Dystopia Week

Teenage Wastelands: How Dystopian YA Became Publishing’s Next Big Thing

Young adult literature in the English-speaking world has had a huge rush of dystopian novels in the last few years, following the success of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series (2008-10). The trend went global at this year’s Bologna Book Fair, with Publisher’s Weekly mentioning dyslit seven times in its fair round up, and Bookseller declaring dystopia “the new paranormal.” That’s a heady claim to make in an industry still spinning from the 100-million-plus-selling Twilight phenomenon.

As the writer of the Uglies series, I’m sent a handful of these dyslit books every month to blurb—more all the time, it seems. Many are awesome, though a few show their authors’ lack of familiarity with dyslit 101; wheels are often reinvented and clichés deployed in an un-self-aware way. But I’m not here to bemoan knockoffs or fads. After all, if Hunger Games fans desperately need more dyslit books for their shelves, it’s capitalism’s job to provide them.

What I’d rather look at is how a sub-genre with the aesthetic parameters of dyslit could wind up as “the new paranormal.” How do grim, gritty, dark stories of oppression and chaos fill the same ecological niche as glamorous, glittering vampires with high-modern houses in the Pacific northwest? It’s easy to see what teenagers find attractive about being immortal, beautiful, and super-powered. But what’s so appealing, even obsession-worthy, about tales of dystopia?

Let’s get some terms straight first. I will be using “dystopia” mostly in its classic sense—a counter-utopia in which a twisted vision of perfection is imposed upon a populace—and not simply as the “bad place” of the literal Greek etymology. But I also must note that in the YA universe, the terms “post-apocalyptic” and “dystopian” are often used interchangeably. This grates the pedant’s soul, and yet is understandable. From a teenager’s point-of-view, a blasted hellscape and a hyper-controlled society aren’t so different. Or rather, they’re simply two sides of the same coin: one has too much control, the other not enough. And, you may be shocked to hear, teenagers are highly interested in issues of control.

Within school walls in the United States, students have reduced expectations of privacy (New Kersey v. TLO, 1980), no freedom of the press (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, 1983), and their daily reality includes clothing restrictions, rising and sitting at the command of bells, and an ever-increasing amount of electronic surveillance. But a few footsteps away from these 1984-like subjugations, the teenage world becomes Mad Max—warring tribes, dangerous driving, and unfortunate haircuts.

Teenagers’ lives are constantly defined by rules, and in response they construct their identities through necessary confrontations with authority, large and small. Imagining a world in which those authorities must be destroyed by any means necessary is one way of expanding that game. Imagining a world in which those authorities are utterly gone is another.

It’s little wonder, then, that a lot of YA dyslit embraces both extremes of hyper-control and chaos, wedding an oppressive government with post-apocalyptic ruin. The Hunger Games series is set in a broken U.S. in which life is lived at subsistence level, but the enemy is an oppressive central government with considerable powers of control. The “Hunger Games” themselves are a duel-to-the-death reality show that combines constant surveillance with deadly chaos. (In the series’ obvious precursor, Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale (1999), the orchestrator of chaos is also a totalitarian state, one whose ever-present control is embodied in the collars worn by the warring students.) The juxtaposition is right there in Collins’ title, of course. From the first page, the protagonist Katniss’s very real problem is hunger, but the government’s response is nothing but games.

This game-playing also models how authority and chaos operates in high school. Dress codes don’t save you from bullying, nor does censoring the school internet feed keep the pedophiles away (they are overwhelmingly at home). Too often the rules are cosmetic in nature, about decorum rather than real problems.

The ultimate escape from authority, the wilderness, is a common figure in YA dyslit, not just a setting but a power of its own. Collins’ protagonist, Katniss, survives the Hunger Games thanks to her wilderness skills. (And the wild, not the government, has fed her and her family all these years.) In John Christopher’s The Tripods series (1967-8) the wilderness offers the only real escape from Earth’s invader overlords. The alien-occupied cities are places of slavery. In my own Uglies series, the wild is both a refuge from rules and a space of transformation and realization for the city kids who pass through it, because nature doesn’t need an operation to be beautiful, it just is.

It’s important to note that the wilderness in these examples is mostly reclaimed nature, former suburbias turned wild by the destruction of the old order. The apocalypse isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it opens up space for change and regrowth.

So perhaps it’s not so strange that dyslit has become “the new paranormal.” Death and rebirth aren’t reserved for the exsanguinated, after all. The process happens to whole civilizations, and thinking about how such revolutions work, what freedoms and tribulations they might bring, and which parts of the culture to keep and throw away after such an event is surely a healthy occupation for the young.

Image from Anti-Authority tee by The Famous Label


Scott Westerfeld is the author of the Risen Empire duology. His latest series is Leviathan, a steampunk recasting of World War I with Edwardian biological weapons.

6 Comments

Subscribe to this thread