A dystopia is an imaginary world in which people live dehumanized lives of fear and subjugation; it’s the opposite of utopia. In this piece YA writer Moira Young examines why distopian novels such as Suzanne Collins’s recent Hunger Games trilogy are so popular with young people:
Books for young people set in a post-apocalyptic or dystopian worlds are not new. Three notable early examples are Madeleine L’Engle’s science fantasy A Wrinkle in Time (1962), William Sleator’s suspense novel House of Stairs (1974) and the politically intriguing The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry. Some of the big names of the new wave, along with Collins, are British-based American author Patrick Ness, Mortal Engines writer Philip Reeve, and young adult science-fiction novelist Scott Westerfeld. But what is it that attracts teenage readers to dystopian fiction?
Teenagers like to read dystopian fiction because it’s exciting. It all comes down to the story. The story comes first, and the setting – extraordinary though it may be – is of secondary importance.
For the most part, dystopian fiction owes more to myth and fairytale than science fiction. These are essentially heroes’ journeys – they just happen to be set in an imagined future world. The hero, reluctant or willing, is just as likely to be female as male. Something happens – an event, or a messenger arrives bearing news – and the teenage protagonist is catapulted out of their normal existence into the unknown. They cross the threshold into a world of darkness and danger, of allies and enemies, and begin a journey towards their own destiny that will change their world. They will be tested, often to the very edge of death. The stakes are high. The adults are the oppressors. The children are the liberators. It’s heady stuff, far removed from the routine of everyday life.
The outer, global journey of the characters is matched by an inner, emotional and psychological journey. These are no cartoon superheroes. They, like their teen readers, have to deal with recognisable concerns and problems, including friendship, family, betrayal, loss, love, death and sexual awakening.
And in defense of adults who write these stories for adolescents Young says:
These are dark, sometimes bleak stories, but that doesn’t mean they are hopeless. Those of us who write for young people are reluctant to leave our readers without hope. It wouldn’t be right. We always leave a candle burning in the darkness.
And we write good stories. That’s why teenagers read them.
Any successful novel has to be, at its heart, a good story. That what makes books such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale so appealing to both young people and adults. We have an innate affinity for stories, which is why children beg for “just one more” bedtime story. And this same natural response to stories allows young adults to recognize the representative nature of these tales instead of being overwhelmed by their darkness. No matter what age we are, we all learn from these stories. That is the beauty and the power of narrative.
And, from the other end of the pen, here’s more on story. Writer Jim Gilliam explains how a harsh critique from a novelist forced him to reread his novel in progress as the reader rather than as the writer. He asked himself, “As a reader why should I care about this?”
I write for my readers and if I’ve placed the reader in the scene with my protagonist and the reader feels the same things that he does, and the reader fears for his life, and vicariously for their own, then I have accomplished my ultimate goal and the reader has paid me the greatest compliment by staying with me until the end of the tale.
You can use this same criterion when you read a novel. If you find that the novel isn’t pulling you in, the reason often lies in the writer’s inability to put you inside the character’s mind and heart.
This piece by John Self comes from the U. K. newspaper The Guardian, which is why the introduction deals with the recent kerfuffle over the Man Booker Prize. But if that means nothing to you, you can skip down a bit further, to Self’s discussion of readability, which “essentially means ‘not too hard going’.” A book with readability is “something that slips down effortlessly.”
And here’s Self’s recommendations of books that have readability as well as literary merit:
The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore
The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith
Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler
Trauma by Patrick McGrath
Wired.com published its own list of “9 Essential Geek Books You Must Read Right Now,” a link to which you’ll find at the beginning of this article. Here, Wired.com readers have produced their own list:
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman
- I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
- Cosmos by Carl Sagan
- Dune by Frank Herbert
- A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
I don’t consider myself a geek by any means, so I was surprised to discover that I’ve read 5 of the books on this list. I really hated Stranger in a Strange Land, but I DID read it.