My love for Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin series is firmly established. While I’m thrilled that my son also loves the books, I’m also curious as to what makes these kinds of settings so universally popular across generations. While I appreciate the dystopian setting for my own adult reasons, what attracts a younger reader to such a depressing world? It’s lots of fun to create our family’s zombie apocalypse survival plan over dinner, but by reading Maberry’s series with my son, we’ve been able to broach some heavier subjects like bullying and grief. What draws a carefree twelve-year old into dystopian stories?
Jennifer Loring, fellow author and my guest blogger for today, has some excellent thoughts on this subject, as follows.
The dystopia has been a fixture in science fiction and horror almost since the inception of those genres. Wikipedia defines a dystopia as “the idea of a society, generally of a speculative future, characterized by negative, anti-utopian elements, varying from environmental to political and social issues.” A number of the 20th century’s great works of fiction, including Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, are dystopias that explore the political and social issues present in a society ruled by an autocratic government. In recent years, however, dystopian fiction and its close relative, post-apocalyptic fiction, have enjoyed their greatest popularity in young adult novels. What draws countless teens to depictions of an utterly dismal future, and what can we learn about the modern young reader from the success of these books?
While Scott Westerfield’s Uglies series preceded it, the success of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy thrust the YA dystopian into the spotlight, where it has continued to thrive ever since. As the YA market in general evolves, darker and edgier themes have become the norm, and nowhere is this more evident than in the dystopian. A number of reasons for the genre’s popularity have been debated by fans, critics, and scholars alike; here we will examine several of the most prevalent theories. The first is that teens today are more aware of current social and political problems, and that YA dystopians are a warning of danger to come. In the age of the Internet and instant news, few teenagers can claim ignorance of the world around them. The YA dystopian speaks to the notion that there may not be a future if teens are not proactive in recognizing the problems that affect all of us and doing their part to help steer us away from the cliff. The choices a teen makes can have just as much impact as those of an adult. It can also warn against the perils of unrestrained technological advances, an important point to make for young readers who frequently believe they cannot live without smartphones, iPods, and video game consoles.
The protagonists of both YA and adult dystopias often rebel against society and its oppressive rules. Teens naturally find this appealing, as they typically live under their parents’ roofs and spend most of their days in an overbearing high school environment. Dystopian protagonists act out teenaged rebellion on an epic scale, and in the service of freeing their fellow citizens from repression; thus teens can live vicariously through them. In these books teens are the heroes, the possessors of the knowledge and power to reshape society, whereas in their daily lives they may feel like powerless children subject to the rules of parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Jana Riess notes in What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide, “…sometimes people reach heightened maturity more by questioning authority than by obeying it” (73). Authority itself is not evil, but blind obedience to and abuse of it is, and dystopian authors instill in their readers a healthy distrust of anyone who claims to have one’s best interests at heart. These young protagonists have become their own moral agents, and they must overthrow that which conflicts with what they know to be right and wrong. In school teens contend with bullying, peer pressure, violence, and many other concerns. At home the issues may be even worse. Novels set in repressive societies in which only teens have the strength and wisdom to topple the socio-political order become powerful metaphors for the daily struggles of modern teenagers.
That said, the final reason so many teens have embraced YA dystopian may be the simplest: these books illustrate how much worse their lives could be. Whatever the challenges posed by school, parents, or peers, the teens reading YA novels are not forced to kill each other, harvested for body parts, retroactively aborted, exiled from their communities, imprisoned in fortresses, advertised as sexual objects, or experimented on, all at the hands of their governments. YA dystopian stories lend perspective to teens who are so often tempted to melodramatically declare that their lives “suck.” The imaginations of YA dystopian authors can envision far greater horrors than the average teen reader is likely to ever encounter, thus engendering a sense of sympathy for those less fortunate, whether it is for a teenager in a fictional future world, or a child on the other side of the planet who does not have enough to eat. YA dystopian’s greatest strength lies in its ability to make readers think about the world in a way they may not have before and, most importantly, to recognize that what truly matters comes from within.
As global crises such as climate change, war, or the possibility of a new pandemic loom ever larger, the market for YA dystopian fiction shows little sign of slowing down. Whether the events depicted in these books ever come to pass remains to be seen, but they have much to teach us about ourselves and, perhaps more importantly, the generations who will inherit the world we leave behind.
Riess, Jana. What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2004.
Jennifer Loring has published nearly 30 short stories and poems in various webzines, magazines and anthologies, and received an honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror for her short story “The Bombay Trash Service.” She holds a BA in studio art from Mercyhurst College and is studying for her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. Jenn also works as an editor for Musa Publishing’s YA imprint, Euterpe, and writes for Horrornews.net. You can find her online at http://jenniferloring.wordpress.com.