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Books

YA sci-fi is supposed to make us question society

Is the current crop of young adult dystopian lit holding up its end of the bargain?

Photo: Art by Victor Davila, License: N/A

Art by Victor Davila



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One of the best ways to understand something foreign is by considering it in terms of what is familiar. On first taste, a grapefruit might be described as "like an orange, but bitter." On first sight, a glacier is like an ice cube, but bigger. In attempting to grasp something new, you extend your understanding of what you already think you know to simultaneously include an added appreciation of not just what that recognizable thing is, but also what it is not.

Dystopian literature – fiction that imagines flawed societies typically under strict control of a self-serving entity, whether that's a government, corporation or unknown Wizard-of-Oz-like figurehead – helps young adults to become more shrewdly analytical of the societies that they exist in. So, using that familiar/unfamiliar formula we established earlier: Dystopian society is like your world – but really, really screwed. And by reading dystopian lit, theoretically, teens are instigated to consider the ways their own world is (or isn't) just as screwed.

And I think that's awesome. Confession: I'm a huge fan of dystopian YA. But lately, some of the more popular emerging titles seem to be disrupting the basic pillars of dystopia and distracting from the main mission of any dystopian novel: to caution against current societal practices that could lead to such a society's existence. Consider this genre's purpose as innocently as you would the purpose of Smokey the Bear, only with a more complex directive: Only you can prevent the future.

Disruption No. 1: Coddling the Heroes

Many superior critics have pointed out that teenagers are attracted to dystopian novels like The Hunger Games because they identify with these unfairly controlled environments, suffering as they do under the scepter-pounding reign of their parents' whimsical house rules and their schools' arbitrary and rigid policies. I agree that this is part of it, from experience; I grew up with my nose inside Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and could easily identify with Meg Murry's struggle with her teachers, who interpreted her boredom with the curriculum as defiance. Adults. They can never get anything right. There's also a theory that these stories appeal to young people because so many truths are hidden from them in their own lives. I probably don't need to get into the overprotectiveness of a certain type of modern parent.

Rebellion is an unsurprising third draw to dystopian tales, and I think it's pretty obvious that the extent of the hero's rebelliousness features in the decision to continue reading or not.

My gripe with current dystopian YA lit is its inevitable inclusion of fringe communities or individuals, always situated on the outskirts of the hero's dystopian community, who identify with the hero, support the hero, and work with the hero to overcome the tyrannical figures in each speculative society. Isn't anybody in today's literature strong enough to fight on her own? Meg Murry had only her 5-year-old brother by her side to save Earth; The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen has an entire team of stylists in Panem (complementing the gray-market pals who helped her survive back home) as she's transformed into a figurehead, the Mockingjay, rather than the brains of the rebellion. Today's teens are being coddled, and so are their literary counterparts.

Disruption No. 2: Teens Embrace Technology Too Much to Fear It

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