Mar 24 2012 3:00pm

The Hunger Games Leads the Pack in a New Wave of Dystopia

Hunger Games Goodreads dystopia infographic

Goodreads employee Patrick Brown recently created a fascinating infographic charting the popularity of dystopian novels among the thousands and thousands of Goodreads users. This data was then compared to user activity regarding dystopian novels from the past 100 years and assembled. (The full version is quite a bit more substantial than the above graph.)

It confirms a lot of suspicions about current young adult books — The Hunger Games had obviously produced a new wave of YA dystopia, so it’s nice to see that confirmed — and provides some interesting jumping off points for further thought. (We’re particularly intrigued by the male/female divide in dystopian narrative displayed here.) Check the whole thing out at the above link.

Stubby the Rocket is the mascot of and is an account used by the staff for general news items. It doesn’t know what the next wave of YA will be, but thinks it will probably be about thoughtful rockets.

Derek J. Goodman
1. Derek J. Goodman
I don't know that I'd agree that Hunger Games is the cause of the upswing in dysptopia. It looks to me more like a symptom. The chart points out that the low point for dystopia ended with 9/11 then dramatically started going up years before The Hunger Games.

I think writers and reader have just been affected by the events of the last decade. There was 9/11, two major wars, and then the economic collapse. It has had an effect, I believe, on whether or not people are optimistic or pessimistic and cynical about the world, and our reading and writing choices have been changed by it.
Derek J. Goodman
2. Jake Stevens
It's interesting how the graph smooths out so much starting in the 1970's. Could that be because there are more books published every year of all types, so random fluctuations in the number of dystopias published each year cause less of a spike? Or can you think of any other reasons?
Derek J. Goodman
3. sabbx
Not surprising that harder times might lead to darker fantasy, or at least make them more plausable. The gender divide is a little easiser to analyse... Women are the group who still reads today. Men, especially younger men are distracted by all sorts of technological hoo-hah. Female readers also tend to form close associations with characters, so writers are only smart to find a way to appeal to them.
Derek J. Goodman
4. AlBrown
Is it my imagination, or does the amount of dystopian fiction seem to spike just before some very difficult times in history? In which case, we may be in for some rough seas...
Michael Burke
5. Ludon
Whether The Hunger Games is a great book or not is not important. In my opinion, The Hunger Games is becoming a best seller not because it is leading the way into the new trend but because it had the luck of coming along at the right time and happened to be noticed by the right audience. The proof of this book's greatness, or lack of same, will be presented in the future. Will it be taught in schools? Will it remain on library shelves? Or, will it be largely forgotten in fifty years.

This information would be more useful if the chart were presented with yearly breaks rather than the current decade breaks, but what I see in it is a suggestion of people's awareness of - and reaction to - social, political and military conditions in the world at large. I also get the feeling that the information here is biased to an American point of view.

That dip pointed to by the arrow labled World War II seems to represent the period from just after the attack on Pearl Harbor through the first two years of U.S. active involvement in the conflict. The country's attention was focused on the war effort. Very little was produced that didn't in some way help the war effort. The car companies were turning out tanks and airplanes. Books and magazines were still being published but economic and social conditions played a part in this dip.

The two parts of this chart that interest me are that spike preceding the WWII dip and that wide valley during the late 60s - 2010 period.

The 30s was a period of escalating tensions around the world. (For anyone wanting to explore this era there are many good books out there but I'd recommend reading William L. Shirer's The Nightmare Years: 1930 - 1940.) Most point to Germany invading Poland in 1939 as the start of WWII but in reality the events leading to that point should be accepted as part of the war. The short Phony-War period (1940) did little to reduce tensions. By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the majority of Americans accepted as fact that the U.S. would soon be in the war - it was just a question of when. That, plus the fact that the country (the whole world) was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression should be seen as the reason for that spike in Dystopian Fiction. The wondering - How bad can it get?

That wide valley matches the maturity of TV as a distracting influence. Who cares what they say on the news? As long as I can watch my Bewitched, Dragnet, M*A*S*H, Dallas, Hillstreet Blues, America's Funniest Home Videos, COPS, American Idol, I'm okay. That rise seemingly attributed to the 9-11 Attacks should, in my opinion, be attributed to the growth of the internet. We Americans are still addicted to TV but the internet is replacing that addiction. As with the News Reel and Radio reports preceding WWII, emerging trends and tools on the internet are informing people as to the state of their world. True, these tools are also being used to fuel the flames.

If you look at current conditions in this world you may find that while the names and groups have been changed, conditions are not that far removed from those leading to WWII. Some future historions will probably point to the collapse of the Soviet Union as the starting point of the current rise in tensions but others may point to the many historic tensions not resolved during WWII and suppressed (by both sides) during the Cold War as the source of today's growing tensions and whatever is to come. Thanks to the internet, and the 9-11 Attacks, we Americans are coming out of our TV induced trance. We are realizing that the world is not the safe place we used to think it was. We are once again asking ourselves 'How bad can it get?'

As I said. The Hunger Games' influence is not important. That people are taking interest in Dystopian Fiction in such numbers again is what's important.
Derek J. Goodman
6. JDK
Isn't it time for some Utopian Fiction?
Enough already with the Dystopias.
Derek J. Goodman
7. Tonomi

There does seem to be underswells away from dystopia. Be it Sarah Hoyt's newly christened Human Wave manifesto (too early to call it a movement), John Ringo's Troy Rising (Whatever happened to the "Ozymandias was insufficiently ambitious" fiction from the past?), or Neal Stephenson's Heiroglyph Project, there's a growing group trying to use science fiction to inspire. Here's hoping they succeed.
Derek J. Goodman
8. Herb789

The only major utopian trend I can think of off the top of my head was in Russian literature pre-Communist revolution. So I don't know if utopian is what we want to wish for. :-)
S Cooper
9. SPC
It would be interesting to see the overall numbers of science fiction and fantasy books side-by-side with the dystopia segment. I think they mirror people's general level of optimism about the future - when they think the future is going to be a good place, more optimistic science fiction becomes popular. When the future is looking troubled, you get more dystopic fiction and escapism fantasy (not saying all fantasy is escapism, but some definitely is). I, unfortunately, have no numbers to support this theory.
Derek J. Goodman
10. AlBrown
When discussing utopian fiction, shouldn't More be capitalized (as in Sir Thomas More)? ;-)
Derek J. Goodman
11. Philip Andrew Wardlow
Who wants Utopian stories......boring....thats why HG Wells had the Morlocks attacking and feeding on the Eloi (a peaceful Utopian Society) in his book the 'Time Machine"....Simply put if you write a book then any future society be it 3yrs to 3000yrs from now you need conflict. If it is some other wordly or technological/biological Conflict then it's Science Fiction if its sociopolitical and contained here just on Earth it's I right? I agree with #1 Derek J Goodman ..that the .times reflect the stories.... Robert E. Howard (author of Conan) and others in the early 1900s wrote of dangerous dark foreign lands (un yet exlpored areas such as the Dark Continent - Africa) and alternate earth realites such as John Carter and the immortal confederate soldier.....people like escapism...people like hope ..besided people like to stick it to the man...:).........
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
12. tnh
JDK, unmixed utopian fiction tends to be static and boring, especially if the point of it is that the society portrayed is perfect. You can get away with portraying a society that would seem utopian to us if there's some other problem driving the story.

The failure mode of dystopian fiction, on the other hand, is that it's too easy to write: wreck everything, kill off most of the people, empty out the streets, and presto! You've got a fun setting for mindless games of hunt the monster, evade the mad scientist, fight off the rival gangs, go on a quest for the Designated Valuable Object, et cetera.

When dystopias aren't thought through, they wind up looking just like all the other standard prepackaged dystopias. This is especially apparent in visual media. Sometimes they don't even bother to specify the disaster that brought civilization low. All it takes are some broken windows, unrepaired traffic control signs, grass growing in cracks in the asphalt, and a few burnt-out cars along the curbs. It's a very Sunbelt notion of the ruined city, in which the primary effect of catastrophe isn't the loss of human life, but rather the loss of automobile traffic.

Somehow these scenarios always seem to result in people in raggedy gray clothes and fingerless gloves sitting around a trashcan fire in a vacant lot. Depending on the production budget, there may be shanties made of recycled materials in the background. There is no logic to it. Those people are surrounded by solid building stock they could fix up and live in. If the buildings are wrecked, they're surrounded by millions of usable bricks.

The actual underlying logic is that these prepackaged dystopias are lifted straight from images of the Great Depression, when law enforcement and public policy kept the poor and homeless from squatting in disused buildings. When the storylines say there's been a breakdown in government and law enforcement, and especially when there's been a population crash, they make no sense at all.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
13. tnh
One question: does Patrick Brown's chart show (1.) more dystopian fiction being published; (2.) more Goodreads members learning the word "dystopian"; or (3.) more copywriters using the word "dystopian" in the wake of the commercial success of The Hunger Games, resulting in Goodreads members picking up the adjective from book jackets?
Philip Wardlow
14. PhilipWardlow
Good Questions Tnh....I think personally think its a new batch of readers getting more educated about whats out there or what there actually reading as a "genre". I personally have read alot but I guess I have never consciously thought of or assigned the term Dystopian in regards to a book or movie I may have read unless it becomes relevent conversation for the day...

I usually see stories written where both the Utopian/Dystopian are side by side to underscore and point out the striations between the two cultures ( similar to the Movie "In time" (which also had districts Like Hunger Games)

I think the best movies/stories are the ones where they intentionally show a society "thinking" they are a Utopian society but when you peel back the layers its anything but.....such as the DVD movie (which for the life of me I thought should have been a widely released successful movie but wasnt") "Equilibirum" with Christian Bale....

I agree about the lack origin of where/when this Dystopian actually happened.

I'm a fan of back story myself.,..I like to know somewhat the foundation for why things are they way they are.....not the standard Insert oppressive dicator or goverment here or their wasan uprising of the people which now has been squashed which leads now to an oppressive martial law.

I'm trying to think of a movie that actually pulled a good Dystopian off in explaing the back story....would the Matrix be considered Dystopian? Or are the people in not in squalor enough? Is destitution a pre-requisite for the term Dystopian to be applied? Just seriously wondering.

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