In recent months, I have been publishing my reviews of the young adult series, Noughts and Crosses, written by Malorie Blackman. The series tells the story of an alternative UK called Albion where Crosses are black people and Noughts are white people – with black people being in control of government and senior offices and Noughts being working class and also former slaves to Crosses.
In the first book we follow Persephone Hadley, the Cross daughter of Prime Minister Kamal Hadley and her relationship with Callum McGregor, the Nought son of Sephy’s nanny, Meggie and the book asks whether they can ignore their differences or as the adult world and politics begins to intrude on their innocence, will it tear them apart.
Subsequent entries in the series examined extremism and radicalisation as Callum’s brother Jude sank further into his hatred of Crosses and later on radicalises Sephy and Callum’s mixed-race daughter Callie-Rose Hadley into working for a Nought terrorist group. The later entries examined Callie-Rose’s friendship with the boy next door Tobias Durbridge and the consequences of his greed and ambition and whether old wounds and racism can really die as he becomes the first Nought Prime Minister. It is a fascinating series which over the course of 20 years reflects many of the political, social and economic changes in the UK and to a certain extent the US but a question I have found asked on social media is whether the book is a dystopia.
What is a dystopia?
I think first of all we need to define what a dystopian piece of literature actually is. Dystopian fiction is a speculative genre created in response to Utopian fiction (although some stories can be a mixture of both). A utopian novel usually presents a society which reflects the authors values and presents a setting and society that is perfect and somewhat idealistic. Whereas a dystopian novel creates a society that doesn’t reflect the authors values and their society may have issues which the author doesn’t agree with, such as mass poverty, public mistrust and suspicion, or a police state or oppression.
Sometimes an author may combine the two as well to create a society with the veneer of perfection but underneath that gloss it is much more dangerous and deadly.
Why did Malorie Blackman write Noughts and Crosses?
From this definition then we can see that an authors motivation for writing a book can help somewhat to define whether it is dystopian or not.
In a 2022 interview, Blackman stated her reason for writing the Noughts and Crosses series was:
“A book I was compelled to write. It was my 50th book and I wanted to address racism and its legacy directly. I was also inspired by the Stephen Lawrence case. I was appalled by the way the Lawrence family had been treated, especially by the police, and I wanted to write something about what it’s like to be judged based on the colour of your skin. That was the genesis of the series.“
Blackman also stated that during the writing of the series, especially the first entry, that she drew on various events that happened during her own life – such as experiencing history lessons in the UK where black history was barely mentioned or taught incorrectly, or being asked to present a first-class ticket on a train whereas the white passengers were not. She also stated in an article for Penguin that she “wanted to look at race and class dynamics through a non-traditional lens”. It is from all of these experiences that the story took shape.
For extra context and those unfamiliar with the Stephen Lawrence case, Stephen was an 18 year old black teenager murdered by a gang of white men in South-East London in 1993 in a racially motivated, unprovoked attack. The case was infamous as it exposed institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police as the five suspects were initially arrested but not convicted. It was almost 20 years later in 2012 when the five suspects were finally convicted for the murder. Stephen’s mother, Doreen Lawrence, allowed the case to be taught in British schools to combat racism and setup the Stephen Lawrence Charitable trust in his memory – which you can find out more about here.
How is Noughts and Crosses dystopian?
From Blackman’s comments we can see that her main reasoning for writing the series was to examine race and class and that she has anti-racist values. However in the world of Noughts and Crosses race plays a massive part in the series and the events that happen to the characters.
From the beginning of the novel, all white people are considered to be Noughts and black people are Crosses with Noughts often being treated as second class citizens by the Crosses.
In the opening chapters of the first novel we learn that Meggie loses her job as she doesn’t provide a cover story for her employers’ wife Jasmine who is having an affair and that the McGregor’s as a result are living very close to the poverty line without the extra income. Callum manages to get a place at Heathcroft High School which is a top school previously attended by Crosses only, with both him and the other Noughts experiencing racism and bullying during their first day at school. Callum is the first of Meggie’s children to go to this school, with Lynette and Jude going to the Nought comprehensive where education is of a lower standard and it is significantly harder for class and social mobility amongst Noughts. This shows in the world of Albion there is racial prejudice.
There is also a heavy amount of oppression throughout the series of Noughts by Crosses. In Knife Edge, Sephy joins a local band when she meets one of their members in the hospital just after she gives birth. The band members are all Noughts, however they ask Sephy to be their lead singer in order to get more gigs in Cross clubs. This is because many areas of Albion practice racial segregation with some Nought only and Cross only spaces – with the Nought areas usually being described as more run down, reflecting their levels of poverty. This is also shown in the first book when Sephy goes to sit next to Callum and the teacher Mrs. Bawden tells her to “get back to her own table” – showing that the Cross students and teachers alike do not want the Noughts in their spaces.
Of course this is explored further later in the series through the path taken by Tobias Durbridge into politics and the people circling around him in the political space and many not wanting him to be their leader, partly due to him being a Nought.
However one of the areas which is definitely more dystopian is the fact that Albion uses the death penalty. This was scrapped in the UK in 1965 but is still used in the world of Noughts and Crosses, with execution being Callum’s ultimate fate at the ending of the first novel.
In what ways is Noughts and Crosses not dystopian?
Though there are elements of dystopia in Noughts and Crosses, there are also some ways it isn’t dystopian. Although it wouldn’t be right to state the novel is utopian as it doesn’t reflect a perfect society by any stretch of the imagination, but there are some key characteristics missing from the novel.
In many dystopian novels, technology is used as a means of controlling the masses – from Big Brother in 1984, to birth control in Brave New World, to The Hunger Games themselves in the series of the same name. However in Noughts and Crosses the technology is largely left out and in many ways the technology the characters use is similar to our own. They have TV, radio and the internet the same way we do with no overarching technological presence controlling the masses.
It is also arguable that the novel doesn’t show a society in decline. Though the society is controlled and we see the effects of racism and maintaining the status quo on the characters themselves, there has been political change during the course of the series, shown by the advancement of the first Nought Prime Minister by the end of the series. In many ways the society and political system shown in Albion is very similar to many countries today which stops the novel going into full on dystopian territory.
Is Noughts and Crosses a Dystopia?
In my opinion, I think though the novel does have some dystopian elements within it certainly, the book isn’t really a full dystopia and is instead an exploration of a massive what if question – what would happen if history had turned out differently and would society still have made the same mistakes? It is somewhat depressing that this novel largely says no it wouldn’t have made a difference as Crosses still seek to oppress Noughts and this in turns pushes Jude and Callie Rose further down a path towards extremism. However by educating younger people on the effects of racism and a classist society we can only hope in the future that younger people will be lead towards something much brighter.
If you have read the series, I would love to know your thoughts on this topic – let me know down below.