Variables, but the reason for those particular variables is never given. Nor do we ever really learn anything about Group B, other than that they were slightly better at the maze than the boys. 

The problem is that Dashner focuses the story on the guys, and never questions it. He gives us one female character, who sucks, and who the hero literally cannot even mentally refer to without calling her pretty, but he ignores the entire massive group of female characters at his disposal, because of "the Variables."

It really seems more like he just didn't feel like writing any women. Like it felt easier to just write about a bunch of guys, but he needed to throw in the idea of a female version of this happening too, just so people like me didn't get upset. Too late, Dashner. A little too late.

For all of this, though, it's not a bad story, per se. There's a movie coming out this November adapted from this material, and I will probably go see it. In theaters, even. It's an entertaining concept, and while I was grossly let down by the execution, I'm willing to give it another chance.

It better not screw it up.


22 comments:

  1. Wow. So have you tried Partials, by Dan Wells?

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    1. Nope! But I take it it would fit in my oeuvre?

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  2. Post-apocalyptic, dystopian setting... strong female main character... real-world geek factor...
    Um, probably?

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    1. Yup, that does sound my like my jam. Thanks for the tipoff!

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  3. Yes! Yes, so much this. I bought the series about a week ago, after spotting the good reviews and thinking that the concept sounded intriguing.

    I've rarely had to struggle through a book as much as this one - Thomas has to be one of least likeable, most obvious Gary Stus I've ever encountered. The whole experience of reading Book 1 was excruciating and offensive, so I think the rest of the series will be bagged up and inflicted on whichever charity shop is unfortunate enough to be closest.

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    1. I support that life choice. The books certainly don't get less Gary Stu about Thomas. If anything, they get moreso. It was a little painful. So I highly recommend dumping the books and moving on.

      Have you read Tin Star? Might help to get the taste out of your mouth.

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    2. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but after reading your summary of the sequels above, I can only back away from these books with a naked flame and a can of something flammable to hand, and pray that they let me leave without a fight.

      I haven't read Tin Star, no - thanks for the recommendation!

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    3. Maybe take an axe with you. Just to be safe.

      Tin Star is awesome and cool and a great antidote to this. Just saying!

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  4. THANK YOU. I just finished these because I'm a completionist. Could Brenda and Teresa be any more dependent on Thomas? I mean, honestly, the characters aren't terribly well fleshed out, but Dasher has no idea how to write a girl whose life doesn't revolve around a guy. Brenda's pretty badass but she has a bad case of Trinity Syndrome. And Teresa's constant flip flopping between "I'm good! No, I'm evil! No, I'm good again! I only want the best for you, Thomas!" got...ugh.

    Why are these books well-reviewed again? Also, the writing is blocky & stilted, the made-up lingo annoying, and Dasher needs to learn how to show not tell.

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    1. These books mad me very sad. Then angry. Then sad again. Ugh. I have no idea how they got so popular and critically acclaimed, to be honest. I figure it has something to do with the hypothetically interesting philosophical questions involved, but even those are much more basic than the ones you can find pretty much anywhere else.

      And yes, I dislike Dashner's writing style. Hmmph.

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  5. I don't agree with you, but just wanted to point out that if you are in the United States the movie opens this weekend, September 19th.
    If you are not in the US, you can find the release dates here:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1790864/releaseinfo?ref_=tt_ov_inf+

    So could you plrease correct the imformation on your article? It can misinform people.

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  6. Not having read the books and just having seen the movie, I googled "why aren't there any girls in the maze runner"
    And it led me to this blog post. Needless to say, I'm incredibly annoyed that the book never explains why there is only one girl becauseci thought it was just a time issue thing with the movie. So basically, James Dashber wrote this with the intent of never having a female readership or a make one who wasn't at all feminist.

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    1. Agreed. It's super frustrating. Everything at all weird in the books is just handwaved away as "because of the variables", but that's a terrible excuse.

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  7. I'm so glad I found this post! I got all four books (including the prequel) and I'm on the prequel now, which isn't any better. There's two men and two women, a teenage love interest and an Army nurse (of course, she couldn't be a doctor!).
    I think what bugged me the most is in one of the books, the author made a point to say how all the boys were named after famous scientists (except for the cook and the Asian guy) but the women weren't. Considering there were only three girls in either maze with names, he could have found a few names.

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    1. Oh man. I never even noticed the name thing. Ugh, that makes it all even worse.

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  8. Have you tried the Percy Jackson series I only like action books and this is very great

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  9. Odd. I disagree completely. Teresa and Ava Paige were the only characters I actually liked in the book. Also, Group B had more survivors and escaped earlier than Group A. Argh, now I'm going to start a male rights protest against James Dashner.

    I don't think Teresa or Brenda were dependent on Thomas. We didn't see Teresa characterised a lot, but it's clear from the third book that she's a utilitarian (with the exception of the knee-jerk reaction of killing herself to save Thomas - he wasn't worth the sacrifice, in my opinion). Brenda behaved dependent on Thomas in the second book, because well - it was part of her job.

    I disliked the series for totally different reasons (the explicitly anti-utilitarian message, the protagonist being stupid - the reader could easily understand what WICKED's goals, Teresa's goals were from just reading his memories, and a multitude of annoying flaws in TDC).

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    1. I think the real basis is that Group B feels like a tag-on. My biggest issue with the books is that they never felt planned out in advance. I didn't feel like there was a solid reason for Teresa to be there in the first place if the groups were going to be gender segregated, and then it made little sense to remove her. As for Group B finishing first, it's a nice funny moment, but because we never see enough of Group B for them to be humanized, it doesn't feel particularly meaningful. Group A, the boys, is still the group of people we follow through the book. They're our heroes. The girls are an afterthought. I mean, if the girls really are so much better in this story, why aren't they the heroes we follow?

      And while I get the plot reasons why Teresa and Brenda orbited Thomas, I guess I still found it frustrating that none of the female characters ever felt like they were characters in their own rights.

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    2. I just randomly found this while googling for information on Group B and I thought I just had to disagree. Teresa is one of my favourite characters in the book. She's smart, resourceful and strong-willed. Just because she cares about Thomas doesn't make her weak or dependent? It means she cares about another human being? How is that different from a female character caring about her younger sibling and would go through any lengths to keep them safe? Just because it's a guy doesn't mean all her other traits are suddenly moot? She could beat up the Gladers if she wanted to no problem? People are always saying she didn't do anything in the first book but she was the one who figured the maze was a code. Thomas just steals people's thunder by being lucky.

      I don't get where this sexist notion is coming from, honestly. The book focuses on the guys because Thomas is the main character, why would you expect Dashner to focus on the girls when they have nothing to do with Thomas except during his kidnap? That would just be annoying. I'm so tired of this idea that strong female characters have to be blowing things up and losing their chill every five minutes. Then it's totally okay for them to have a romantic attachment with the boy. Ok.

      And especially don't understand how people don't understand the whole concept of the Variables. They are literally just a bunch of controlled situations WICKED puts them in to collect data on their brain patterns. That's it? There is no other explanation other than them finding a Cure? What is it that people are looking for? And in scientific experiments, segregation is a thing to control for extranaeous variables- not for fun but because things like gender are actual things that can affect results.

      And apparently Thomas shows the best fit of patterns that they need? And how is he a Gary Stu? He stumbles through the dark most of the time and everybody is helping him get out of trouble. He's more like a helpless princess and literally everyone orbits around him, not just the girls.

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  10. The first books was pretty interesting, but the second two are dumb.

    I don't think Dashner knows much about science (or plots that make sense).

    You've got a group of people who are IMMUNE to a global plague and you put them into situations where they might be killed so you can see how their brains react? Instead, why don't you examine them to find the medical (genetic?) reason they are IMMUNE to a plague that is destroying the world?

    I didn't think much about his sexism (I'm a guy), but the above commenters make good points. When Thomas and his group met group B, why didn't he write it so that they combined forces and worked together? Probably because he is a hack.

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  11. SPOILERS
    Thank you for your post. These books made me really angry. The concept was great, much of the first book was great, the second book at least had a driving plot, and then the last book was a morass of wasted potential. Aimless wandering. Characters engaging in idiotic dialogue when they should be taking action, and then not engaging in real dialogue or character development when the action ebbs. A protagonist who suddenly wants no new information (robbing us of explanations) and spews clichés instead of real emotion. By the end, I wanted him to give his brain to the Ratman as a noble sacrifice and be done with it. This series feels like a long hallway of open doors that the author never let us walk through.
    Also, I'm a guy, but the treatment of female characters was frustrating. Would have been more respectful with no females at all. Brenda and Teresa are pretty...other than that I know nothing about their motivations. Also, Thomas' posture toward Teresa made me insane. He knows from his memories that this has been his best friend for almost his entire life. She "betrays" him for a day (beforehand, daring to give him hints about what she has to do and then immediately afterward explaining her motivation to save his life). He can't forgive her and can't even have one genuine conversation with her. Yet, his "true" friend is a girl who was paid to be his friend and who he has known for what, two weeks? I get that Teresa is the "ends justify the means" character for much of this, and that the story is also about Thomas moving away from that philosophy, but the interpersonal aspect rang so hollow. Of course Teresa had to die because really it was an aspect of Thomas' former self dying. She was never a real character at all, but only a foil for Thomas' evolution. That might have worked if it hadn't been done so poorly.

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