In Moira Young’s Dustlands, Saba sets out alone across a post-apocalyptic desert to rescue her brother and joins the Free Hawks resistance fighters. Tris in Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy rejects the constraints of life in her family’s faction, becomes a member of the warrior class, and helps overthrow the entire basis on which her society is built. Katniss, the brilliant, brave resistance fighter, from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games battles not one but two corrupt regimes. Yes, there’s a bit of a theme developing here.
The 2015 What Kids are Reading Report shows that dystopian fictions have soared in popularity. A quick survey of young adult fiction in any bookstore confirms this. So what does this say about the fictional world teenagers are inhabiting right now?
Traditional love story
Although a few have male heroes, most follow the exploits of teenage girls. And heroines have changed over the years. Contemporary dystopian fiction features brave, independent and resourceful young women. They rescue others and are often physically, psychically, or supernaturally gifted.
But these futuristic hellish settings don’t change everything. The dystopian settings may be new, but many of these stories are old ones. They retain significant elements of that remarkably adaptive genre, the popular romance, just as they did in the recently popular supernatural/horror genres.
We have the dangerous, brooding boyfriend. Can Saba trust Jack? Will Gale put his political goals above his love for Katniss? Is Carter in Emily McKay’s The Farm collaborating with the authorities, who imprison young people and feed their blood to the vampiric ticks that infest the country? These heroes are enigmatic and ruthless; the danger they represent appears to be part of the attraction.
The familiar love triangle is common too – “Team Gale or Team Peeta?” trumpet many Hunger Games fan sites. Saba is attracted by the charismatic leader De Malo, who runs the eugenicist regime she is fighting, in spite of her love for the rebel Jack. In Ally Condie’s Matched, the regime determines everyone’s partnerships, the age they will die, when they can breed, where they live and the jobs they will do. But she is dangerously attracted to Ky, who is classified as an Aberration, and therefore unmatchable, in spite of her love for her official “match” Xander.
And we also have the classic makeover, in which the heroine’s remarkable beauty is suddenly discovered, even though she herself is unaware or uninterested in this. Katniss is forced, much to her disgust, to wear magnificent costumes, designed just for her, to have the very best hair and beauty treatments and is paraded on television for all to admire.
The lure of violence
So the traditional story hasn’t exactly been turned on its head. But its widespread transposition into generally dystopian settings indicates something else. What these stories share is a suspicion, verging on paranoia, about authority, power, and adult organisations. In these dystopian worlds not only is the government cruel and corrupt, but the resistance is often deeply suspect too.
Katniss is the symbol of the revolution against the brutal Capitol, but is manipulated by the resistance in the process – she worries that she “can’t tell a friend from an enemy”. She finds that the resistance in district 13 abuses prisoners, is controlling and dishonest, and its leader simply intends to replace the old president. This chimes with the political disaffection that leaves many young people without legitimate means to challenge power, perceiving opposition parties to be self-serving and corrupt.
In these dystopias everyone is spied on and daily life is tedious. It is a struggle to get the necessities of daily life, and technology, though ubiquitous, does not improve the lives of ordinary people. Katniss struggles to find enough food to feed her family, but the Capitol has the technology to run the spectacular Hunger Games and transmit them across all its districts. Officials snoop on every aspect of life in Matched.
It is perhaps unsurprising that such stories are being written – their authors generally live in a time of austerity combined with the increases in surveillance and reductions in civil rights that we have seen emerge from the “war on terror”. The false imprisonments, phone hackings, torture, and disappearances that young people hear about every day on the news resonate with the worlds of these novels.
But this fear chimes with the young people who read them too, and perhaps engenders in them a certain suspicion. At school, young people may meet those who have escaped their own dystopias; refugees from Syria, Africa, and Eastern Europe. It is perhaps not surprising that they relish stories which reflect their fears about society. The settings reflect dissatisfaction with daily life and disaffection with political process.
The answer these novels give is the power of individual graft and belief – they feature brave, independent and resourceful young women fighting for justice. These heroines have blood on their hands; Saba is called the “Angel of Death” she kills so many. The lure of violent resistance is strong. But they achieve respect and love in the process.
What this implies about the ideologies this generation are hatching? Time will tell.