'Elysium': Sci-Fi & Fantasy's Most Brutal Caste Systems
In futuristic stories like "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Divergent," it's not a dystopian society unless humanity is splintered--by money, status, talent or duty. These splits are often orhcestrated by a larger power. In these page-turners, to deviate from one's caste means exile or death. Neill Blomkamp's new science-fiction adventure "Elysium" (out this week) presents a future in which humanity is starkly separated into the haves and have-nots. The rich live in the titular space station Elysium, with technology that can cure even terminal cancer. Max (Matt Damon) is one of the majority of humans eking out a hardscrabble existence on a burnt-out Earth. When he suffers a near-fatal accident, he must infiltrate Elysium to find the cure--and tear down the caste system in the process.
Like Max, heroes of these sci-fi and fantasy stories are faced with the near-impossible task of rising above their caste, to be treated as the whole person they deserve to be. There's a book for every type of caste system, and we've distilled the must-reads from the rest.
Separated by: names
Mindy L. Klasky juggles two different caste systems in her "Glasswrights" series. The first book, "The Glasswrights' Apprentice," introduces readers to the kingdom of Morenia, where the number of syllables in a citizen's name identifies his/her class. After she accidentally causes the death of the crown prince, Ranita Glasswright--formerly Rani Trader--must drop and add syllables as she hides within the city's complicated class system.
Separated by: tattoos
In Klasky's follow-up, "The Glasswrights' Progress," Rani is kidnapped and taken to Amanthia, where children are branded with face tattoos depending on which star they're born beneath. Swans are leaders, lions are soldiers and so on. Unlike Morenia, where Rani can shift her identity with ease, in Amanthia, she faces the terror of being permanently branded as one caste.
Separated by: jobs
In Jim Butcher's "Codex Alera" series, the Canim (a werewolf-like species) are separated into three fairly straightforward castes: makers (farmers, blacksmiths), ritualists (sorcerers) and warriors. Each class seems to have a different view of their position in society: Ritualists resent warriors for being the leaders, yet both magic-wielding classes serve to benefit the workers, who make up most of the population.
Separated by: language
Ludania, the setting of Kimberly Derting's YA novel, has one of the most deeply ingrained caste systems: The language you speak determines your class, and to speak a different tongue means death. Protagonist Charlie can understand all languages, a dangerous affinity she has spent her life hiding. When she meets Max, a boy who literally "speaks her language," their connection has her wondering if she should reject the system.
Separated by: clothing
In Margaret Atwood's landmark speculative fiction tale, the Republic of Gilead divides and controls its citizens through a complicated dress code. The ruling Commanders of the Faithful wear black, while their Wives dress in blue (likely an allusion to the Virgin Mary) and their Daughters don pure white. The titular Handmaids wear red (fertility) with winged headdresses to keep them from looking around. Domestic servants, or Marthas, wear green smocks. "Non-persons"--men and sterile, unmarried women and men--wear gray and are sent to labor camps, where they work in irradiated fields until they succumb to radiation poisoning.
Separated by: numbers
When a war thrusts the United States back into pseudo-medieval times, the newly formed kingdom of Illéa separates its citizens into neatly numbered tiers. Ones are royals, Twos are celebrities, Threes are teachers, Fours are merchants, Fives are artists, Sixes are domestic workers and Sevens are laborers. As difficult as it may be to be trapped within one class, it's preferable to being Eights, or "Untouchables"--those abandoned, with no way to prove their caste.
Separated by: virtue
Of all the recent dystopian YA novels dealing in castes, Veronica Roth's series is one of the strongest examples of world building: Futuristic Chicago is divided into five factions, each promoting a particular virtue: Abnegation (selflessness), Candor (honesty), Amity (peace), Erudite (intelligence) and Dauntless (bravery). When Abnegation member Beatrice is offered multiple choices for which class to choose--which makes her Divergent--she joins Abnegation's polar opposite Dauntless and renames herself Tris. There's only one catch: Those new caste members who do not succeed at initiation must join the ranks of the "factionless," with all the danger and uncertainty that comes with a lack of group affiliation.
To make matters worse there's violent conflict brewing--from within? from above?--that threatens to upend the entire system and that Tris is determined to uncover.