According to some people, the world is supposed to end in the next couple of days, and while I am one of the people who doubts this very highly, the hype has me thinking … why is everyone so obsessed with the end of the world as we know it? The trend in YA literature right now that seems to trump all others is dystopia, a.k.a. society in a controlled state, often in a post-apocalyptic world. (Read Sharon Rawlins’s post from July 2011 for more details!) I know some people who love it and are always pushing the newest dystopian title on anyone who asks for a book recommendation. I know some teens who will read nothing else. I would personally rather read a good romance or an epic fantasy. So in my own personal quest for understanding, I want to know why the end of the world as we know it is so appealing to some of us and yet so distasteful to others.
My own dislike of dystopian stories started at a young age. 1984 by George Orwell was forced upon me when I was in seventh grade, and I think it set the bar very low for me when it comes to this genre. It felt like torture to get through that book because I was so not ready for the content even though I was comfortable with the reading level (something that I am always consciously aware of now when making recommendations to teens). Since then anything even remotely resembling Orwell has been at the bottom of my to-read list — if it made the list at all. I’ve never read Lois Lowry’s The Giver, I’ve never been able to finish Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (even though I’ve tried to read it several times), and though I’m a big fan of his other work I’ve never been able to get into Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, either. Shameful, I know.
Though I’m not a fan of reading the genre, I do read about it. I’ve learned that there are psychological reasons behind the popularity of dystopias, especially among young adults. Dystopian worlds in literature mirror the lack of control teens feel they have in their lives. Life in dystopian novels is often hard, with societies rebuilt in ways that I believe mirror high school cliques. Differences among people are exploited or need to be hidden for certain reasons, usually because differences lead to free thinking that will bring down the status quo. Life is dark and hopeless in dystopias, but as the characters in the books gain some control over their environments and their lives, it gives hope to readers that they will eventually get some in their own.
Dystopias have also been used in both YA and adult literature to tackle current issues that are more easily addressed through literature. The obsession with staying young and what it costs sounds like the premise for a dystopian novel (and is the premise for several), but it is a premise that is obviously rooted in our current society. The government tightening its hold on what people are allowed to know and what is considered too dangerous to know shows up in a lot of dystopian literature (as well as some existing governments). And of course there are wars, natural disasters, and other catastrophic events that could forever change life as we know it (or Life As We Knew It). By reading about it we can develop a better understanding of our current world.
I have really tried to get into this genre for both of these reasons and because it is so popular, but there is absolutely NO appeal to it for me. I don’t like movies that have unhappy endings. I prefer The Big Bang Theory and Castle to shows like Revolution. If I am going to spend my free time watching something, then I don’t want to be depressed when I’m done watching it! This is doubly true of the books I read because I invest so much more of myself into books than I do other media (don’t we all?). But like I said, I at least try. Here are two other books that I think fit the dystopian genre that I have read and kinda liked, even if I haven’t been able to appreciate them the way others do.
Feed by M.T. Anderson
I actually read this one several years ago and I stuck with it until the end (which was so sad it made me cry). Anderson created a whole bunch of futuristic jargon for the teens in the book to use, which was interesting, and he created a world in which the lines between people and technology had been blurred. In all honestly I would have liked this one if not for the ending because it had a neat sci-fi vibe to it, and probably wouldn’t be considered a dystopia by many fans of the genre.
Taken by Edward Bloor
This also may not technically be a dystopian story, but any world where kidnapping children and ransoming them has become status quo seems pretty dystopic to me. This book was suspenseful and had an element of mystery to it that helped me get into it, and it wasn’t until later that I really made a connection between it and dystopias, which again may mean fans of the genre will disagree with me including it here.
I’ve talked about dystopias at length with fans of the genre, and at length with people who, like me, cannot understand its appeal. I have talked with librarians, teens, fans of the young adult titles and those who stick to the adult stuff, like Cormac McCarthy’s works. Basically I’ve come to no conclusions other than this: what works for some people just doesn’t work for others.
I’m interested to hear from you all what you like or don’t like about dystopian stories. Maybe one of you could even suggest a title that might change my mind!
— Carla Land, currently reading The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross (and loving it!)
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