Dystopias: Not the End of the World

Divergent movie poster

Are those pants comfy enough to change the world in…?

A dystopian future, a corrupt system of ruling, and a teenager that’s destined to bring it down. Sound familiar? ‘Course it does, my friends. Dystopias are everywhere you look, mostly dominating the YA market. This is not me griping about everyone’s unoriginality, because let’s face it, there are only so many plot frameworks that exist in the world and writing something that isn’t ‘new’ is not a problem if it’s done well. What I am wondering is what exactly this obsession with terrible future governments and the kids that take them apart says about us as writers and consumers.

It’s not as if this is a modern trend—people have been coming up with dystopian stories for as long as there have been governments to satirise or comment on, from totalitarian visions like George Orwell’s 1984 to William Gibson’s brand of cyberpunk. As one of my friends is fond of reminding me, The Hunger Games is in no way revolutionary since the exact same idea is played with in the ‘80s movie Running Man and the Japanese novel Battle Royale. So no, nothing about this love for crappy systems pitting characters against each other is very new.

The fact that it’s emerged so strongly in the young adult section is interesting to me, though. There could be a lot of reasons for that: seeing children affected drives home how horrible things really are in this imagined world, young people have always been associated with revolution and new ideas, and we all have an instinctive fear that teenaged girls have the power to destroy us. Well, fair enough.

Katniss Everdeen and her bow

Shoot ’em in the face, baby

Maybe this genre has boomed so much because it’s found a niche and really speaks to the people reading and watching it—teenaged girls come in many shapes and sizes and I’m not going to generalise, but hey, at a tumultuous time in your life, it’s a pretty nice boost to be assured through media that you have the power to change the world. There are a lot with male protagonists as well, of course, but some of the biggest names—The Hunger Games, Divergent, that crowd—are all led by ladies, which is awesome to see. Maybe it ties into that thing where young women are traditionally less hardy and thus it’s empowering to see them rise up and kick their oppressors in the face, maybe the authors are mostly women and write a heroine they pour themselves into and want their readers to see themselves in, maybe there’s something at play where women are screwed over by government much more than anyone else and so in a story that points out how screwy a government can be they’re a natural choice for a protagonist.

That’s another thing about teen-based dystopias that’s intriguing—inherent in every piece of speculative fiction like this is a symbolic mistrust for the government. The author doesn’t have to be an activist wanting to bring it all down, but every dystopian story exists to make a comment on the danger within structures of power and how easily they can go wrong. The exact method they prove this point with can get a little ridiculous, but more on that in a moment. A lot of sci-fi and even vaguely believable action movies and thrillers contain an element of authority side-eyeing, whether it’s the privacy-invading technology S.H.I.E.L.D is hiding under the river or conspiracies hidden in the depths of the social circles of parliament. Conspiracy stories denote you can’t quite trust your authorities now, speculative fiction and dystopias push the envelope and suggest it’s only going to get worse.

A lot of these stories are American, which is obviously a response to that political climate, but I think it’s a universal theme. The key message in dystopian adventures often ends up being “don’t blindly follow the Powers That Be, because they might be excruciatingly wrong”. Hence the revolution once we’ve been introduced to the fraught system, which again, sometimes go to great and silly lengths to prove how awful people could be.

The Maze Runner

What’s in there, gang? Looks like a metaphor about human nature of some kind

The Divergent system, for example, divides people into segregated communities and societal roles depending on their dominant trait, Abnegation (selfless), Amity (peaceful), Candor (truthful), Erudite (intelligent) and Dauntless (brave). Our Heroine does not fit into one particular one in the test and thus is dangerous because she isn’t easily box-slotted and the government can’t control her. The story goes on to point out that people don’t really operate that way and Our Heroine wants to be brave and honest and smart and whatever else. She and her resident Hunk go to take down the system, I can only assume, because quite rightly it’s a silly one, so silly I’m not entirely sure how it functioned so well in the first place.

The same could be said for The Hunger Games, even, or any system where the people are forcibly segregated—the Matched series where your soul mate is chosen for you at a certain age, The Glimpse where “crazies” are vilified and separated from “normal” people, Uglies where people are taken to a plastic surgery paradise when they turn sixteen, The Declaration where the majority of people are immortal via wonderdrug and thus “Surplus” children are sent to abusive pseudo-orphanages where they’re trained to be service staff and regret their very existence… I don’t even know what’s going on in The Maze Runner.

Granted, the entire point of each of these stories is how stupid the setup of their respective societies are and that they ought to be taken down, but the fact that they exist in the first place stretches things. Especially with problematic territory that stories like Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls wanders into where, in pointing out how cruel and stupid racist societies are, they end up being pretty damn racist. Sometimes it’s something done well, sometimes it’s handled clumsily, or we’re all so tangled up in the somehow inevitable romantic drama along the way that we barely notice. Which, again, is not always a bad thing in and of itself—when done well it can become a symbol for another little bit of rebellion in a world where, in whatever ridiculous fashion, individuality is a danger zone and the government makes all your decisions. Or, it could be an obnoxious waste of plot time. It’s a matter of case.

Divergent's heroine Tris in a case

Don’t box me in, man

Because let’s face it, there’s something poetic about the image of teenagers, the Next Generation and the one that’s going to inherit the earth and take it from the clingy hands of quite probably clumsy or bigoted previous ones, smooching in the burning wreckage of the society that did them wrong. That’s what this dystopia trend is about: the spirit of rebellion that exists in all young people, whether outwardly or otherwise, tapping into the natural resentment for current or former political powers and encouraging them, at the same time, that they can do something about it. Which is really important to beam out there to readers—you, young person, who are feeling stepped on and not listened to and trapped in a system that is unkind to you, can make a difference if you fight for it.

It’s pretty punk rock if you think about it the right way. So no, I don’t have a problem with YA dystopias as a whole, though as a genre it’s riddled with problematic and downright silly stuff, and that’s without even commenting on the quality of the individual books (I read The Declaration over the long weekend. Give me strength). It’s an important concept with a lot of interesting societal reflections in it, both textual and subtextual, and lots of fine heroines for girls to look up to. Yes, you too have the strength to buck the system, fight for the people you care about and what you believe in, refuse the oppression your inherent system of power paces upon you, and make out with the Hunk. Hell yeah.


Filed under And I Think That's Neat, Archetypes and Genre

3 responses to “Dystopias: Not the End of the World

  1. I’ve more or less moved on from them now, but back when I was a teenager, I used to absolutely devour YA books with female protagonists whose destiny it was to save the world. They were usually fantasy books as opposed to dystopian novels (because I was/am a fantasy freak, and dystopian settings often sat in the sci-fi category, which wasn’t really my thing), but I think many of the reasons why I used to adore these types of books are probably the same for the current batch of teens who are so into franchises such as The Hunger Games. I wanted to feel special and unique, I wanted to feel powerful, and I wanted to live out a world that was so patently not my own, because mine was mostly filled with either the mundanely boring (school, homework, etc.) or the slightly painful (bullying, lack of confidence, etc.). Though interestingly enough, making out with the hunk was always my least favourite aspect of those sorts of novels – I often just skipped past them entirely, as I tended to find them quite dull and/or annoyingly drama-llama in tone.

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