What’s the Deal with Dystopian?

 Abandoned buildings, tough
urban landscapes…dystopian paradise.

Young adult and teen lit tends to follow trends, and now that vampire-mania has died down just a tad, I think we’re in the midst of a dystopian craze. It seems like every cool book for young readers coming out these days is all about some dark and frightening vision of the future, when kids are forced to hunt each other (Hunger Games) or get plastic surgery to look good (Uglies and Pretties), or something equally disturbing. It’s gotten me wondering what readers, and teen readers in particular, love about dystopian fiction. I know I was always fascinated with it myself; I re-read the personal favorite Z for Zachariah, about a post-nuclear world, probably ten times. Let’s not forget greats like Ender’s Game or classics like 1984. So what’s the deal? Why does dystopian fiction push our buttons?

A world where our ethics are pushed to the limit
I think the big appeal has something to do with experiencing a world of extremes, a world where our moral convictions and lofty ideas are actually put to the test. In an extreme dystopian world, our theoretical ideas about the military or the government, about sexual freedom or religious issues, are actually being tested. They’re worlds in which our worst-case scenarios, our visions of an absolute nightmare, are reality. In reality, politicians might pass a law that only negatively impacts a tiny group in the population. But what if everyone was affected by the law? It would be so much clearer if the law were just or unjust.

Dystopian worlds carry messages in them.
That’s the inevitable side-effect of a dystopian world: it tells us things about our own reality. It can critique the worst parts of our society, or draw attention to an issue that you didn’t even know was an issue. I think that’s why I’ll continue to love dystopian fiction; unlike some genres of fantasy I won’t name (think sharp teeth and immortality), it is connected to and critical of our world. It’s not wish fulfillment; it’s the promise of our worst nightmares. And we’re all the better for reading it.


  1. Eddie says:

    How much of our interest in dystopian stories has to do with our desire for freedom from the pressure of eveyday life, from house payments, boring jobs, uncaring and unheeding governmental agencies, threat of nuclear war, bad neighbors, shrinking paychecks? Dystopian, end-of-the-world stories seem better than the world we have. In that part of our brains that hatch fantasies, such a world might seem…utopian, not dystopian. Of course, reality would be far meaner than fantasy–who wants a world without antibiotics, March Madness, the FDA, indoor toliets?–but reality makes might poor reading.

  2. mary brady says:

    Eddie makes a good point. Life is really exciting in dystopian times! One must fight to survive each day, people join in underground conspiracies to fight the Oppressor, & we sure as heck don’t sit around glued to the tube when we could be out Smashing the State.

    Maybe it is just that sense of community that we crave. In many of these books, things are so bad that small bands of people join together to fight whatever is the Overlord or the Crisis of End Times. There is an agreed #1 enemy for everyone to rally against.

    Thus, we’re all working for a common cause–truly utopian.

    L&K, MaryB

  3. Amy says:

    I teach HS and my kids LOVE dystopian fiction. I agree that it seems to grow each year. One other draw, I think, is that it creates a such a different world that kids can put themselves there and truly ponder what they would do in that situation. It’s easier to imagine themselves as a normal kid in crazy circumstances, similar to Katniss, rather than to try to imagine themselves as a character in one of Sarah Dessen’s novels. It seems odd, but I think a dystopian world is somehow more accessible than the world of jocks, or geeks, or whatever group they don’t belong to. Just a thought.

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