What is dystopia?

One way to think of dystopia is it’s the opposite of utopia.  Instead of an ideal state of society with political or social perfection, dystopia is a society characterized by human misery. The factors that make the society miserable is what makes the genre of dystopic fiction so interesting.  Authors build worlds on the premise that a fatal flaw of  behavior leads to a future world that has been torn apart by environmental disasters, totalitarian governments, economic collapse or the end of technology – sometimes all four!  Dystopic fiction always contains a strong element of social control in dealing with these worlds and typically a hero character who rebels against authoritarianism.

While dystopia works of adult fiction such as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Anthem have been around for quite some time, what’s fascinating is how the genre has become so popular in Young Adult fiction.   For generations young adults read book series such as Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, Madeline L’Engle novels  or  the Babysitter’s Club, when suddenly The Hunger Games exploded onto the scene.  While The Hunger Games was not the first YA dystopian book, something about it captured the imagination of both young adults and adults alike.  In a world where the environment, economy and government are in a state of chaos, The Hunger Games touched a collective nerve.  In a situation where fear and social division have become the order of the day, this book produced a hero, Katniss Everdean, who was able to show strength and leadership even in the most depraved of situations, a contest where children must kill each other in order to survive.

It can be argued that the trend in this YA genre is a result of a young generation which has grown up in a world of extreme uncertainty and insecurity, the terrorism of 9/11, the frightening statistics of The Inconvenient Truth, the economic uncertainty where parents facing layoffs or pay freezes struggle to survive and government partisanship leads to a lack of any decisive action in solving various crises.  Yet adults, such as me, are also heavily drawn to this genre.  Why?  These stories do have attractive elements of action, the protagonists have qualities we admire, and the world building spikes our imaginations. However, I think there is something more to our interest in this current trend, something darker. We may have grown up in happier and more secure times, but feel the same collective malaise about the state of the world, maybe even more so because we have been around longer to observe the downward trajectory of society.  That’s not to say we want to wallow in the miserable conditions of these broken worlds, but they serve both as a cautionary tale of where our future might lead if we don’t all take responsibility to resolve some of our current issues.  Yet I would argue that these books also offer hope that even in the direst of circumstances, people are survivors.



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