Apr 15 2011 11:43am

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.

This article is part of Dystopia Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. a-j
I adored dystopic fiction as a teenager. I suspect the attraction may be the scenario where the teenager, who has very little actual power or control over their lives, can forge and prove themselves against an apparently overwhelming enemy, furthermore one that is accepted or feared by many (as are the teachers/parents etc) and so becoming a hero to your peer group. Or maybe not.
2. dwndrgn
You've made me look at some things differently. Thank you.
3. kathleen duey
Thanks for all of this, Scott, and especially your last paragraph.
A healthy occupation---exactly!!!

In real life, during any profound breakdown of government/social order, the authority of seniority dissolves--at least for a while--and people of all ages find out what they are made of.

I think dystopian books explore human reality. I loved them when I was in high school and I love them now.
4. TractionEra
Every "Young Adult" book I own is about dystopia and I hardly read anything outside of that area. I'm even writing my own story about dystopia.
I feel the attraction comes from the need for freedom and the simultanious need for an outside force to create a (semi) controlled environment for this freedom to take place.
Utopia's cannot be created without them becoming, in essence, a dystopia. The only way to keep a society in Utopian fashion is to remove those who threaten it, which, in effect, creates the dystopian aspects.
5. Bailey
Really insightful article! I’ve been obsessed with dystopian novels since the 7thgrade when I found the Tripod series by chance in my school library. I always just thought I had more of a dark personality, but now I truly understand why I’m so drawn to them :) Can't wait for Goliath!
6. Lory Kaufman
Great article by Mr. Westerfeld. It gives much insight into his dystopian books.

Since I read Lord of the Flies at age 14, I've wanted to write futuristic novels. To me, they not only rang my adolescent bell and reflected the psyche of my teenage need to rebel, but also made me want to be part of a discussion about making the world a better place. But to do that, one first had to show how our present society was going to hell in that proverbial hand basket. Therefore, dystopian lit.

Now that I'm 60 and have finally published my first two futuristic YA novels, The Lens and the Looker and The Bronze and the Brimstone, I find that I actually am writing something related, but also a little different than what can be called dystopian. It's what I'm calling post-dystopian stories, and talks about young people making the world a better place, but after the devastation and tyranny has come to an end. I think it's important not only to press those easily pushed teenage angst buttons, but also give them something positive and challenging to think about. Of course, this has to be done without preaching, so the stories have to be character driven, or, in short, they have to be entertaining.

As for entertaining, I'm on a Scott Westerfeld kick right now. I really like where he's gone with Leviathan and Behemoth. I really liked the Uglies series, but I think he's taken a big step forward in creating truly three dimensional characters and made the new stories more complex, while keeping them very accessible. Plus, I love the gothic feel to the writing voice. I took am anxiously awaiting Goliath.

Lory Kaufman,
Kingston, Canada

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