Dystopian literature certainly wasn’t started by Suzanne Collins (ask any Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick fan), but there’s no denying that there’s been a giant upswing in it lately, heralded in part by the huge success of the HUNGER GAMES trilogy. In February of this year, Publishers Weekly ran an article by Karen Springen about how popular dystopia is to teens in particular. And it’s true–while in the past dystopian lit was for adults (not just Philip K. Dick, but what about Jules Verne, GK Chesterton, and HG Wells?)–and while there is some adult dystopian on the market (headed, obviously, by Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece), the trend is definitely slanted towards teens.
It’s long been my opinion that YA literature isn’t literature designed for young adults. Labeling the genre with an age is a misnomer; instead, the genre is 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. It also lends itself to the fast-paced plot expected of YA literature. It’s hard to have a slow plot when the world is crumbling, or zombies are invading, or you’re in a battle arena fighting for your life.
But why is this genre so popular now? The Publishers Weekly article posits that there are a lot of depressing things in the news today: disease, war, and environmental disasters that all seem to extrapolate to an apocalyptic scenario. There’s something to that. Writers look at their present when imagining their future, and any writer looking to write about the future might fall upon exaggerations of the terrors of the world today. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s as simple as that.
The great thing about dystopian literature, especially in the YA 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.
That’s one reason why I think it appeals to teens so much. There is a lot out of teens’ control–a lot out of all of our control. We can’t really single-handedly sway our government to enter to leave a war. We can’t prevent a natural disaster–or a man-made one, probably. We are, in the end, rather insignificant. It’s when we’re teens that we first start to realize that the world is so unfair, and there’s only so much we can do.
But at the same time, that doesn’t mean we should just accept it.
When I was in college, Doctor Gross, my professor of medieval studies, told the class about the reason why there were so many epic battle stories in the ancient world and the middle ages. Beowulf, she said, wasn’t a story for entertainment–it was a story for inspiration. The warriors listening to the story didn’t expect to fight monsters like Grendel and dragons–but by hearing of Beowulf’s bravery in the face of such monsters, they would have the courage to fight the battles they needed to fight.
Likewise, dystopian literature teaches us to do the same. When zombies come, we need to have the courage to not hole up in our own little worlds, ruled by fear. When the moon crashes down too close to Earth, we must have the strength to stay with our families and survive. When the government tries to limit our basic human rights, we have to defy it.
Even if Katniss dies at the end of MOCKINGJAY (which I seriously hope doesn’t happen!!), it will still be a positive book. Because Katniss fought. That’s what dystopian literature is really about: fighting back. Not giving up.
Even at the end of the world.