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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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It seems to me that since the most imaginative technology current writers can come up with is rooted in either plastic surgery or genetic modification (both of which already exist), they shift the focus of the dystopia away from the societal commentary and toward the hero's romantic interests, as the easiest way to keep readers enthralled. Consider how in The Giver, Jonas feels "Stirrings" for Fiona, but when he ultimately decides to flee his society, he doesn't go on a daring rescue mission to save her. Similarly, in A Wrinkle in Time, Meg has Calvin to be her cheerleader, sure – but his interest in her never clouds her original investment in escaping Camazotz and protecting her family.

Contrast this with the love triangles that The Hunger Games' Katniss and Cassia (heroine of Matched) struggle with, or the complete plot takeover of Tally Youngblood's interest in David in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies. I get that sexual development and romantic feelings are of crazy concern for teenagers, but the intellectual takeaway from weighing whether Katniss should choose Peeta or Gale pales next to the potential lesson to be absorbed from considering the terrifying and reactionary idea of a society kept in line by Hunger Games. Although, admittedly, anyone who read 1999's Battle Royale (or saw the 2000 film) couldn't escape truly feeling the horror of that very similar premise, even though Shuya and Noriko, the only two to survive, were also motivated by romantic interest. Still, the root argument here is that when you get to the ends of dystopian YA books written in the 2000s, you're likely thinking more about the romance than the society, and this is counter to what a dystopian novel should/could do to advance your application of the novel's warning to your own world.

Disruption No. 4: This Generation's Supposed Cultural Degeneration

In Matched, Cassia Reyes is coming of age, and she is about to be paired with her husband-to-be, but through a glitch in the system, she's accidentally matched with two boys – one of whom mysteriously comes from an outlying community where people are more rebellious (of course), and his depictions of his otherworld feed into her rebellion against her own. The first book in this series ends with Cassia making a clear choice to join these outliers and their fight, and her main motivation (next to, of course, reuniting with her love) is to be able to openly enjoy the forbidden art and culture that her current society has all but eliminated from her life.

This is pretty similar to the realization Katniss has that music and writing are important parts of life, following her short friendship with Rue, who changes Katniss' mind that music ranks "somewhere between ribbons and rainbows in terms of usefulness." And in Uglies, Tally relies on handwritten notes, which instigate and support her rebellion, again celebrating a retreat to the old-fashioned.

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