Dystopias – the opposite of utopias – come in a variety of styles and genres to meet the trends. For a while, science fiction post-apocalyptic dystopias such as A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller) and Mad Max movies were popular. Feminist dystopias, the most famous of which is The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), have had continuing appeal.
Now, however, we find that the dystopia is one of the most prominent trends in Young Adult (YA) literature, meant for ages 15-20. (Let it be noted that I and some of my friends are *cough*ahem* somewhat above 20 and still enjoy YA lit.)
Two of the YA dystopias that have created the largest buzz in the literary or at least genre fiction world are The Hunger Games trilogy (Suzanne Collins) and the Divergent trilogy (Veronica Roth). Both create an oppressive, if implausible, society and feature protagonists the same age as the intended readers, who rebel against it.
This current in fiction, of course, taps into the phenomenon of teenage rebellion, but also channels it in a positive direction – these are societies that need to be rebelled against. The young adults are empowered, whether with weapons or mental or magical powers, to defy the status quo and try to bring about a new, better world.
There are certainly aspects of these books that older readers might object to, from teens wielding weapons to teens defying the powers that be, to teen sex. (Though the sex is nonexistent in some cases, minimal in others, and so non-graphic and off-stage as to be barely recognizable in other books. Apparently shooting heads of state with arrows or guns is still less alarming than 16-year-old characters having sex.)
But teens (and others) love them. Here are my opinions as to why.
Dystopias acknowledge that today’s society is dystopic. Maybe not rotten enough to choose teens to participate in televised killing sprees. But dysfunctional in a lot of ways, which teens can see and feel even if they don’t follow the news. They can hardly escape the sense that the world (or whatever part of it they live in) is unfair, unhealthy, and unjust, and many of the people in it are dangerous, vitriolic, scheming, and power-mad. Teens are smart enough to recognize that, no matter how many feel-good histories you feed them.
Dystopias say that teens can be active agents of change. The protagonists of these novels are certainly acted upon by society, but they also have the power to effect change at many levels, from personal defiance to regime change. However unlikely the plots, the idea that teens have power is, well, powerful.
Protagonists include strong female and male characters. And they acknowledge the possibility that males and females can work together. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is the clear lead, but Peeta is clearly no stick figure. The two have interactions that are complex and focus on the survival themes as much or more than the boy-girl angle. In Divergent, the relationship between Tris and Four (Tobias) is even more nuanced, with their personal and strategic goals often at odds. By the third novel, the narrative point of view even switches back and forth between them.
There are no pat endings. Appropriately, since the dystopian societies are in such abysmal shape to begin with, not everything is peaceful and peachy by the end of the story. Nor are dystopian novels simply about tearing down a bad society, but raising up a new, better one – and acknowledging the strength, courage, and intelligence that will take.
Few would deny that – at least in the U.S. – society is becoming more fractured, chaotic, and hate-filled – more dystopic. Truthers, birthers, factions that can imagine death panels and reeducation camps, blaming whole groups – the NRA, Wall Street, liberals, conservatives, or whomever – for society’s ills cannot have escaped the notice of young adults. They’re still young enough to believe that solutions are possible, and old enough to see that the solutions will require commitment, struggle, and hard work.
Dystopic YA novels say, “More power to them!”