Saturday, February 27, 2010

Guest Rhiannon Hart on YA Dystopias

I'm thrilled to welcome fellow book blogger Rhiannon Hart to Dystopian February. I first became aware of Rhiannon's blog back when she reviewed Carrie Ryan's THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH and I've been eagerly reading her excellent reviews, especially of books in the dystopian genre, ever since. In fact, Rhi was one of my inspirations for Dystopian February via her Dystopia Challenge last summer where she read 22 dystopian novels over the course of four months (read her excellent dystopia challenge wrap-up).

Here's Rhiannon:

We’re in the second golden age of young adult literature and speculative fiction is thriving. Fantasy, science fiction, paranormal and dystopian novels color bookshop shelves with blacks, blood reds and swirling purples. But while paranormal books are now inhabited by cuddly vampires, ghosts are homecoming queens and zombies are boyfriend material, dystopian novels stay dark, grim and harsh. Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES, Scott Westerfeld’s UGLIES trilogy and Mary E. Pearson’s THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX are just some of the most popular recent young adult titles. But the grimness of events depicted in these books have led some to question whether they are suitable reading material for teenagers, and whether the bleakness of YA literature is spiraling out of control.

A dystopia is characterized by oppression, violence and terror. The lives of those within the society are inescapably bleak, and resistance is met with the worst kind of punishment. The setting is usually the not-too-distant future and the writer often reveals how our own world has become their terrifying vision of the future. In THE HUNGER GAMES, Collins describes a totalitarian society called Panem that grew out of the ruins of North America. In THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX, Pearson extrapolates on the future of transplant technology, and how use can quickly become abuse.

In young adult dystopias, it is usually adult authority figures who are the villains, and the persecuted are teenagers. This dynamic is significant as the reader is herself at the whim of parents and teachers, and has a growing awareness of the law and governing bodies. These books tap into teenagers’ feelings of a lack of agency and independence. Reading about characters subject to similar strains, albeit on an often grander and bleaker scale, is undoubtedly soothing.

Societies in these novels don’t go sour on their own. Ironically, it is the pursuit of perfection, whether through medical advancement, total control or standardization of citizens, or religious fanaticism, that causes the disaster. The powerful take their personal ideologies to the extreme and impose them on all. They act in what they perceive is others’ best interests, but their misguided good intentions result in catastrophe, and one they are often blind to. These novels illustrate that striving for perfection is not only foolish, but dangerous. Teenagers are put under immense pressure to succeed. It’s no surprise, then, that a genre that shuns perfection is embraced by them.

Dystopias also help make sense of a complicated world. Things are often black and white in a dystopia: the totalitarian government must be overthrown; nuclear war will bring about the end of life as we know it; it is never right to put children into an arena and make them fight to the death.

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Katie Roiphe (‘It Was, Like, All Dark and Stormy’, June 6, 2009) examines a handful of recent releases and bemoans that ‘Somewhere along the line our teenagers have become connoisseurs of disaster.’ Roiphe believes that the economic crisis and swine ’flu epidemic are responsible for the advent of this ‘new disaster fiction’, as if dystopian novels have sprung up overnight.

Many factors have led to an abundance of ‘disaster’ literature today, but these sorts of books for children are not a new phenomenon. During the Cold War many nuclear apocalyptic titles were written for a young adult audience, such as John Wyndham’s THE CHRYSALIDS (1955), Robert C. O’Brien’s sinister Z FOR ZACHARIAH (1975) and Isobelle Carmody’s immensely popular OBERNEWTYN (1987), all of which have appealed to generations of teenagers. More recently John Marsden has received worldwide acclaim for his invasion dystopia TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN (1993), and the subsequent books in the series.

Roiphe also states that ‘Today’s bestselling authors are careful to infuse the final scenes of these bleak explorations with an element of hope.’ Despite their bleak premise, there is always a strong thread of hope running through dystopian novels for a young adult audience. In the end, the hero either escapes the oppressive society, or they overthrow it. This is true for novels written decades ago, like THE CHRYSALIDS, or titles released more recently. Dystopian novels wouldn’t work without hope. The message to the reader is that things don’t have to turn out for the worst: we can prevent total annihilation of the human race or sinking to the depths of cruelty, as even under the most brutal circumstances, someone will always be fighting for justice and freedom. This is a genre convention, not a last-minute addition by a wary writer.

The dystopias written for today’s teenagers compared with those of previous generations are as grim, and infused with the same hope. While there are many factors at play that have led to their popularity, authors are clearly engaging with themes that resonate with their audience, and this should be interpreted positively rather than with an alarmist knee-jerk reaction.


Sas (Squishy133) said...

Thanks Rhiannon and Lenore, that was really interesting!

Sandy Nawrot said...

What a wonderful guest post! I guess I don't have much insight to add to that, except that my 12-year-old daughter and I are both errily drawn to disaster and dystopia. It doesn't seem to scare her in the least. Instead, it has made her into a tension junkie, and also makes her consider situations that can make a person stronger.

Unknown said...

Wow, brilliant guest post. I love dystopias but it was so great to read an analysis of the genre. Thanks!

Sadako said...

Great post from Rhiannon Hart. Interesting Katie Roiphe article, too--I only knew her from her rape/college student/Morning After writings.

La Coccinelle said...

I'm not a huge fan of dystopian fiction; I don't think I was as a teenager, either. It tends to scare me. But it's true: dystopias in YA fiction are nothing new. I had to read The Chrysalids back in high school, and I read Tomorrow When the War Began years ago.

I think the point about hope is important. Teenagers may be drawn to dystopian fiction (because of the reasons mentioned in this post), but I think very few would continue to read it if every book had a downer of an ending. Hope brings meaning to a story; without it, the events would seem rather pointless.

Misty said...

Great job, Rhiannon! I think when people take a negative view of dystopian lit and say that kids shouldn't be able to read it, they are missing such a great opportunity; what are these books about if not to start discussions? Why people think that hiding things and ignoring them will make them cease to be is beyond me. And ironically enough, that attitude is, in part, a driving force in the dystopias represented...They had to get that way somehow...

Rhiannon Hart said...

Sas--You're very welcome!

Sandy--Thank you! Yes, that's definitely a big part of my love for dystopia, seeing characters in all sorts of strife and how they cope.

Backy--You're welcome!

Sadako--I don't know those ones, I'll have to look them up, cheers.

La Coccinelle--Precisely. The hope is so important.

Misty--Quite. So many good discussions can be started by dystopian lit.

Thanks so much for having me as part of Dystopian Feb, Lenore!

Sara {Rhapsody and Chaos} said...

Wow, that was so thorough! What a fantastic post. I can honestly say I learned something about dystopian fiction. Though sometimes reading it (especially if it's written well) can really mess with the nerves in my stomach. Though I suppose that's a good thing ;)

kay - Infinite Shelf said...

Wow, great post! I love dystopia but never stop much to think about the genre itself and what it means to the readers, especially the YA ones. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Excellent as usual Rhiannon!

Question since you have read so much of the genre - have you read any does not include hope?

Thanks Lenore - I wish I had known of this February theme before today - March 1.

Okie said...

Great post. Very thoughtful and interesting.

Rhiannon Hart said...

Sara--Yup, definitely a good thing.

Kay--You're welcome!

Shellie--I'd have to say Brave New World. It ended without much hope at all. In fact, it ended with the bleakest of all events, a suicide. It's probably the only dystopia I can think of that ends devoid of hope at all. Nineteen Eighty Four, which ends pretty bleakly, still has a hopeful ending as the epilogue reveals that the rulers of Oceania fall.

Zibilee said...

Very intriguing post! I find that I do see many more of these types of books on the shelves aimed at teens than ever before, and I think it's actually a good thing. I think that books like these have powerful messages, and get kids thinking about the ever changing and unknowable future. Great thoughts in this post, thanks Rhiannon!

Cecelia said...

Rhiannon - super solid post, as per usual. I appreciated that you engaged with another 'voice' on dystopian literature, and effectively showed that while there's been a recent upsurge in popularity, YA dystopian novels are by no means a new thing.

I think these books are scary as heck, but I also can't stop reading them. Some of the best YA authors and books have these themes, and I believe thinking people out there need to delve a little deeper than economic depression and disease for the reason for why that is. You make a great start in this essay.

Again, really great writing. I always appreciate your analysis and point of view.

Cecelia said...

Also, Lenore: bravo for having Rhiannon on your blog! She's the person I go to for dystopian reading rec's.

Mel (He Followed Me Home) said...

Great post Rhiannon! I'm seeing dystopian everywhere now and am starting to think it's becoming the next big thing.