Judging by the number of dystopian and apocalyptic movies hitting theaters, interest in the genre continues to hit new highs. I’ve been a fan of the genre for many years, starting with the incomparable H.G. Wells, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. Stephen King’s, The Stand, is one of my top ten of all time. It got me to wondering what’s fueling this trend, especially with YA books. A quick search of articles that weighed in on the subject yielded a plethora of opinion and commentary, thanks in part to the movie, Hunger Games, based on Suzanne Collin’s YA story. I thought I’d reference a few that caught my eye, and worth revisiting.
First, let’s make sure we all understand the definition of dystopia. Webster’s Dictionary online defines Dystopia as, “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.” Wikipedia describes it as, “an often futuristic society that has degraded into a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian.” Wikipedia cites the first notable dystopian novel as Jack London’s Iron Heel, which chronicles the rise of an oligarchic tyranny in the United States. I have a few friends who think we’re already there. Most people are more familiar with George Orwell’s, 1984, Aldoux Huxley’s, Brave New World, and H.G. Wells, The Time Machine. Wells had a fear of how quick men were willing to apply new technologies to war, which inspired (or scared) him to include dystopian issues in most of his novels.
Rachel Ives, examines what characteristics dystopian novels have in common and why they sell, in her 2010 article, Exploring Dystopia: The Rise of Dystopian Fiction. She quotes, “Dystopian novels deal with real issues that we face everyday, and turn them into a dire prediction of what could happen to society as we know it, if we don’t change our ways.” She discusses the consequences of the repressive control of a government, the break-down of a government, war and natural disaster, all while using the literary device of the questioning protagonist to explore these ideas. Her top-ten list of great dystopian authors closely resembles mine.
Author Beth Revis posted an article on why the trend caught on with YA. “YA is a genre about character-focused stories with fast, exciting plots. Dystopian literature lends itself perfectly to that mold — when the world ends, we don’t care so much about the how of the end as we do about the who: who survived, and how, and why. Dystopian literature has a natural focus on the characters and their survival, and what makes them continue in a world so bleak. The great thing about dystopian literature, especially in the young adult range is that it’s not about the end of the world. It’s about living past it, overcoming it. It’s about humanity being stronger than inhumanity. It’s about triumph despite the odds.”
Janie Slater offered four reasons Why Teens Love and Need Dystopian Literature, and why the genre delivers a teen’s need for heroes.
- It provides a healthy outlet for exploring socially unacceptable topics within our own spheres and communities.
- It helps us see new, different perspectives than we’re capable of from our own limited experience.
- It helps us sort out and express feelings and emotions, providing cathartic release and relief.
- It inspires us with often courageous, defiant (in a healthy way), quirky & unique protagonists (main characters) who overcome barriers and limitations.
A more recent and intriguing article comes from Dr. Harold Koplewicz, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist; President, Child Mind Institute, where he digs into the reasons Why Kids Love Disaster, Distress, and Dystopia. “The truth — is that these books strike a nerve with teenagers because of the intense developmental and social changes they’re experiencing. Between 12 and 18, the ages broadly classified as YA, everything is changing all the time — socially, physically, sexually. In reading about worlds and lives that are literally falling apart, kids are reading about emotions that are as intense as their own. Dr. Koplewicz references Scott Westerfield’s novel, The Uglies, in which Westerfield states the success of the novel is partly because high school is dystopia. Dystopian novels may be set in the future, but as far as the teenagers reading them are concerned, they are happening now.
Eric Feig of Lionsgate, the studio behind Hunger Games, says “young-adult literature is a genre that takes place at a specific time in your life when everything seems to be high stakes. If you set stories in different worlds with unique protagonists and an element of wish fulfillment, I don’t think people will ever be tired of it.”
Commentary is long and varied. One commenter said dystopian novels give us a sense of warning. A Baptist minister suggested the reemergence of dystopia is because we often think the past was better than it really was and the future can never be as bright. Blogger Parker Peevyhouse cited that teachers love to use dystopian novels in the classroom because they want to ready kids for society and to prepare them to inherit the power they will soon gain to change it.
In my youth, I never analyzed the reasons why I liked dystopia. I just liked disappearing into a world gone mad and imagined myself in it. The novel I’m working on explores the remnants of a society culled to less than 5% of its original population by a heterogenetic virus that sterilizes survivors and sets the stage for mankind’s extinction. I’m finding it a fun ride, and hope to share it with you in the near future. In the meantime, I’d be curious to hear what you think drives our love affair with dystopia.