Sometimes the Apocalypse Can Be Good: Finding the Hope in Dystopian Literature

If you’re reading this, then you’re probably not surprised at the continued popularity of dystopian literature or the many subgenres within it.  Why are readers drawn to a dark post-apocalyptic future or the natural disasters with climate-fiction (cli-fi)?  The appeal of these plots attracts a readership that spans generations.  Others are quick to judge those of us over the age of 18 that love dystopian literature and cli-fi but overlook the joy and positive elements to these plots: the hope in dystopian.  The dystopian genre is more than The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner and as grateful as I am to movies turning kids onto reading books they have also generalized this vast genre and created a stereotype of both this genre’s plots and their readers.

LIfe As We Knew It - Susan Beth PffefferYes, these books are overly dramatic at times and incredibly unrealistic most of the time, but beyond the angst and youthful revolution mentality, one underlying message reoccurs – hope. Hope that stems from working together; hope that comes from faith in humanity; and hope that even in the midst of corrupt adults, deathly plagues, and the aftermath of natural disasters – we are stronger than the challenges and we, as a people, WILL survive. A story telling how we not only process and overcome negative events in life but still manage to find joy has been around long before the genre was named and long before we met Katniss.

Being drawn to dark plots, death, and those ‘scary’ elements that many adults do not think are age appropriate is not a new fascination for young readers.  Children have grown up with Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales in which children not only kill parents, but adult characters often kill or torture children.  Eighteen years ago parents also worried that Harry Potter was too dark for children.  Yet with each of these masterpieces and their continued popularity decades and centuries later, children not only read about negative facts of life, but they also see how other children overcome these challenges. They learn that one can survive something tragic and sometimes life doesn’t have that Disney ending.

Authors such as Suzanne Collins, James Dashner, Emmy Laybourne, Susan Beth Pfeffer, Amy Plum, Rick Yancey, Allie Condie, Scott The Program - Suzanne YoungWesterfeld, Susanne Young, Virginia Bergin, and Sarah Crossan have taken the plot of teenagers surviving hardships to the next level.  In all of these cases, the youth of the story grow in self-confidence, physical or mental strength, and often help others putting others above their need, or even their own survival.   Who wouldn’t be impressed with these bold and brave teenagers?

In dystopian novels, average teenagers find courage to act for the good of humanity, especially against corruption and disasters.  Unlike in fantasy, where the teenagers have magical ability or super-strength to win the day, teen characters in dystopian novels are relatable, average (or below) in skill, and have to use the same tools readers have: their brains, the help of others, and their own moral conscience.  There are no magical skills to assist these characters’ challenge to authority or ability to survive natural disasters.  These are average teenagers who are strong and powerful.  Of course children and teens who don’t have complete control and power over their lives are drawn to these characters, but why do adults who are decision makers spend their free time reading about such negativity?

This is what I tell parents of students: dystopian fiction offers an escape that is so farfetched, it’s not a real threat to daily life and in these stories humanity always steps up to help one another – the average person makes a difference.  There is joy and hope in dystopian fiction, even when tsunamis wipe out one-fourth of the world or technology is gone.

Authors are going beyond dystopian and the generalizations of a corrupt government or survival games with the subgenre of climate fiction, or cli-fi, and include every environmental catastrophe imaginable—sometimes all in the same book.  The elements of dystopian still exist; however, the cause of trouble is environmental.  Part of the allure of this type of dystopian novel are the detailed explanation of climate change and the environmental disaster.  The weather becomes an exciting character, causing more havoc than any magical spell or government could, since the latter have people behind the planning and those people can be stopped.  In the case of Mother Nature there is no physical person to stop.  Series such as Monument 14  by Emmy Laybourne and Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer offer more entertaining weather catastrophes and focus on the overall good of humanity. When the danger is a natural event, it is a fight for humanity’s survival, not a fight of teenagers against adults.

The Hunger GamesThe hope in dystopian novels persists despite the negative events.  Similarly, as readers follow the hardships of characters in any story, the conflict is generally not an age appropriate predicament, but one that is full of struggle, and sometimes death, no matter the genre. They find hope often with the help of friends, strangers, and from within.  While many see dystopian novels as full of depressing thoughts or about ‘kids killing kids’ (The Hunger Games), kidnapping and brainwashing (After the End), death and depression (The Program), or surviving in an environmental wasteland (Monument 14, Breathe, Life as We Knew It) others find strength in a sister’s love, comfort through the help of others, friendship that can survive loss, and that everyone must work together for the overall good.   These books offer hope that we, as a people, come together, and will survive. They show that hope is possible even in the most devastating situations.  And isn’t that a nice thought for any reader to take away from a book?

— Sarah Carnahan, currently reading All Fall Down by Ally Carter and Sweet by Emmy Laybourne

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