- Art by Victor Davila
One of the best ways to understand something foreign is by considering it in terms of what is familiar. On first taste, a grapefruit might be described as "like an orange, but bitter." On first sight, a glacier is like an ice cube, but bigger. In attempting to grasp something new, you extend your understanding of what you already think you know to simultaneously include an added appreciation of not just what that recognizable thing is, but also what it is not.
Dystopian literature – fiction that imagines flawed societies typically under strict control of a self-serving entity, whether that's a government, corporation or unknown Wizard-of-Oz-like figurehead – helps young adults to become more shrewdly analytical of the societies that they exist in. So, using that familiar/unfamiliar formula we established earlier: Dystopian society is like your world – but really, really screwed. And by reading dystopian lit, theoretically, teens are instigated to consider the ways their own world is (or isn't) just as screwed.
And I think that's awesome. Confession: I'm a huge fan of dystopian YA. But lately, some of the more popular emerging titles seem to be disrupting the basic pillars of dystopia and distracting from the main mission of any dystopian novel: to caution against current societal practices that could lead to such a society's existence. Consider this genre's purpose as innocently as you would the purpose of Smokey the Bear, only with a more complex directive: Only you can prevent the future.
Disruption No. 1: Coddling the Heroes
Many superior critics have pointed out that teenagers are attracted to dystopian novels like The Hunger Games because they identify with these unfairly controlled environments, suffering as they do under the scepter-pounding reign of their parents' whimsical house rules and their schools' arbitrary and rigid policies. I agree that this is part of it, from experience; I grew up with my nose inside Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and could easily identify with Meg Murry's struggle with her teachers, who interpreted her boredom with the curriculum as defiance. Adults. They can never get anything right. There's also a theory that these stories appeal to young people because so many truths are hidden from them in their own lives. I probably don't need to get into the overprotectiveness of a certain type of modern parent.
Rebellion is an unsurprising third draw to dystopian tales, and I think it's pretty obvious that the extent of the hero's rebelliousness features in the decision to continue reading or not.
My gripe with current dystopian YA lit is its inevitable inclusion of fringe communities or individuals, always situated on the outskirts of the hero's dystopian community, who identify with the hero, support the hero, and work with the hero to overcome the tyrannical figures in each speculative society. Isn't anybody in today's literature strong enough to fight on her own? Meg Murry had only her 5-year-old brother by her side to save Earth; The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen has an entire team of stylists in Panem (complementing the gray-market pals who helped her survive back home) as she's transformed into a figurehead, the Mockingjay, rather than the brains of the rebellion. Today's teens are being coddled, and so are their literary counterparts.
Disruption No. 2: Teens Embrace Technology Too Much to Fear It
The inclination to include these support systems has a lot to do with the increased connectivity of people today. In the post-Internet world in which these newer books were written, it's much easier to find others to identify with, even if they are remote. But by including these helping hands in the books, authors teach the young adults reading that no matter how intolerable the society is, there are others who will take care of it, take care of them; they just need to find them and align with them. This safety net strips the despair from the novels and softens the scare factor of dystopian lit.
Today's YA readers obviously have access to a lot more information from outside their own cultures than those who came of age when The Giver was first published in 1993. Now, YouTube is ubiquitous, and its videos serve as windows into other nations, even if we're just laughing at Maru or cooing over Christian the Lion; in fact, YouTube is not so wildly different from the Happy Medium's crystal ball in A Wrinkle in Time, which showed what different people were doing, no matter how far away they were. And that book was published in 1962 – imagine how impossible and positively sci-fi a webcam would sound back then. The point I'm trying to make here is that current technologies are so close to even the most imaginative science fiction of yesterday that modern writers are challenged to arm their tyrannical states with sophisticated enough technology that a kid would actually fear its invention, rather than get excited in anticipation for it, like it's on par with the iPhone 5.
Before anyone sends a swarm of tracker jackers after me for being dismissive of the pop culture beacon, I want to say on the record that I loved Suzanne Collins' whole Hunger Games trilogy. I highly recommend the books to history nerds, who can likely guess which cultures Collins borrows from to create the elaborate state of Panem. But let's be honest, one of the most exciting pieces of technology in the whole series is the shower that Katniss uses before each Games event, and it's not even that much cooler than the Silver TAG shower system – which you can buy right now if you have $100,000 lying around.
The reason I keep coming back to technology being a disrupting force in modern dystopias is because in many ways, technological advancement is how we measure a society's advancements, and it disturbs me that the absolutely repellent society in The Hunger Games is simply not that far off from what we have today, tech-wise. I think that YA readers recognize this, and that it dulls the impact on them of that invented society. It also doesn't help that most of the people in the districts, apart from the Capitol, inherently agree with Katniss that the society sucks. Her line of thinking is not novel, and her rebellion is so widely supported that when you're reading scenes in District 12, it doesn't even really feel like she's living in a dystopia so much as a third-world country. Contrast this with the creepy, blanketed acceptance of the imagined societies represented in The Giver or Ender's Game, and you begin to see what's lacking.
Disruption No. 3: Romancing the Tone
It seems to me that since the most imaginative technology current writers can come up with is rooted in either plastic surgery or genetic modification (both of which already exist), they shift the focus of the dystopia away from the societal commentary and toward the hero's romantic interests, as the easiest way to keep readers enthralled. Consider how in The Giver, Jonas feels "Stirrings" for Fiona, but when he ultimately decides to flee his society, he doesn't go on a daring rescue mission to save her. Similarly, in A Wrinkle in Time, Meg has Calvin to be her cheerleader, sure – but his interest in her never clouds her original investment in escaping Camazotz and protecting her family.
Contrast this with the love triangles that The Hunger Games' Katniss and Cassia (heroine of Matched) struggle with, or the complete plot takeover of Tally Youngblood's interest in David in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies. I get that sexual development and romantic feelings are of crazy concern for teenagers, but the intellectual takeaway from weighing whether Katniss should choose Peeta or Gale pales next to the potential lesson to be absorbed from considering the terrifying and reactionary idea of a society kept in line by Hunger Games. Although, admittedly, anyone who read 1999's Battle Royale (or saw the 2000 film) couldn't escape truly feeling the horror of that very similar premise, even though Shuya and Noriko, the only two to survive, were also motivated by romantic interest. Still, the root argument here is that when you get to the ends of dystopian YA books written in the 2000s, you're likely thinking more about the romance than the society, and this is counter to what a dystopian novel should/could do to advance your application of the novel's warning to your own world.
Disruption No. 4: This Generation's Supposed Cultural Degeneration
In Matched, Cassia Reyes is coming of age, and she is about to be paired with her husband-to-be, but through a glitch in the system, she's accidentally matched with two boys – one of whom mysteriously comes from an outlying community where people are more rebellious (of course), and his depictions of his otherworld feed into her rebellion against her own. The first book in this series ends with Cassia making a clear choice to join these outliers and their fight, and her main motivation (next to, of course, reuniting with her love) is to be able to openly enjoy the forbidden art and culture that her current society has all but eliminated from her life.
Could this trend have anything do with the repugnance most of us old-school writer types feel for txt-speak and the seeming cultural illiteracy of today's youth culture? Since young adult books are written by adults, you have to remember that the warnings being issued in YA dystopian novels are the result of adult concerns about the next generation.
I'm not sure what I need to have happen to be more satisfied with this generation's dystopias. More ambitious science could be a start. Let's coddle teens less and get back to the standard intention of YA dystopia: Scare 'em straight. Give them an added appreciation of what they have, so that they aren't just mindlessly devolving down some YouTube rabbit hole while the government strips us of our interests and replaces them with single-minded tasks and formulaic lives. If you think that's a laughable notion, continue wondering if Katniss belongs with Peeta or Gale while DVR-ing reality television, and enjoy the fact that unlike the heroine of The Hunger Games, you never have to wonder if the moon is real or simply a projection.