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The Age of Rebellion: Dystopian Literature and Audience

2013 July 8
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Every dystopian tale shares a few traits: the perfect-yet-horribly-imperfect society, the futuristic setting, and a rebellion against it all. Dystopian fiction written for teens and dystopian fiction written for adults both have those key elements, but otherwise, their differing audiences make sure that most other important aspects are not alike.

Presentation and backstory

the handmaid's tale margaret atwood coverMost noticeably, adult and young adult dystopias differ in their presentation. Adult dystopias are often more subtle with their set-up of the dystopias themselves. For instance, in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the main character weaves current happenings in the story with memories of the time before the dystopia, though her memories are revealed out of order chronologically. This allows the reader to understand what happened to create her fundamentalist, patriarchal Christian society, but not all at once. The makeup of the society itself becomes totally clear only towards the end, a puzzle forming an image piece by piece. Adult dystopias assume a more mature reader, and often take this approach because an adult should be able to understand it.

Young adult dystopias are much more straightforward. Usually near the beginning, the main character outlines what his or her society is like, how it became that way, and what his or her place is in it. Perhaps as part of the story, greater mysteries surrounding the creation of the society are revealed, but most of the time, the dystopia is presented almost instantly to the reader — it’s a picture, not a puzzle. For example, the first few chapters of Divergent by Veronica Roth spent themselves on heavy explanations how society was split into factions, what the factions stood for, and how one determined their faction. Only then did it move on with the rest of the plot. YA dystopias start this way because of the younger target; such exposition is easier to digest.

Purpose and message

Presentation is tied to the audience, but more importantly, so is the purpose. Young adult dystopias exist, in the most part, for entertainment. The dystopian element serves to set up the culture that sets up a conflict that drives the story. For example, Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi features its own dystopian setting, a future world ravaged by the consequences of climate change. Hurricanes beach old ships along the coast that the main character calls home, and his only means for survival is to scavenge the ships and sell the parts. However, he’s offered a chance at a better life when another storm wrecks an heiress’s ship, and she requests his help getting home. The book does have its themes — people should strive for equality, class differences shouldn’t matter to friendship — but its messages are not very direct, and by the end, the reader is more concerned with the fate of the boy and the heiress than the lessons of their world. The dystopia is a base for the story.

For adult dystopias, the society is not meant as a vehicle for the plot, but for the message they convey together. Anthem by Ayn Rand has a vague futuristic setting and a simply established totalitarian society. Its plot isn’t particularly intriguing or unpredictable, and it’s rather short. But its real punch lies in the strong advocacy for the sense of self that pervades the book and ends it. Everything is built around that message, and the “one word” that communicates it, which Rand hints at and eventually reveals, is what the reader is left thinking about at the end.

Striking, story-driven young adult dystopias or subtle, message-driven adult dystopias — a reader of either age can enjoy both. Both types of books imagine broken futures, and usually, both reveal a way to rebel against those futures. For the adults, it’s a direct call-to-action for today. For the teens, it’s a thematic nudge in the right direction.

— Annie N., 12th grade, currently reading Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

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