Dystopian fiction’s been around for a long time, but cultural anxiety means it’s rearing its head. And it’s especially suited to YA, because events like the zombie apocalypse or the hunger games ask the question that we’re particularly prone to asking when we’re young: “It’s all utter bollocks. Why is nothing being done about it?”
It’s somehow easier to ask this about fascists when they’re carrying laser guns, and self-involved masses when they’re groaning for your brainsssssssss. Or, if they’re vegan zombies, for your grainsssssss*.
With dystopian YA, you can make the whole system come crashing down (usually in a situation where the adults are all dead or ineffectual. Poor adults) and leave the characters and the reader asking themselves: “Just what am I going to do now? Because no-one else is going to do it. Big Ben has been destroyed and the adults are dead/useless/mad-scary. It has to be me.”
Honestly, a crumbled civilisation is terribly empowering. It is.
YA focuses on making decisions that begin to shape who you are, your role in society and what you want out of life. Plant these choices firmly in a dystopia and the consequences of your choices become even more starkly in-your-face than they are on a Sunday night when you realise the next day you have to go back to a school where everyone probably hates you and, because they’re unfortunately real living people not zombies, you can’t despatch them with an incinerator, and not just because you’ve built it all wrong and you haven’t got enough flame fuel.
Because it’s about choices, about strength in the face of adversity, dystopian YA isn’t necessarily pessimistic. Which is good, because I like things like jokes and hope and buttered crumpets, and I think other people do too. Relentless pessimism is relentlessly boring. Why read a book so grimly inevitable that the end sentence is “and they all died but you knew that anyway”?
To follow a story means you want to know what happens next, and that means that situations can be CHANGED. In a seemingly hopeless world, but your choices actually make things BETTER.
Again, empowering. And not entirely unlike the wonderful and complicated world we live in today.
*This joke belongs to Deborah Taylor. I have merely borrowed it for safekeeping.
MY FAVOURITE DYSTOPIAN YA READS
1984 – George Orwell (best read for the first time when you’re a teen)
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – Anthony Burgess (some would say this isn’t YA, but Alex and his droogs are older teen protagonists whose entire life is based around playing truant from school to do… other things.)
THE HUNGER GAMES – Suzanne Collins (Yep. Now we all want arrows and moss.)
DIVERGENT – Veronica Roth (lovely lovely feudy feuding tribal gangs)
A PLACE IN THE SUN – absolutely blinding short story by Joanne Harris
JABBERWACK – In the words of Bad Robot Productions, I made this! More choices, pickaxes and shovels than you’ve ever seen in your life, and an amputation in chapter 3. That’s a promise, folks.