Understanding the explosion of Dystopian YA fiction
Despite dystopian literature having been popular since the 20th century, the last decade or so has seen a startling rise in the popularity of dystopian fiction, particularly in YA (young adult) literature. Since the First World War, there has been a consistent trend of dystopian literature, one popular work being 1984. Arising as opposition to utopian literature — set in a fully imagined society — dystopian literature imagines a society where current political and social trends are taken to its extreme to create a much darker world, with YA dystopian literature being defined as “societies where the ideals for improvement have gone amok” (Scholes, “Understanding the Appeal of Dystopian YA fiction”).
The term ‘dystopia’ can be traced to its ancient Greek roots, with ‘dys’ and ‘topia’ being ‘bad’ and ‘place’; the connotative meaning of dystopia involves a more nuanced understanding of a much darker world, one that distorts modern-day issues into a state of dehumanisation, where controls are forced upon society and its members are put through a number of physical and social limitations (Ryan, 03). Dystopian literature, then, is a subset of speculative fiction that depicts hypothetical situations that are aimed to motivate a young generation; often, dystopian societies seem like utopian places but only for a privileged few, with the masses left to suffer.
One prominent reason for the sudden increase in the popularity of dystopian literature is the advent of the Internet, with young adults around the world gaining exposure and information about the nuances of the world, with people being more aware of policies and the state of human rights around the world. One jump-start to a much harsher reality came with the global market crash of 2008, closely after the publication of the Hunger Games series (unrelated to the market crash) — young adults the world over were waking up to a darker, more unstable world. Though there has been a trend in the past with novels exploring a dystopian future, there has been a marked increase in the popularity of these novels as a response to deep-seated anxieties felt by young adults who are watching a new, complex, ambiguous world unfurl.
Another prominent reason is one reflected by other genres — namely, the anxieties felt by current technological progress, and the kind of powers and abilities granted by technology, including a heightened sense of control, of strength, and of surveillance over a population. These fears have been reflected in earlier dystopian works as well, with 1984 focusing on the use of surveillance technology to reign in the population. Even in Collins’ Hunger Games, technology is used as a tool to repress the population and maintain the status quo, with the lower districts forced to live harsher lives as technology was reserved for higher districts.
Other YA novels reflect similar themes of inhumanity and isolation, with excessive government control leading to a large chunk of the population being complacent towards the cruel treatment of others, with the protagonist feeling as though life has lost its value (Scholes, “Understanding the appeal of Dystopian YA fiction”). From Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale to Roth’s Divergent, there is a sense of cruelty and inhumanity towards the underprivileged members of the population, with the rest standing by and seeming to let it happen. This sense of witnessing inhumanity does feed into the sense of isolation felt by the protagonist, a feeling mirrored by many teens and young adults who are able to then relate to the protagonist; as young adults become more aware of the world’s flaws and failings, many find themselves isolated and alienated from adults. With maturation comes the ability to grasp more abstract concepts and the nuances that shape the world, leading to uncertainties about the future, and the development of certain principles and values — tying into how they perceive a deeply flawed society, and how actions have reverberating consequences.
Dystopian novels also reflect postmodern fears that young adults must reckon with as they mature into a more chaotic world; these anxieties can include the fall of the Western empire, with a total loss of individual control and increased government control; however, these novels also provide a sense of redemption as the protagonist is able to jumpstart restoration of the world to its ‘former glory’ (Finnsson, 08).
Most dystopian novels have a similar basic structure for the story, with a well-detailed world describing a power structure with a few in charge of all resources oppressing the many, with a strict social hierarchy in order to maintain this power structure. Cue a strong-willed, powerful protagonist that is shaped by their situation (and will, more often than not, be from the bottom rung of society), who is able to pinpoint a flaw or vulnerability within this society, which provides a sense of hope and will encourage the protagonist to enact a plan of action to expose this flaw and encourage the beaten population to rise up and seize power. The protagonist need not be extraordinary, but must think differently from the rest, and rises above the harsh social norms to question the necessity of conforming to such a cruel reality. The ending, too, is not fully happy but does provide a glimmer of hope, with the protagonist unveiling the world’s flaw while still losing a loved one, imparting a bittersweet ending to the novel.
Earlier trends in young adult literature did focus on questions of identity and grappling with society, but the challenges were supernatural in nature, current novels have shifted towards more dystopian settings, to comment on the role of the individual in society; one particularly notable example is Collins’ Hunger Games (Ryan, 05). Dystopian YA fiction is also appealing thanks to its engaging dialogue, first-person narration, and vision of a world where values have fallen apart but also offers an implicit chance for change and redemption; not only are these worlds bleak, they also provide a source of social commentary on current ways of life, encouraging young adults to think about their place in the world and the kind of action required to implement positive change.
Dystopian YA novels have found their way to the classroom as well, as these novels are able to critically engage with their readers without seeming pedantic, and many of these novels present scenarios that are representative of the hardships that adolescents go through, while still encouraging readers to ponder dire situations and have creative solutions that disrupt a toxic status quo. This style of writing has been around for decades but has taken the literary world by storm, especially since the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 recession, and other tragedies that affect the world. With teenagers and young adults waking up to a bleak, confusing world, dystopian literature provides a glimmer of hope while still cementing the kind of effort and sacrifice that is required to ensure such changes take place. Thanks to the popularity of these novels and the cinematic technology that is available today, many film adaptations have gained popularity, further cementing the place of dystopian novels at the top of YA fiction.
Scholes, Justin, and Jon Ostenson. “ALAN v40n2 — Understanding the Appeal of Dystopian Young Adult Fiction.” Virginia Tech Scholarly Communication University Libraries, Digital Library and Archives of the Virginia Tech University Libraries, 2013. From: scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v40n2/scholes.html.
Finnsson, Geir. “The Unexpected Popularity of Dystopian Literature: From Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy”. September 2016. University of Iceland, BA essay.
Ryan, Devon. “Emerging Themes in Dystopian Literature: The Development of an Undergraduate Course”. Honors Theses. Paper 2466. 2014.
Donston-Miller, Debra. “Why Young Adult ‘Hunger’ for the Hunger Games and Other Post-Apocalyptic Dystopian Fiction”. Forbes. November 2014. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/sungardas/2014/11/20/why-young-adults-hunger-for-the-hunger-games-and-other-post-apocalyptic-dystopian-fiction/#6df8b399ef0e.