My classmate, Sarah Dashow, and I created a seminar on YA Dystopian Literature for our course this week. I might still do a little tweaking, but you can see it here. Had fun with the themes and element key in particular.
All this means that I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about YA dystopias recently, so this post ended up as less of a response to my readings, and a little more like a few leftover thoughts and, alright, maybe a little defensiveness caused by reading a lot of fraught online discussions in the course of research.
1. There’s always a first time to hear the same old story.
I read All Good Children by Catherine Austen, among several other dystopian YAs, recently and it seemed to reinforced one of the main ideas I had about the popularity of dystopian narratives among YA writers and readers (it was nice to see a standalone novel, though). In particular, I was thinking of the greater appeal for less experienced readers who haven’t encountered as many iterations of the same conventions, elements, or themes that define dystopian literature. The use of drugs to make citizens easier to manage, for example, is a well-established trope, going straight back to Brave New World‘s soma—seriously, the specific All Good Children-style version has even got its own the trope name and everything; Government Drug Enforcement. Within recent YA dystopias there’s the mind-influencing serums of Divergent, the lobotomy-esque surgery of Uglies, and mood-altering pills of Matched, among others. And that entire trope feeds into the dystopian notion of lack of free will as a kind of ultimate evil to overcome, which is prevalent in a variety of forms. Hey, you even get a little bit of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe from All Good Children.
As someone fairly well-versed in genre conventions—and who’s watched their fair share of 70s and 80s sci-fi movies—there’s a lot that I recognize. When I read Uglies and the protagonist meets someone who has grown old without the world’s ubiquitous cosmetic surgery for the first time, shocked and horrified by the unfamiliar site, I hear the echo of the first time the characters of Logan’s Run meet an old man, the first human over the age of thirty they’ve ever seen. (Incidentally, the dystopias of the late 1960s and early 1970s like Logan’s Run are a great example of the ways in which dystopias often echo contemporary social anxiety—see below.)
2. Romance in dystopias and dystopian narratives that don’t centre entirely upon the dystopia and its dire warning, and are maybe a little more about escapism than social responsibility, are not a new YA-lit-for-silly-girls phenomenon.
Dystopian narratives are being widely used as vehicles for romance within YA literature, especially for teen girls, but I’m not about the join the ranks of those bemoaning the rise of dystopian romance in YA lit as a decline or dilution of the ‘real’ dystopia. First of all, romance in dystopia isn’t exactly a departure from its roots—Nineteen-Eighty Four‘s narrative wouldn’t exist without Winston and Julia’s relationship—and love is the ultimate signifier of humanity, a humanity that dystopias often repress or disrupt. Secondly: dystopian narratives stripped of most of their pressing didacticism have existed for a while and are not some kind of new aberration caused by recent popularity. Who would read such trivial things in a potentially transformative genre? Obviously teen girls. Or, you know, grown men. I’m looking at you, cyberpunk. Or really any gritty sci-fi/noir action story that has a messed up society because otherwise how would the male antihero prove how totally hardcore he is? Dystopian narratives less concerned with overt social critique—considered leisure reading instead of serious literature—are not new. The rise of young adult literature, and of dystopian YA specifically, has put this kind of narrative under more scrutiny, but I tend to be suspicious of aspersions cast on things popularly viewed as created for and loved by young girls. I suppose there’s potential for a conversation about what responsibilities, if any, writers of dystopian literature have, if people feel inclined to have it, but I feel as if a lot of this is being addressed with a kind of mistaken mentality that we, as a culture, hopped right from Brave New World/Nineteen-Eighty Four to The Hunger Games, which ignores a lot of the genre’s history and development.
3. Huzzah for the rise of the female dystopia! Okay, now, how about everybody else who isn’t white or straight?
I hope the prevalence of dystopian YA will complicate and open the genre. For all that traditional dystopian literature engages with problems in society, it comes from a very specific tradition: the white, straight, male tradition, of course. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was remarkable and unusual as a dystopia from the female perspective, divergent from the tradition. Dystopian literature for women has since exploded in dystopian YA. People of colour and queer people deserve their narratives, and are too often swept under the rug in dystopias. (Incidentally, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) are brilliant dystopic post-apocalyptic works at intersection of race, gender, and class, but her work has long suffered from the marginalization of genre fiction and, tellingly, her presence within the traditional canon of genre fiction—though infinitely well-earned—is considered a sign of genre tokenism instead of diversity).
* A lot of the late 60s/early 70s dystopias were concerned with overpopulation and depicted societies either suffering from its effects or with strict population control measures in place; the overpopulated nightmare of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, published in 1966, was turned into the movie Soylent Green in 1973. Kurt Vonnegut depicted a crowed world with voluntary ‘suicide booth’ to keep the population down in his 1968 story Welcome to the Monkey House, and the society of Logan’s Run, in which no one was allowed to live past twenty-six, came out as a book in 1967 and was adapted for the big screen in 1976.
The graph belows shows the frequency of the use of the terms ‘overpopulation’ and ‘population control’ in over 5.2 million books digitized by Google. Apparently population was on the minds of more than just a couple sci-fi authors.