For children and adolescents, the tyranny of adults can make any world dystopian. Real or fictional – no apocalypse required. But how does our Australian young adult fiction (of the dystopian variety) differ from that being produced in the US? And why do teenagers love dystopia so much?
In recent years, we have seen quite a few blockbuster novels produced for adolescents in this genre. You will no doubt have heard of at least one of these dystopian trilogies from the US: The Hunger Games (2008-2010) by Suzanne Collins, Divergent (2011-2013) by Veronica Roth and the Uglies (2005-2006) by Scott Westerfeld.
Australia has a strong tradition of dystopian fiction for young adults as well. Tomorrow, When the War Began and the accompanying six books in the Tomorrow series (1993–99) by John Marsden is, of course, one of the favourites, although it isn’t set in a post-apocalyptic world – rather, we see teenagers fighting and surviving in a current war.
Lesser known dystopian Australian novels – although no less noteworthy – include Taronga by Victor Kelleher (1986), The Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody (1987-2015) and, more recently, The Tribe: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (2012) and The Disappearance of Ember Crow (2013), both by Aboriginal author Ambelin Kwaymullina.
Disasters in the US and Australia
There are many similarities between the Australian and US novels. All of those mentioned above are post-apocalyptic and all indicate a man-made disaster involving war, environmental destruction or nuclear disaster.
The Obernewtyn Chronicles are post-nuclear-holocaust and Taronga is post-war, probably nuclear. The events of The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf play out after a man-made environmental disaster.
The US novels cover similar ground: events in The Hunger Games follow an environmental disaster and war, while Uglies has an original disaster – a virus that infects petroleum products and causes them to explode, resulting in widespread environmental degradation. In Divergent, it’s a bit harder to tell which disaster struck, but it was probably a war.
Other commonalities between the US and Australian dystopian novels are feisty heroines, persecution of individuals because of special abilities and a primitive future that looks like our past – that is, communities living basic agrarian lifestyles, whether openly or in hiding.
All of these novels depict oppressive regimes that persecute the young protagonists – the burden of creating a more inclusive, fairer and more tolerant society is carried by the younger generation.
With so much in common between the Australian and American novels, is there anything that sets our home-grown dystopias apart from their US counterparts?
There are two main points of difference: the role of the natural environment, and the use of technology or “the fantastic” to fight battles and change society.
A healthy relationship with nature
In Obernewtyn, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf and Taronga, the stories are set almost exclusively in a natural – rather than an urban – landscape. Those natural worlds are not distinctly Australian. Obernewtyn feels far more like a European landscape.
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf seems to be set against a hybrid of the two, with some local elements, such as a forest of tuarts and peppermint gums, but with some unfamiliar wildlife such as “saurs” – giant lizard- or crocodile-like carnivorous reptiles. Taronga is split between a very recognisable Australian bush and Taronga Zoo, Sydney.
But it’s not just the use of the natural world that distinguishes the Australian texts – it’s also the relationship the young characters have with the environment and animals.
In all three Australian novels, there are characters who have the ability to communicate with animals via telepathic means. There are differences in the role of animals in these stories, but animals are always characters, not just companions, pets or beasts of burden.
Both Taronga and The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf include elements of Australian Aboriginal legend and connection with the natural world. In the Australian novels, the characters are at home in the wild, at one with nature and find support in the natural world. The environment can be harsh in these novels, but it also provides comfort and sustenance.
Of course, Uglies and The Hunger Games are not devoid of nature. The rebels in the Uglies series are referred to as “Smokies” and live a rustic and somewhat precarious life in the wild; while protagonist Tally Youngblood admires the beauty of this natural setting. Her time with the Smokies is spent trying to bring order to the natural world. The Hunger Games protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, has to survive in the simulated “natural” world of the arena – using skills to hunt for food.
These relationships with the environment and the animal world are one area in which the Australian novels make use of the fantastic as a plot element.
Weilding technology or magic
In The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, most of the young characters (including the protagonist, Ashala Wolf) have special abilities that are the cause of their persecution. This is the same literary device used in The Obernewtyn Chronicles. Abilities include telepathy (with people and animals), control of the environment, healing powers and superhuman physical abilities.
In Taronga, both of the young protagonists (Ben and Ellie) communicate with animals – Ben through a telepathic link and Ellie through strongly developed empathy. In all three books of this trilogy those shamanic abilities allow the youngsters to succeed against adult adversaries.
The US teen characters have well-above-average physical and mental abilities, but these are less intrinsic qualities and more the result of training or surgery (Uglies) – they are technical skills of fighting, knife throwing or shooting, and are not linked with anything mystical or with the greater natural world.
All of these stories are set in worlds rich with technology, surveillance equipment, advanced computers and a blurring of the man/ machine interface, with the exception of Taronga, which was written before our current computer age. But Taronga is themed on a spiritual return to nature and an escape from the urban world.
Perhaps Australian authors cling to a romantic ideal of childhood and see that the solution to environmental degradation and war can only come about through a return to nature. Maybe their US peers envisage technical skill as the attribute most needed in the young to save the human race from annihilation.
Given the huge success of the American novels, it appears that this picture of themselves is the one contemporary adolescents prefer.