Dystopia: Dead Ahead

Part One

How’s this for a scenario:

In the future, the USA has been divided into thirteen districts, and the most prosperous oppresses all the others. One form of oppression is the annual televised exhibition in which two teens from each district compete for fabulous prizes–the chief prize being life. Katniss, a 16-year-old poacher from impoverished District Twelve, volunteers to replace her younger sister who was chosen by lot to be one of the district competitors. Katniss and her fellow competitor Peeta are transported to the capital city, where they are plunged into a glitzy, media-frantic, widely-anticipated, hotly-contested, brutal and bloody fight to the death among twenty-six teenagers. (The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins)

Or how about this? In the future, civilization has backed away from “progress” and shrouded itself in medieval trappings cushioned by technological innovation. Undesirables live a dog-eat-dog existence in a prison the size of a small country, capped by a ceiling of embedded cameras. The place was originally conceived as an ideal society but has degenerated under centuries of neglect and (human) nature taking its course. There is no apparent connection between the two worlds until Finn, on the inside, establishes communication with Claudia, on the outside, by means of a crystal key. The two join forces for mutual escape, fraught with peril.

(Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher)

Or this: In the future, the earth has become so inhospitable to life that humans have begun colonizing space. On one of these planets civilization has made a start, except that all the male colonists have been infected with Noise, a continual “feed” that allows them to hear the thoughts of every other male in proximity, even the animals. Todd Hewett, age 14 or thereabouts, has grown up in a town without women, controlled by a mad preacher and a mayor who seems to be gathering a select group of men for some nefarious purpose. One day, Todd discovers a pocket of silence in the woods and traces it to . . . a girl.

(The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness)

Or finally, this: In the future, environmental degradation and war have so devastated the planet that nations have broken down and all order is imposed by corporations. Nailer, age 15, works a drudge job on the Gulf Coast salvaging usable metal from the rusting hulks of stranded oil tankers–also dodging the punches of his semi-savage, drug-addled father. After a hurricane, Nailer finds a wrecked “clipper” ship whose sole survivor is Nita, a swank (rich girl). In what passes for ethics at the time, he would have been justified in slitting her throat and selling her body for parts. But he decides to let her live, plunging himself into an odyssey of harrowing escapes and bloody confrontations.

(Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi)

The apprentice-magician fad has passed and the paranormal craze is passing; what we’re in now is the age of dystopian fantasy, the latest hot literary commodity. All the titles above (each the first in a proposed trilogy) were released within the last three years to swooning critical acclaim and respectable-to-phenomenal sales. Two of them are headed for the big screen. Dystopian stories have held a place in youth fiction at least since Lois Lowry’s The Giver won a Newbery award in 1994, but Suzanne Collins gave it a massive push with The Hunger Games (soon to be a major motion picture, along with Incarceron).

Dystopian fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction: the portrayal of a degenerate world recognizable as our own, populated with beings recognizable as us. According to this definition, Incarceron doesn’t strictly belong–it’s fantasy of the grimmer sort–but its society-in-distress theme definitely fits. It often takes the form of a cautionary tale: if present trends continue, something like this could happen. The two great classic examples of dystopian fiction, 1984 and Brave New World, are often required reading in high school. So it’s won a respectable place in the literary pantheon, especially for a form so relatively new.

There was a time when projections into the future reeked of optimism. Jules Verne looked forward to astonishing inventions and conveniences. Around the turn of the last century, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward was a literary sensation: a preachy novel about better living through socialism after wars and cultural upheavals have finally driven a stake through capitalism. But obviously something happened between now and then . . . maybe two world wars, numerous instances of genocide, countless petty dictatorships, weapons of mass destruction and mass weapons of destruction. Yep, all that might have had something to do with our outlook for the future being less than cheery. But the explosion of dystopian fiction in children’s literature–especially YA–is worth commenting on. What distinguishes youth dystopias from the adult variety? Why now? And what is the Christian response?

To be continued . . . .

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. Emily on December 31, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    I’m really curious to see where this is going. Considering this trend in combination with a general kids’ book trend toward darker illustrations and stories, I think there is something about kids (and adults who supply their reading) that just doesn’t see lighter fiction as reflecting reality. I wonder if it says something about how the world seems to the younger generations….

  2. Janie Cheaney on January 25, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    See Part Two! (Also three, for that matter…)

  3. Anonymous on March 14, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    A spot of editing might be in order 🙂
    The Hunger Games series isn’t set in the USA at all. Each sector has its own geographical makeup and primary item of production, too diverse to be directly linked to a real-world location.

    Dystopian settings, when done well, work as most elements of fiction can: they illuminate cultural & personal presuppositions, inspire thought, and bring about discussion and/or action. Dystopia, which has been around for quite a while (think of “The Jungle,” “Jane Eyre,” “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Charles Dickens, etc.), is often particularly skillful in prompting gratitude for things one might otherwise take for granted and providing excellent opportunities for Redemption. Dystopia as a literary concept is not a recent symptom or cause for alarm but a useful tool–as any writing device is, when used well.

    • Janie Cheaney on March 15, 2011 at 6:13 am

      I agree that the story shouldn’t be too literally linked to the USA. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that the geographical location is meant to represent North America, in some imagined future. And I totally agree that dystopian fiction is a legitimate and effective way of exploring reality. It’s also stampeding the YA market (and to some extent the middle-grade market, too) to an extent never seen before. It’s interesting to speculate why.

    • Janie Cheaney on March 15, 2011 at 6:20 am

      Oh, but I forgot to mention–thanks for commenting!

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