What ís wrong with YA sci-fi these days?
Published: September 5, 2012
One of the best ways to understand something foreign is by considering it in terms of what is familiar. On first taste, a grapefruit might be described as "like an orange, but bitter." On first sight, a glacier is like an ice cube, but bigger. In attempting to grasp something new, you extend your understanding of what you already think you know to simultaneously include an added appreciation of not just what that recognizable thing is, but also what it is not.
Dystopian literature fiction that imagines flawed societies typically under strict control of a self-serving entity, whether that's a government, corporation or unknown Wizard-of-Oz-like figurehead helps young adults to become more shrewdly analytical of the societies that they exist in. So, using that familiar/unfamiliar formula we established earlier: Dystopian society is like your world but really, really screwed. And by reading dystopian lit, theoretically, teens are prompted to consider the ways their own world is (or isn't) just as screwed.
And I think that's awesome. Confession: I'm a huge fan of dystopian YA. But lately, some of the more popular emerging titles seem to be disrupting the basic pillars of dystopia and distracting from the main mission of any dystopian novel: to caution against current societal practices that could lead to such a society's existence. Consider this genre's purpose as innocently as you would the purpose of Smokey the Bear, only with a more complex directive: Only you can prevent the future.
Disruption No. 1:
Coddling the Heroes
Many superior critics have pointed out that teenagers are attracted to dystopian novels like The Hunger Games because they identify with these unfairly controlled environments, suffering as they do under the scepter-pounding reign of their parents' whimsical house rules and their schools' arbitrary and rigid policies. I agree that this is part of it, from experience; I grew up with my nose inside Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and could easily identify with Meg Murry's struggle with her teachers, who interpreted her boredom with the curriculum as defiance. Adults. They can never get anything right. There's also a theory that these stories appeal to young people because so many truths are hidden from them in their own lives. I probably don't need to get into the overprotectiveness of a certain type of modern parent.
Rebellion is an unsurprising third draw to dystopian tales, and I think it's pretty obvious that the extent of the hero's rebelliousness features in the decision to continue reading or not.
My gripe with current dystopian YA lit is its inevitable inclusion of fringe communities or individuals, always situated on the outskirts of the hero's dystopian community, who identify with the hero, support the hero, and work with the hero to overcome the tyrannical figures in each speculative society. Isn't anybody in today's literature strong enough to fight on her own? Meg Murry had only her 5-year-old brother by her side to save Earth; The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen has an entire team of stylists in Panem (complementing the gray-market pals who helped her survive back home) as she's transformed into a figurehead, the Mockingjay, rather than the brains of the rebellion. Today's teens are being coddled, and so are their literary counterparts.
Disruption No. 2:
Teens Embrace Technology Too Much to Fear It
The inclination to include these support systems has a lot to do with the increased connectivity of people today. In the Internet world in which these newer books were written, it's much easier to find others to identify with, even if they are remote. But by including these helping hands in the books, authors teach the young adults reading that no matter how intolerable the society is, there are others who will take care of it, take care of them; they just need to find them and align with them. This safety net strips the despair from the novels and softens the scare factor of dystopian lit.
Today's YA readers obviously have access to a lot more information from outside their own cultures than those who came of age when The Giver was first published in 1993. Now, YouTube is ubiquitous, and its videos serve as windows into other nations, even if we're just laughing at Maru or cooing over Christian the Lion; in fact, YouTube is not so wildly different from the Happy Medium's crystal ball in A Wrinkle in Time, which showed what different people were doing, no matter how far away they were. And that book was published in 1962 imagine how impossible and positively sci-fi a webcam would sound back then. The point I'm trying to make here is that current technologies are so close to even the most imaginative science fiction of yesterday that modern writers are challenged to arm their tyrannical states with sophisticated enough technology that a kid would actually fear its invention, rather than get excited in anticipation of it, like it's on par with the iPhone 5.
Before anyone sends a swarm of tracker jackers after me for being dismissive of the pop culture beacon, I want to say on the record that I loved Suzanne Collins' whole Hunger Games trilogy. I highly recommend the books to history nerds, who can likely guess which cultures Collins borrows from to create the elaborate state of Panem. But let's be honest, one of the most exciting pieces of technology in the whole series is the shower that Katniss uses before each Games event, and it's not even that much cooler than the Silver TAG shower system which you can buy right now if you have $100,000 lying around.
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