Science fiction asks the “what if” questions, like ‘what if there was life on mars” or “what if little green aliens attacked earth”. Dystopias ask “what if society was really, really frakked up?” – how would people live and what would they do about their situation?” Authors build fictional dystopian societies as a device to criticize some hot button cultural issue of the day and to show us what our future might be like if the human race doesn’t get their act together.
George Orwell wrote his dystopian classic 1984 in 1948 and publicly asserted that it was written as a response to the oppressive communist and fascist regimes of that time. Today’s dystopias explore societies built on everything from marketers abuse of consumer privacy – such as in MT Anderson’s Feed – to government mandated plastic surgery – such as Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series. In 2008 we had Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games which can be seen as a criticism of reality TV, Allegra Goodman’s The Other Side of the Island, a criticism of extreme environmentalism, and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, a criticism of the termination of human rights in the name of national security.
Not all dystopias are necessarily criticisms of course. They can also ask purely speculative questions such as “what would happen if children were left to rule themselves?” This was in fact asked twice this past year, in Michael Grant’s Gone and Bonnie Dobkin’s Nepture’s Children, two books I don’t feel a pressing need to read, because this particular question was quite adequately answered for me by William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
Post apocalyptic fiction is a very similar and often interchangeable subgenre which explores the question “what if there would be a complete breakdown of society due to some cataclysmic event?” Books in this category include The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Life as We Knew it by Susan Beth Pfeffer.
Something that I’ve noticed is that dystopian novels written for adults tend to have unresolved and/or depressing endings while novels written with a teen audience in mind tend to have more uplifting or inspiring endings. If the teen protagonist doesn’t find a way to overthrow the society completely, he or she at least carves out some measure of freedom within or outside the society.
YA novels also tend to be less brutally realistic. In Life As We Knew It, Miranda and her family are holed up at home and trying to survive after a meteor hits the moon and pushes it too close to Earth, causing massive societal disruptions. There are no more food deliveries so people are starving. At one point, Miranda’s cat goes missing. Had this been an adult dystopia like The Road, the cat would have been roasting over a fire and in some starving belly by day’s end. But no. The cat comes back! And he even has enough dry cat food to last him until society can get back on its feet again. I found this unrealistic in the context of a post-apocalyptic landscape.
But despite that very specific plot criticism, I really love YA dystopias. They are generally creative, exciting reads and I think they are a great way to get teens thinking about and discussing “what if” questions and hopefully thinking about ways to make our world a better place so that we don’t actually have to live out a dystopian or post apocalyptic future.