When people talk about classic dystopian novels for young readers, the same titles come up again and again: The Giver. City of Ember. A few others. But one classic book in that subgenre deserves a lot more love: House of Stairs by William Sleator, librarian Mina Hong tells io9.
Last week, we asked booksellers and librarians for their favorite science fiction and fantasy books that aren't about what people always describe them as being about. Hong, a young-adult librarian with the New York Public Library who blogs frequently at the NYPL blog, got back to us after our deadline — but her comments about Sleator's book are still worth sharing.
I think William Sleator's book The House of Stairs is pretty underrated. It was published in 1974.
To briefly summarize, the book takes place in an unspecified dystopian future. Five teens are placed in a house with stairs leading nowhere. A machine rewards the teens with food pellets whenever they betray each other. They form alliances and use sex and violence to manipulate and harm one another in order to get these food pellets.
I think it's pretty easy to draw parallels between the infamous Milgram experiments in the 1960s and what happens to the characters in the book. I think the cultural environment at the time was filled with distrust against the government and other institutions.
What I find to be unexpected is how relevant this book is today. When I think of putting people in one environment and rewarding them for forming alliances and then betraying them, I think of reality television and how entirely manipulated those "realities" are. Of course, reality TV didn't exist in Sleator's time but like many sci-fi writers, he was very forward-thinking.
The House of Stairs is also a precursor to many popular, contemporary dystopian novels such as The Hunger Games and Divergent series where teens are manipulated by adults to harm/kill one another . Science fiction is good at using themes of reality TV to reflect larger ideas about society. Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451 also used this idea to some degree, showing how characters were able to participate in their own reality shows in order to distract them from politics and thus make them more pliable citizens.