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June 8, 2010 10:48 AM   Subscribe

Why are so many recent Young Adult novels set in nightmarish futuristic dystopias? Because they're just like high school.

Websites of some of the authors mentioned:
Suzanne Collins
Scott Westerfeld
M. T. Anderson
James Dashner
Rebecca Stead
Catherine Fisher
Carrie Ryan
Patrick Ness
posted by Horace Rumpole (84 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite

 
the Capitol is an allegory for capitalism :P that is all!
posted by kliuless at 10:52 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Parents just don't understand.
posted by The Lurkers Support Me in Email at 10:54 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


If, unlike Laura Miller and me, you're not old enough to remember "House of Stairs" and "The White Mountains," get them and read them posthaste.
posted by escabeche at 10:56 AM on June 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


It started with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
posted by grobstein at 10:57 AM on June 8, 2010


Oh jeebus, House of Stairs...that book broke my brain over and over again when I was in jr high. (I've been trying to remember the name & author of that book for a really long time, too!) Think Breakfast Club...in hell.
posted by epersonae at 10:59 AM on June 8, 2010


I like dystopian future YA more than modern day fantastic YA where the protagonist spends most of the time whining about how they just want to be normal (e.g., large portions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but less than modern day fantastic YA where the protagonist embraces their uniqueness and the accompanying adventure (e.g., the majority of Harry Potter). At no point during my teen years did I ever wish I was more "normal," whatever that means, only that I was more awesome, which makes it a lot harder to identify with the protagonists complaining about their magical powers and awesome adventures. The kids in the dystopian futures are at least pragmatic about their situation most of the time.

(The Hunger Games has been sitting in my to-read pile for several months now, but I haven't quite gotten to it yet.)
posted by Caduceus at 11:00 AM on June 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


I love this genre. If I could think of an interesting dystopia, I'd be right in there with them.

An advantage to having young readers is that most of this stuff is fresh to them. They aren’t going to sniff at a premise repurposed from an old “Twilight Zone” episode or mutter that the villain is an awful lot like the deranged preacher Robert Mitchum plays in “The Night of the Hunter."

Hmm. A world where apes evolved from men?
posted by cereselle at 11:00 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


It makes me feel stupid that this did not occur to me. *shakes fist at Laura Miller*.

But yeah, The White Mountains was pretty good.
posted by emjaybee at 11:01 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Uh, duh. The Giver* Amirite?

*My mom didn't understand the appeal of that book to the high schiool and middle school kids she was tutoring. (She likes big fancy sentences with deep character development). So I dropped some knowledge on her. "It's about a 15 year old who's the only person in a community of adults who can actually see the sad, horrible truth about the world."
posted by edbles at 11:02 AM on June 8, 2010 [11 favorites]


Was it This Time of Darkness, by H.M. Hoover?

Oh, wait, the background isn't green.
posted by adipocere at 11:05 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


If, unlike Laura Miller and me, you're not old enough to remember "House of Stairs"...

Oh, man. That book. I was, what, 12? 13? And just devouring William Sleator's stuff. Sure, it was science fiction with a really, delightfully disturbing bend, but I was not remotely prepared for House of Stairs. It was like reading a Kafka novel about Big Brother (the reality TV show) meeting a Skinner Box during a holodeck malfunction.
posted by griphus at 11:07 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


And why are all the Disney moms dead?

It's almost as if you can't give children and young adults a challenge without taking away the supporting structure that would typically keep them from experiencing such difficulties.

This New Yorker review does a great job at giving an overview of the current trends in the genre, while acknowledging their thematic forefathers. Miller's correct in saying that Ness' title is impressive, but I found him to be a little too emotionally exploitative for my tastes (and I read a LOT of teen fiction).

The most admirable thing about the Hunger Games, truly, is that it had a sequel that made sense, and that reminded us that a hard-won gesture is not neccessarily going to fix everything. An entrenched system won't fall just because you manage to pull off your big caper.

It reminded me of the Books of Ember in that way; how the first book was all about escaping this massive failing city, and then the second book was like, kapow! Now deal with the difficulty of your entire community trying to integrate into a completely different world and facing the pressures of being a large immigrant population!
posted by redsparkler at 11:08 AM on June 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


And it's only the second most disturbing book he wrote!
posted by escabeche at 11:09 AM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


All of these books sound way more compelling and intriguing than almost all "adult" fiction I come across.
posted by blucevalo at 11:10 AM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you liked The White Mountains, consider the Sword of the Spirits trilogy (first book: The Prince in Waiting), also by John Christopher.
posted by grouse at 11:10 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Great title, by the way.
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:11 AM on June 8, 2010


God bless 'em for throwing a James Jean cover on that Sleater book, Escabeche. It's like a big ol' Christmas gift for any other, IMO.
posted by redsparkler at 11:12 AM on June 8, 2010


For any author, I mean.
posted by redsparkler at 11:13 AM on June 8, 2010


I loved that one, escabeche. Every time I saw some sort of time travel plot on TV as a kid I kept wondering what would happen if you did exactly what Tycho pulled off. It's almost a YA version of Primer. Although I still think the protagonist willfully locking himself away in Singularity was one of his more disturbing moments.
posted by griphus at 11:14 AM on June 8, 2010


What kind of teenage-trend article is this? Where is the implausible mechanism of action by which the trend in question is projected to bring about the weakening of our moral fibre, the perversion of our best institutions to wicked ends, and the enervation of our collective will? You'll never make it in the trend journalism racket at this rate, Laura Miller.
posted by enn at 11:17 AM on June 8, 2010 [11 favorites]


Come on now, no need for exaggeration, dystopia isn't THAT bad.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:18 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's almost as if you can't give children and young adults a challenge without taking away the supporting structure that would typically keep them from experiencing such difficulties.

Mrs U and I were discussing this a couple nights ago. I don't think your answer can be right. Consider the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Both have a dead mother but a living father. The father is even involved in their lives, albeit not in "the case". And at least Nancy (and possibly the Boys?) had a mother figure housekeeper.

Oh poo, I see that Mrs Hardy isn't actually dead. Nonetheless, I think my point remains: A lof the dead mothers in children's fiction are survived by their husbands. Perhaps the idea is that the child heroes have lost their most immediate, "suffocating" support but there's still someone there "in the background" to keep them from falling too far?
posted by DU at 11:20 AM on June 8, 2010


The White Mountains were amazing. I'm always pleased to see that other people remember them.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:20 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


All the books are set in dystopias because dystopias have the coolest fucking stuff. Crossbows? check. Improvised over-complex weapons that kill opponents in byzantine ways? Double-check. Someone to rebel against? Always. Broken-down versions of awesome places for you to camp out in? Like Detroit on meth. And a lack of societal oppression so you can actually kill your opponents instead of just scowling and trying to one-up them on the math quiz? Now we go back to points one and two.
posted by GuyZero at 11:22 AM on June 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


Both have a dead mother but a living father.

cf. Newbery Honor book 'Rascal' by Sterling North. A textbook example of this phenomenon.
posted by GuyZero at 11:24 AM on June 8, 2010


I cannot get enough kids to read The White Mountains. It doesn't seem to grab many of them anymore, not the way City of Gold and Lead did me.

I buy tons of Sleator to throw at my friends' children. Puberty? Time for Sleator. Some of the parents read them, too, over and over again. The Green Futures of Tycho is a big hit — what if you will be the bad guy? Others See Us is maybe a little too dark. But, yeah, House of Stairs prompted me and a friend (who had just read it, after I bought the 70s-ish cover with the five of them on the stairs, around the red? green? can we tell? jewel, arms in the air), when we were walking around a corner and spotted a traffic light changing, to look at each other and begin to dance. People must have thought we were nuts.

I guess I will give this new stuff a try. I don't think they make futuristic dystopias these days like when I was a kid.
posted by adipocere at 11:25 AM on June 8, 2010


Sleator's great. Those looking for an age appropriate brain fuck for a young relative or friend should also check out his "Interstellar Pig" which is sort of a pleasant introduction to the cosmic truths of Lovecraft. And I sure am glad "The Green Futures of Tycho" got reissued; for a few years used copies were going for triple digit prices on Amazon, which held me back from getting the same damn edition I checked out from the library a hundred times between the ages of 8 and 10 MY PRECIOUS...
For young readers, dystopia isn’t a future to be averted; it’s a version of what’s already happening in the world they inhabit.
FTFT...

posted by jtron at 11:27 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Even his name is dystopian. SLAY-TOR. Grar.
posted by jtron at 11:27 AM on June 8, 2010


Speaking of YA dystopia, a couple times my boyfriend has gone off about why he finds the television program Glee to be resolutely unwatchable: the writing is dreadful; the characters are one-dimensional, wholly unsympathetic, and grating; and plot, where it occurs, only serves to set up an obnoxious song-and-dance routine. And every time I'm like, "Right. I can't watch it because it is exactly like my experience of high school."

Granted, I went to a performing arts high school, so the song-and-dance bits carry it right over into the straight-up uncanny.
posted by wreckingball at 11:30 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


And hey "White Mountains"/"City of Gold and Lead" fans - you're familiar with the British TV adaptation, yes? link goes to only full ep I could find on streaming video
posted by jtron at 11:30 AM on June 8, 2010


Buffy.

All of this dystopia and teenager talk reminds me of Buffy, and how Buffy works especially because high school IS HELL.
posted by millipede at 11:31 AM on June 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


Kat Falls' new Dark Life series falls into that category, too. "Set in an apocalyptic future where rising oceans have swallowed up entire regions and people live packed like sardines on the dry land left..."
posted by davejay at 11:31 AM on June 8, 2010


Anyone remember Anna to the Infinite Power? I was obsessed with that book!
posted by lunasol at 11:33 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


At no point during my teen years did I ever wish I was more "normal," whatever that means, only that I was more awesome, which makes it a lot harder to identify with the protagonists complaining about their magical powers and awesome adventures.

That has always been a big eye roller for me, too.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:34 AM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I never read much YA during my youth as I was busy reading *IMPORTANT BOOKS* (why yes, I was pretentious and wrapped up in my PAIN!!! And wanting to be William S. Burroughs or Kerouac). A lot of this looks neat. Where would be a good starting point?
posted by kanata at 11:38 AM on June 8, 2010


Yay, Anna to the Infinite Power!

What about The Homeward Bounders, by Diana Wynne Jones? Boy discovers that he is just a pawn in an RPG played by sinister, nameless beings, Them, and is made a pariah for noticing this, then is forced to travel from one strange world to another, forever, having to pick up the local language and customs, despite the fact that he knows that all of the Rules are arbitrary and meaningless. Attachment to people, locations, and objects is only punished as they are strictly temporary. For a kid who rarely spent more than six months in any one location, that baby hit home.
posted by adipocere at 11:39 AM on June 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


> Adults dump teen-agers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it’s supposed to be.

Yeah, this. When I was an angsty YA I enjoyed dystopian fiction because it was a much-needed counterpoint to said drivel and because it confirmed my belief that the world was a miserable, fucked-up place that would only get worse in the future. There will always be teenagers who feel like this, which means there will always be a market for these sorts of books.

Or, as Bart Simpson put it, "Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel."
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:40 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


And why are all the Disney moms dead?

I asked this same question here a few years ago; got some pretty good answers, too.
posted by dinty_moore at 11:46 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know, DU, I have a couple rules of thumb when it comes to lit, and detective stories are usually exempt from those. There's elements to being a detective that enables the author to give their characters challenges without taking away something from their existence. Nancy Drew was seldom worried about her own issues or livelihood. Each new adventure was her helping someone else with their problem, and since she had a reputation as a sleuth, well, all the more reason for some new person to bring an exciting new case right to her doorstep.
posted by redsparkler at 11:52 AM on June 8, 2010


At no point during my teen years did I ever wish I was more "normal" whatever that means, only that I was more awesome

This... a hundred, thousand times this...

So - when I was a YA - any fiction that seemed to empower the YA protagonists was a giant "hit" with me, unfortunately I can't remember any titlles, but there were several distopian books from the late 70's, early 80's - so this trend isn't exactly new.
posted by jkaczor at 11:53 AM on June 8, 2010


All of this dystopia and teenager talk reminds me of Buffy, and how Buffy works especially because high school IS HELL.

And it also explains why Buffy stops working once she is out of high school.

I like dystopian future YA more than modern day fantastic YA where the protagonist spends most of the time whining about how they just want to be normal (e.g., large portions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

And this explains why large swaths of Buffy never did work even in high school. "Look, either kill vampires or don't, but STOP WHINING."
posted by DU at 12:02 PM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Consider the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Both have a dead mother but a living father. The father is even involved in their lives, albeit not in "the case".

A bit of a tangent, but from what I remember the books usually had the dad (who was a real detective of some sort, I think for the police) working on a case at the start of the book. And then by the end of the book, surprise surprise, it turns out whatever the boys were working on dovetails exactly with their dad's case! Of course formula isn't unusual considering how long running and assembly line written the series was. I'm sure there's other tropes I'm forgetting too, but that always jumped out at me.

I loved the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew up until I discovered Sherlock Holmes, and I never looked back.
posted by kmz at 12:02 PM on June 8, 2010


One of the best teachers I've ever had – probably the least cynical guy I've ever met – once said that he believed in public education, and particularly high school, because he felt deeply that young people should learn as quickly as possible just how wretched most human beings are. I thought it was an odd thing to say at the time, but over time I've realized just how true it was. High school was a terrible time for me (and I suspect most people) but I learned a wealth of valuable lessons, almost all of which have to do with the fact that, in order to live in society, you must put up with wretched people, unjust institutions, stupid rules, and other tragically inane things.

It makes some sense that fiction for young adults would reflect this lesson they're in the process of learning.
posted by koeselitz at 12:05 PM on June 8, 2010 [8 favorites]


OMG House Of Stairs is all I have to contribute to this thread.
posted by The Whelk at 12:07 PM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


> High school was a terrible time for me (and I suspect most people) but I learned a wealth of valuable lessons, almost all of which have to do with the fact that, in order to live in society, you must put up with wretched people, unjust institutions, stupid rules, and other tragically inane things.

That's a feature, not a bug.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:11 PM on June 8, 2010


Not that iCarly is set in a dystopian environment, and the themes are much cheerier, but I just realized how well it fits into the theme of young adults having way more autonomy than they do in real life.

And then I realized I watch way too much iCarly.
posted by thekilgore at 12:12 PM on June 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


I think one reason dystopias often work for teens is that teens are often passionate moralists who tend to experience the world in extreme terms even if their lives aren't hellish. The easiest way to write about extreme emotion is to - the word I always end up using is 'metaphorise', which is truly horrible and if anybody knows an alternative please tell me and save me from it - but basically to render in metaphorical colours, not just the specific details of a particular issue but the sheer intensity of the feeling itself. Fiction creates situations where the strong feelings are tied to events dramatic enough to justify them. It's one of the great escapist satisfactions of reading: not escaping into a more comfortable world, but escaping into a world where you have good, unchallengeable reasons for feeling the way you do.

Not the only escape, of course. Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch talks about how football was a similar escape in his depressed teens: What I needed more than anything was a place where unfocused unhappiness could thrive ... I had the blues, and when I watched my team I could unwrap them and let them breathe a little. Seeking out definite if vicarious reasons for emotions that have complex and sometimes mysterious causes is, I think, quite a common release mechanism.
posted by Kit W at 12:18 PM on June 8, 2010 [14 favorites]


A discussion of dystopian high school environments, and no mention of Brick or Mean Girls? Shameful.
posted by schmod at 12:31 PM on June 8, 2010


I reread Anna to the Infinite Power about six months ago. Still good. Still horrifying ending.

Also, MOTHERFUCKING SLEATOR. Jeez. *shiver*

Kanata, it depends. Are you looking for current YA stuff, or stuff that those of us in our 20s or 30s read back when we were actual YAs? And are you looking for dystopian fiction specifically?
posted by cereselle at 12:32 PM on June 8, 2010


You don’t demoralize and dehumanize a subject people by turning them into celebrities and coaching them on how to craft an appealing persona for a mass audience.

News to me.
posted by Clay201 at 12:37 PM on June 8, 2010


Buffy was what "normal" kids aspire to be before the whole "oh hey kill some vampires and die young" thing came along. She actually has a reason for angst.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:41 PM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


OMG House Of Stairs is all I have to contribute to this thread.
posted by The Whelk at 2:07 PM on June 8 [+] [!]


Because you contribute to every thread!
posted by interrobang at 12:43 PM on June 8, 2010


It is not just YA literature that has the missing mother, a great deal of Shakespeare does too. But Shakespeare had problems with the friendships of women e.g., Titania and her dead friend whose son she refused to give to Oberon for his catamite. Titania is punished and Oberon has his boy.

Mothers are absent in either the real or metaphoric sense in literature whether it is through death; distraction; disappearance or powerlessness to intervene. The protagonist/s in some manner have to deal with this absence. In the case of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy the mother is at once threat and savior but to say the least, you end up with a certain sense of ambivalence towards her.

In earlier mythology we have the monstrous maternal figure who must be defeated with her children as is the case with the chthonic gods of ancient Greece and even Sumeria. In any case, for terror and sadness I thought Nix's _Shade's Children_ was mighty disturbing. No one wins in that one.
posted by jadepearl at 12:45 PM on June 8, 2010


And why are all the Disney moms dead?

I asked this same question here a few years ago; got some pretty good answers, too.


It's weird that that thread doesn't really touch on the Brothers Grimm, whose stories all came from the oral tradition of mothers telling stories to their children. Given that context, one can assume that the loss of the mother is the sole reason the children of the story are in peril; the result being a reassurance that the real children are okay as long as their mother is there. Also, stepmothers are evil.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:52 PM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


In any case, for terror and sadness I thought Nix's _Shade's Children_ was mighty disturbing. No one wins in that one.

I can think of two characters it works out okay for.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:03 PM on June 8, 2010


House of Stairs evidently didn't disturb me as much as it did everyone else. I loved Anna to the Infinite Power and mostly liked Sleator's books, except he *really* could not write female characters. Julian F. Thompson was another writer I loved because he gave the kids autonomy (which I always thought was a huge part of the appeal of dystopia future fiction, not necessarily the weapons), even if he wasn't exactly classically dystopian. Parents who put a hit out on their kids? (Grounding of Group Six) C'mon. That's scary.

I'm going to have to go look up this White Mountains book.
posted by wending my way at 1:14 PM on June 8, 2010


Pope Guilty, I was not sure if the final vision in Shades's Children was true or whether it was the dreams and hope of the two children wanting a future free of the Overlords and a place where children were free. Dystopian, indeed.
posted by jadepearl at 1:24 PM on June 8, 2010


Oh damn, I didn't even think about that. :(
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:25 PM on June 8, 2010


I've read books by most of these authors. (I write YA.) It's been interesting watching the tides turn in the industry from supernatural saturation (mostly because of TWILIGHT) to the present dystopian fervor, which has really only just started to peak. Personally, I think it's much more exciting to see what authors come up with when creating a dystopia, in contrast to variations on paranormal stock characters (the vampire, the werewolf, the zombie, blah blah blah).

It's interesting that Rebecca Stead is mentioned. WHEN YOU REACH ME actually references a dystopian future in a subtle, chilling way, but Laura Miller didn't mention that. THE GIVER, of course, is brilliant. My agent and I think the wave of young dystopian YA writers presently selling books for big bucks were all products of it. (along with BRAVE NEW WORLD and 1984, of course.) Suzanne Collins' HUNGER GAMES trilogy actually deserves its bestseller status -- if you know a reluctant reader, even an adult, male or female, those books are a great place to start.

I recommend FEED by MT Anderson most of all -- it's a work of satirical genius. Also totally believable. Whenever I'm on my iPhone too long, I have a friend who exclaims, "reject the feed!"
posted by changeling at 1:50 PM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Meh. All this really means is the 70s have come around again. A bunch of adults who were exposed to "relevant" (in other words "fucking depressing") have reached the age where they can do "relevant" stories set in crapsack futures. Its not that the themes are that popular with YAs, but it does appeal to the cynical and bitter adults.
posted by happyroach at 2:06 PM on June 8, 2010


The assertion of Sambell (critic quoted in the article) that YA dystopia equivocates "when it comes to delivering a moral" puzzles me. I always thought the point was that the adults have screwed things up, and it's up to the new generation to figure out what's wrong and fix it.
posted by bettafish at 2:11 PM on June 8, 2010


This resonates with me. I hated high school so much. Almost every minute was agony. Dystopian novels were my best coping tool. My favorite was Ira Levin's "This Perfect Day," (which I still think is a gem of a novel), and I must have reread it about 20 times while I was a kid.

I often found that I was just as attracted to the dystopia itself as to the characters who were trying to escape from it or thwart it. I don't mean I loved Big Brother. What I mean is that I was attracted to the clever rules that evil governments had set up. They were evil, but they were easy to understand. This is why I so love Levin's book. Of all the ones I read, his "evil empire" was the simplest, cleverest and cleanest.

(Unlike Orwell and Huxley, Levin wasn't a political thinker. He was just a tale-spinner. There's some lip-service paid to Marxism in "This Perfect Day," but Levin doesn't have anything interesting to say about it, and I don't think he cares. He just uses it as an excuse to set up a cool world. I love "1984," but there's part of me that feels the author is trying to teach me a lesson. I had enough of those in school.)

At times, I did read these books as metaphors, in which the dystopia stood in for my school. But since I was so attracted to those societies, I read them more often as double escapes. First, there was the escape from my (horrible) world into a cool, sci-fi world. Then, there was the meta-escape fantasy of being one of the characters who wanted to escape from that word. While I was reading, I was two steps removed from a life I hated.
posted by grumblebee at 2:33 PM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've read most of the books mentioned in the article. Like some others above, I HIGHLY recommend The Hunger Games, Feed, and Uglies. The Maze Runner was OK but not amazing, and The Forest of Hands and Teeth wasn't bad but I wish the execution had been as interesting as the title.

Some she didn't mention, if you're a fan of the genre -- Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey is fantastic; I highly recommend the Mortal Engines series by Philip Reeve; Girl in the Arena by Lise Haines was just OK; Battle Royale is pretty good but not as good as the similarly-themed The Hunger Games.

I have mixed feelings about the linked article, though. The books do often focus on what might be considered teen concerns -- conformity vs. noncomformity, appearance vs. emotion, rebellion against the society you have been given, authoritarian control, and the double-edged swords of information access, social change, and instant celebrity.

But ... saying dystopian YA books are currently popular because dystopias are just like high school is a little strange. Were vampires and wizards and fairies, then, also just like high school? Was 19th century England just like high school? How about telepathy, is that just like high school, too?

The answer to all of these is of course yes ... and no. Any of these themes can be explored in a variety of settings. They are also often explored in books considered "not YA." Books set in "other worlds" -- fantasy and science fiction both -- are almost always commentary on our own.

This made her analysis of "The Hunger Games" a little off, for example. Some of the features she seemed to dismiss as unrealistic weren't really about the experience of high school; nor were they really about the way celebrities are both idealized and destroyed. It was class and economic commentary. The high-tech, pampered world Katniss is shown at the Capitol is meant to contrast with the subsistence conditions in her home town. And she isn't upset about her sudden fairy-tale existence because she longs not to be special or what have you -- it's because they are, essentially, fattening her up for the slaughter and she knows it.

So, attempting to fit all the details of these books into a YA, high school pattern actually misses a lot. Most of the books listed are *good* books -- the cream of the crop of the current YA genre -- and were probably not written as dystopias to be trendy but simply because the zeitgeist leans in certain directions sometimes. They have spawned their more cookie-cutter imitators, to be sure, but the good ones usually do not fit neatly into a box.

They are about the experience of high school, yes, but Uglies and its sequels are also about the tragedy of the commons and the looming environmental crisis. The Hunger Games contains a economic social commentary and a complicated, subtly-written love triangle. Feed may be about rebellion against the system, but it is also about the crushing weight of technology that does not consider consequences. The things science fiction always examines.

So, yes, these books are about high school. The good ones are also about the world. And the future. And you.
posted by kyrademon at 4:01 PM on June 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


posted by grumblebee at 4:33 PM on June 8

Eponysterical.
posted by cthuljew at 4:15 PM on June 8, 2010


But let it not be said that I don't know how to milk a trend, especially when a publisher can make a bundle simply by ripping off "Battle Royal".

That's why I'm working on a very original book where in a dystopic future teens are trapped in a giant house of stairs, and forced to battle each other to the death using tripods, all on national TV, with the prize being made to be one of the beautiful (and stupid) people. I figure I'll make a fortune off of it.
posted by happyroach at 4:39 PM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Happyroach, if your book is a girl-choosing-between-two-boys love story set after an unnamed environmental catastrophe in a city with no name, I think you have a winner.
posted by kyrademon at 4:56 PM on June 8, 2010


a publisher can make a bundle simply by ripping off "Battle Royal"

have you read the books you're mocking? just wondering
posted by changeling at 5:09 PM on June 8, 2010


(To second changeling, or at least what I think changeling meant, while I do recognize that there are tropes which are becoming more common, if you specifically meant that The Hunger Games is a rip-off of Battle Royale, you are simply wrong.)
posted by kyrademon at 5:32 PM on June 8, 2010


epersonae: "Think Breakfast Club...in hell."

The first time I ever watched The Breakfast Club I remember saying something like "oh, so this is basically No Exit set in a highschool."

I was disappointed.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:39 PM on June 8, 2010


kyrademon: of course there will be a girl choosing between two guys! And then, to drive home the point that this story is SERIOUS and RELEVANT, the boy she chooses will naturally be randomly killed. I expect this story will win a Newbury Award.

Now if I can only figure out a way to work in sexy teen vampires.
posted by happyroach at 7:00 PM on June 8, 2010


Hmmm ... how would that work? Maybe ...

Chapter 1: In a future city known as The City, sexy teenage vampires and werewolves are condemned by the authoritarian government to battle each other on TV until only one remains alive. However one special girl (who has recently discovered that she has been, unbeknownst to her for her entire life, Queen of the Fairies) is captured while attempting to flee from The City to a possibly legendary refuge somewhere in The Mountains. Thrown into the arena as punishment, she finds, after a solid two pages of mistrust and antagonism, that both the sexy teen male leader of the vampires *and* the sexy teen male leader of the werewolves have fallen in love with her after thirty-eight minutes in her awesome presence!

Chapter 2: ...
posted by kyrademon at 7:12 PM on June 8, 2010


(It is because I love these books that I jest. And it is because I love these books that I want Twilight and all of its sequels to die in a fire.)
posted by kyrademon at 7:16 PM on June 8, 2010


Kit W for the metaphorical win. Furthermore more, I would extrapolate your point about dystopia being the a mirror of a teen's internal landscape to an even broader purpose, in that adolescence is a life stage where hither-to unquestioned authorities and worldviews begin to take on a new - and oft-times sinister - light; teens find themselves alternately frighteningly alone in their emotions and thoughts, or compelled to bear responsibility they may not want, deserve, or expect; what was previously perceived as safe can be viewed as more threatening - if not an existential threat - and what was previously disregarded can be suddenly reveal new value or previously unseen empathy.

When you place it in the broader context that post-apocalyptic discourse in general was borne from the trinity horror of world wars, the nuclear power to literally destroy ourselves, and a creeping athiesm connected to the two, you can see the antecedents of the genre in non-postapocalyptic novels written when the very idea of adolescence was still in its infancy like Coral Island, Kidnapped, etc - that still manage to deal with many of the same themes, and in a similar way at that.
posted by smoke at 7:36 PM on June 8, 2010


Kit W, your comment resonated with me so hard. Thank you for pinning down something I've always sort of felt, but never acknowledged so explicitly. Seriously.
posted by samthemander at 7:59 PM on June 8, 2010


What? No mention yet of The Borribles?

Though the trilogy is set in London, Borribles can be found in any large city. They are runaway children whose ears become pointed as a sign of their independence and cunning. As soon as a child is "borribled," he or she ceases to physically age and will maintain the appearance of a child forever – unless caught by the "Woolies," the police who, believing the Borribles' freedom a threat to the social order, capture Borribles and "clip their ears". If their ears are clipped, they will begin to age like any normal human, and this is a prospect worse than death for Borribles, because it means growing into a boring, adventureless adulthood; for this reason, Borribles wear woollen hats pulled low over their ears.

And um, Nthing cadeceus's ...

At no point during my teen years did I ever wish I was more "normal," whatever that means, only that I was more awesome, which makes it a lot harder to identify with the protagonists complaining about their magical powers and awesome adventures.

This speaks rather eloquently to my instinctual allergy to Spiderman even as a quite young kid. I just couldn't understand how anybody with such kickass cool powers would whine and complain about anything. Fuck that shit. And I HATED that song.
posted by philip-random at 9:27 PM on June 8, 2010


Thanks, smoke and samthemander! :-)

adolescence is a life stage where hither-to unquestioned authorities and worldviews begin to take on a new - and oft-times sinister - light


Yes, that's a good point. Discovering the world isn't as safe as you thought, that adults don't know everything, that you have to learn to take care of yourself and that's very difficult: all are common experiences to even the most 'normal' teenager.

A point of comparison that occurs to me is Gothic novels, another staple of adolescence. (Hopefully this isn't too tangential.) In an article on Flowers in the Attic, I read a paraphrase from the critic Edith Birkhead that "as fairy tales are necessary for children, so Gothic novels should be the next stage in our development as adolescents." I think one reason for that is that dystopias and Gothic novels both inhabit a world of looming, narrowly-avoided disasters, and periods of trial that test your endurance to its limits - which is pretty much what adolescence is, a lot of the time.

When it comes to the modern Gothic novels like Flowers in the Attic or Twilight, it's my theory that a big part of their appeal for teens is that they combine emotional extremity with a kind of cosiness - you can have really wild experiences without having to stray very far afield, from your castle or from your family. (I've gone on about it at length here, if anyone's interested or has a lot of time to kill.) I think dystopias often tackle the opposite extreme, which is where you're wrenched from home and have to walk a long, dangerous road to get to any kind of safety point - which for teenagers facing the possibility of having to leave him soon, and already dealing with the possibility of leaving behind the values of the home they were raised in, is a resonant experience.

A lot of the best books for teenagers are about discovering something dark or threatening that you previously didn't suspect. Perhaps we might say that Gothics, which tend to operate in fixed locations, involve discoveries of the sexual and personal, while dystopias, which tend to operate over broad locations, involve discoveries of the social and political. Kind of the Ancient Greek oikos/polis (household/state) dichotomy thing that the professors who taught me tragedy kept talking about, though at this point I may be rambling a bridge too far...
posted by Kit W at 5:52 AM on June 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


That is an excellent comment and pick-up there, Kit. Your Radcliffe's et al fit precisely into this concern, equally so because the virtuous male - whilst rarely the protagonist - is often equally the victim.
posted by smoke at 5:58 AM on June 9, 2010


crapsack futures

"Well, Bob, I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that you'll finally be getting your shot on the Exchange trading floor."
"And what's the bad news?"
"Wellll...."
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:25 AM on June 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yes, that's a good point. Discovering the world isn't as safe as you thought, that adults don't know everything, that you have to learn to take care of yourself and that's very difficult: all are common experiences to even the most 'normal' teenager.
The interesting thing about Hunger Games is that the arc is actually exactly the opposite of that. At the beginning of the first book, Katniss knows the world is totally dangerous. She's been supporting herself and her family since she was 11. Her father is dead, and as far as she's concerned her mother is utterly useless. The socioeconomic system is totally stacked against her, and there's no hope that it will ever get better. The government sees her community as an infinitely-exploitable source of cheap labor, and the people who make up the government's constituency enjoy watching her community's children being tormented and murdered for sport. People with power are mavevolent, and other grown-ups are ineffectual. She refuses to entertain the possibility of romance with the guys who are pursuing her, because romance could lead to having kids, and she can't bear the thought of bringing children into her world. Her cynicism shades into despair.

The plot of the trilogy has to do not with Katniss realizing that the world is uglier and scarier than she thought it was when she was a child, but with her coming to accept that there's the potential for goodness and hope. She has to forgive her mother for not being able to take care of her and her sister after their father's death, and she also has to realize that her mother has strengths and skills that are worth something. She has to realize that there are decent people in the Capitol and that some powerful people are willing to take risks to challenge the status quo. She has to learn to trust and rely on other people. She has to find the courage to hope that her world can be made better.

I sort of wonder if this is a coming-of-age story that resonates with the Millenial generation, who grew up in a pretty scary world and who are, in my experience, not particularly cynical or rebellious. I don't think their challenge is coming to terms with the fact that their parents don't have all the answers. I think their challenge is figuring out how to be optimistic in the face of environmental destruction, terrorism, seemingly intractable conflicts, and that kind of thing.
posted by craichead at 9:00 AM on June 9, 2010 [6 favorites]


Malevolent, even. Either we need an edit feature or I need to learn to type better!
posted by craichead at 9:12 AM on June 9, 2010


The interesting thing about Hunger Games is that the arc is actually exactly the opposite of that.

That is interesting - I haven't read the book, so I'll have to take your word on it. :-)

Could one argue, do you think, that the story follows the dystopian arc I was proposing of childhood - experience of darkness - survival of ordeal / creation of new stability, but sort of snips the childhood section off the front, or places it before the story begins? So sort of follows a similar structure, but lays the emphasis on different places?



I sort of wonder if this is a coming-of-age story that resonates with the Millenial generation, who grew up in a pretty scary world and who are, in my experience, not particularly cynical or rebellious. I don't think their challenge is coming to terms with the fact that their parents don't have all the answers. I think their challenge is figuring out how to be optimistic in the face of environmental destruction, terrorism, seemingly intractable conflicts, and that kind of thing.


Interesting question. Different generations do seem to have different stories. My husband, for example, reckons that the I-love-you-Dad story for children that was so inescapable for ages (Finding Nemo would be an obvious example) is on its way out, and is now being replaced by stories in which the parents are forgiven for being wrong rather than triumphantly claimed as being right. How To Train Your Dragon is a recent example, and there are elements of it in Harry Potter.

But then it raises the question of who's doing the writing, because the writer of a children's or YA story is almost always going to be older than the generation they're addressing. So is the writer talking about a common experience for people their own age, or are they a prescient or unusual person who happens to have a good sense of what it's like to be a generation down?

And on that score, which generation do the writers most identify with? All the I-love-you-Dad stuff, for instance, might have been writers reflecting on their own childhoods, but as it was also often done by people who were dads, or at least at dad age, you might argue that it was less a trend based on childhood experience and more a trend that aspired to adult experience - the psychologically healing experience of being a good father. (I've read psychologists argue that having children is one of the most stabilising experiences a man can have.)

And then there's the forgiving-parents-for-their-faults story. I'm not a Millenial - or at least if I am I'm an elderly one, turning 33 next week - but it appeals to me much more than I-love-you-Dad/Mum. And at this stage in my life it's not so much because of anything to do with the relationship between my generation and my parents', but because I'm having a baby soon and fully anticipate being an imperfect mother; my deepest hope is not that he'll see me as heroic, but that he'll find his own path and forgive me for at least most of the mistakes I'll doubtless make. What moves me is less the idea of my child admiring me than the idea of my child forgiving me. Which is very much the 'coming to terms with parents not having all the answers' myth, but one I can respond to as a mother as well as as a former child.

So when we think about generations in children's and YA stories, where would you say we place the authors?
posted by Kit W at 9:26 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Could one argue, do you think, that the story follows the dystopian arc I was proposing of childhood - experience of darkness - survival of ordeal / creation of new stability, but sort of snips the childhood section off the front, or places it before the story begins? So sort of follows a similar structure, but lays the emphasis on different places?

It's possible: there are certainly hints of Katniss having wonderful times before her father died -- but those wonderful times are only in comparison, she remembers enjoying poaching so they can survive (and not the fairly joyful Danny, the Champion of the World kind of poaching).

It's hard to say what the arc is, because it's unfinished. Spoilers for the Hunger Games & Catching Fire follow.

The first book has Katniss figuring out how not to be a pawn of the bad guys, and how to forgive her mother for not being a mother. The second, on the other hand, has her learning to play politics, and then finding out all her scheming got her nowhere, as she's now a pawn/figurehead for the good guys. There are a number of ways it could go in the final book, and I hope it doesn't end with her all but passively following a path laid out for her, a la Harry Potter, but that seems to be the arc of the second book (although she was tricked into following the path instead of choosing to do it), and the third will, I hope, have her making her own choices that have a real effect.

So the ending will determine whether we get to survival of the ordeal (or who gets to the survival, as certainly not all will survive: Rue, Wiress, presumably Cinna and Johanna, and most of District 12) have not, and given the genre, it seems unlikely that Gale and Peeta can both survive). I don't think a fairly short book has room to reach a new stability without jumping directly to it via epilogue -- which is too bad, as I think a book that covered how that would work would be interesting.

Finding Nemo seemed to me more about the father forgiving himself for being imperfect, and growing: it was an I-love-you-dad story, but also moving towards the imperfect parenting story. But animated movies, especially Pixar ones, are less for kids vs for adults than books are, and more trying to appeal to both groups.
posted by jeather at 10:42 AM on June 9, 2010


But animated movies, especially Pixar ones, are less for kids vs for adults than books are, and more trying to appeal to both groups.

True - although, since YA books are usually written by adults, they have to appeal to at least one member of the older group, to wit, the member doing the writing. Besides which - well, this is just personal experience, but I'm a novelist myself, and what will appeal to any given 'target audience' is not what motivates the content and themes of my books; I just write content and themes that are meaningful to me. If I'm not atypical, it's possible the YA adult novelists are doing the same thing: writing stuff that moves them and finding that it just happens to come out as a book that would best be marketed towards young adults. In which case, the writer's generation would be a definite factor. Just speculating, though.
posted by Kit W at 12:12 PM on June 9, 2010


Whither Utopia?
posted by Artw at 4:14 PM on June 11, 2010


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