There’s a seemingly endless number of ways that life as we know it could end: nuclear war, an alien invasion, the death of the sun, a zombie plague, the election of Mitt Romney in the general election. What form will our apocalypse take? Unfortunately, those pesky Mayans didn’t say, despite providing us with a very specific date for the big event. Whatever shape our demise might eventually present itself in, you can bet there has been a book already written about it…a book young adult readers, in particular, love.
Dystopian fiction sells. Some of the most memorable adult science fiction that I read way back when I was a teen could now be classified as dystopian. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells; The Giver, by Lois Lowry—all made way for the popular “What If?” stories that today’s teen reader and many adults, like myself, can’t get enough of. Dystopia examines what happens when a world or way of life lauded by some as Utopia goes wrong.
But, what’s the appeal? I think there are two answers.
First, I think it’s natural to be fascinated with “How would I survive?” stories. How would I survive a catastrophic event? What would my place be in a fractured society that remained or was reborn in some new version? Would I stand a chance at survival at all? We want to experience the fantastic through the journey and struggles of a character with the chance to decide in our own mind if we’d have done things differently or with better results.
There is great value in these stories and the questions they raise. Certainly those of us who’ve spent any amount of time thinking about whether we’ll remain in a place of safety with provisions and weapons stock-piled in advance or “bug-out” into the unknown in search of fellow survivors and safety in numbers during the zombie apocalypse have a greater chance of survival than those who’ve had their heads—along with the brains all the zombies are going to be so hungry for—in the sand. (Prepare for the unthinkable to survive the inevitable is all I’m saying, people.)
Second, at a time when we feel we have no control over our own lives, dystopian fiction is appealing. For teens navigating adolescence, trapped between childhood and adulthood with little or no control of their bodies much less their daily lives, dystopia provides a venue to lash out at power and authority—especially if it’s perceived as being corrupt. Many dystopian works are about revolution, which seems entirely fitting for teens trying to find their own way in the world.
For adults who may feel mired in their day to day lives, bogged down with responsibilities and little prospects—thanks a ton, Current Economic Environment. I hate your stinkin’ guts!—dystopia offers a look into a truly deeper bleakness and reminds us that there is hope for the “real” world…hope worth fighting for. (Are you taking notes out there, Presidential Candidates?)
We can all become discontent or disillusioned with life at times. Things may not always go exactly as we planned. The next time you’re feeling this way, why not pick up one of the classics I listed at the beginning of the post or any of these newer titles: Matched by Ally Condie, Ashfall by Mike Mullin, Epitaph Road by David Patneaude, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Maze Runner by James Dashner, or Across the Universe by Beth Revis. As for me, I’m currently reading Divergent by Veronica Roth as suggested by my friend Deborah Steward, who unapologetically loves YA as much as I do and just happens to have the BEST taste in books.