What’s with all this Dystopian Fiction, Anyway?

A few days ago, my reader Maggie, whose food blog Life In a Skillet you really should visit, gave me a link to this New Yorker article about Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games in particular and dystopian fiction in general.

I’ll admit that I read far more adult fiction than young adult fiction (though given that I’m coming up on 30, I suppose that shouldn’t really surprise anyone!), but I have noticed the trend toward the dystopian, especially with the rise of the Hunger Games series. In my teaching experience, dystopian books have always been a big draw, especially for younger teenaged boys. I’ve tried to get a sense of what makes these titles such page-turners, and have been rewarded with the knowledge that dystopian books “don’t have all that boring description.” Point taken.

Adventuresome plots, plots with drama and life-or-death stakes (and, maybe, less of that boring description stuff) seem obviously more likely to get a reluctant reader’s attention, just as the dark subject matter and overt romance of the Twilight series is more likely to hook at teen reader than is, say, An American Tragedy, so it’s rather clear, at least to me, why these books are being read. But why, exactly, are are so many dystopian books being written?

Laura Miller, the article’s author, paraphrases from Kay Sambell:

“dystopian stories for adults and children have essentially the same purpose—to warn us about the dangers of some current trend. That’s certainly true of books like “1984” and “Brave New World”; they detail the consequences of political authoritarianism and feckless hedonism. This is what will happen if we don’t turn back now, they scold, and scolding makes sense when your readers have a shot at getting their hands on the wheel.”

So, in YA, are all the trappings of a dystopian world (the violence, the gore, the bloodshed) in some way just another opportunity to moralize to our kids that the world going to hell in a handbasket, and that they’re our hope for the future? Is it just a hipper, more current way to make them sing “We Are The World?” I have a sneaking suspicion that, whatever their other merits, they might be.

Perhaps I’m so skeptical of this particular literary agenda because I fundamentally disagree with Miller’s assertion that “the world of our hovered-over teens and preteens may be safer, but it’s also less conducive to adventure, and therefore to adventure stories.” I fundamentally disagree that the world is safer for teenagers than it was, say, 50 years ago. Not all that recently we managed to destroy the national and world economies, and spring an oil leak of mind-boggling proportions. We’re raising the global temperature with our carbon emissions and continuing to consume at a rate we can’t sustain. Compare that to a few parental controls on the web browser, and our kids don’t seem so well-protected after all.

One reason I found Cormac McCarthy’s The Road so compelling, and why I assign it to my students regularly, is that McCarthy does the opposite of what Miller/Sambell say is needful. Instead of winding up to a cataclysmic event that’s preventable only if the protagonist makes some tough decisions and changes the course of his society, McCarthy ignores the apocalypse altogether. What he gives us is the aftermath, and shows us the beauty, the terror, the meaning, and the importance of individual lives and genuine human connection in a horrifying ecological and sociological disaster zone. We’re the ones who’ve failed to change the world’s course, and that disaster zone may be exactly what we need to prepare the next generation for.

6 Replies to “What’s with all this Dystopian Fiction, Anyway?”

  1. Very interesting and thought provoking. As a long time student of dystopian fiction, I feel like something has shifted recently in the telling but am not sure why. What might the interest in the “aftermath” signify — assuming that ther is something symbolic as well as literal about it?

  2. I’ve never been a big fan of dystopian fiction, but I’d venture that its appeal for younger readers lies primarily in its stripping away of societal and cultural structures, which gives those readers an easier path to imagine themselves in the protagonist’s role. Problems and the convoluted, political, intractable systems we adults have created to address them are usually out of the experience of YA readers. In a dystopian story, all that is usually wiped clean right at the start, and replaced with more basic rights and wrongs. Of course there are some great exceptions, like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in which the world has been simplified by the Gileadians, but remains as emotionally and philosophically complex as the one we know.

  3. Gordon: Breathing, In Dust? I’m about a third of the way in. And yes, most us who’ve had the pleasure of living in Fresno might consider the Central Valley its own dystopia. But I’m curious why you draw the connection.

    Stephanie, I think, beside the point that maybe we recognize that the aftermath is what we’re headed for now, that we’ve implicitly agreed that human interaction may ultimately be more interesting than the great spectacle of the apocalypse.

    Joe, I think you’re on to something there. Instead of an implied system we grow to understand as we age, in a dystopia that rules of the society are laid out in a comprehensible, closed systems. Interesting…

  4. Joe, you have an excellent point; society and culture are ultimately just constructs that kids have to puzzle together. I can’t help but realize, not, that my boys’ favorite video games also take place in these post-apocalyptic dystopias.

    One could make the argument that a dystopia is just another type of fantasy world.

  5. sacliffmom–maybe a fantasy world that makes more concessions to our own world and problems? Interesting to think about.

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