What ís wrong with YA sci-fi these days?
Published: September 5, 2012
The reason I keep coming back to technology being a disrupting force in modern dystopias is because in many ways, technological advancement is how we measure a society's advancements, and it disturbs me that the absolutely repellent society in The Hunger Games is simply not that far off from what we have today, tech-wise. I think that YA readers recognize this, and that it dulls the impact on them of that invented society. It also doesn't help that most of the people in the districts, apart from the Capitol, inherently agree with Katniss that the society sucks. Her line of thinking is not novel, and her rebellion is so widely supported that when you're reading scenes in District 12, it doesn't even really feel like she's living in a dystopia so much as a third-world country. Contrast this with the creepy, blanketed acceptance of the imagined societies represented in The Giver or Ender's Game, and you begin to see what's lacking.
Disruption No. 3:
Romancing the Tone
It seems to me that since the most imaginative technology current writers can come up with is rooted in either plastic surgery or genetic modification (both of which already exist), they shift the focus of the dystopia away from the societal commentary and toward the hero's romantic interests, as the easiest way to keep readers enthralled. Consider how in The Giver, Jonas feels "stirrings" for Fiona, but when he ultimately decides to flee his society, he doesn't go on a daring rescue mission to save her. Similarly, in A Wrinkle in Time, Meg has Calvin to be her cheerleader, sure but his interest in her never clouds her original investment in escaping Camazotz and protecting her family.
Contrast this with the love triangles that The Hunger Games' Katniss and Cassia (heroine of Matched) struggle with, or the complete plot takeover of Tally Youngblood's interest in David in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies. I get that sexual development and romantic feelings are of crazy concern for teenagers, but the intellectual takeaway from weighing whether Katniss should choose Peeta or Gale pales next to the potential lesson to be absorbed from considering the terrifying and reactionary idea of a society kept in line by Hunger Games. Although, admittedly, anyone who read 1999's Battle Royale (or saw the 2000 film) couldn't escape truly feeling the horror of that very similar premise, even though Shuya and Noriko, the only two to survive, were also motivated by romantic interest. Still, the root argument here is that when you get to the ends of dystopian YA books written in the 2000s, you're likely thinking more about the romance than the society, and this is counter to what a dystopian novel should/could do to advance your application of the novel's warning to your own world.
Disruption No. 4:
This Generation's Supposed Cultural Degeneration
In Matched, Cassia Reyes is coming of age, and she is about to be paired with her husband-to-be, but through a glitch in the system, she's accidentally matched with two boys one of whom mysteriously comes from an outlying community where people are more rebellious (of course), and his depictions of his otherworld feed into her rebellion against her own. The first book in this series ends with Cassia making a clear choice to join these outliers and their fight, and her main motivation (next to, of course, reuniting with her love) is to be able to openly enjoy the forbidden art and culture that her current society has all but eliminated from her life.
Could this trend have anything do with the repugnance most of us old-school writer types feel for txt-speak and the seeming cultural illiteracy of today's youth? Since young adult books are written by adults, you have to remember that the warnings being issued in YA dystopian novels are the result of adult concerns about the next generation.
I'm not sure what I need to have happen to be more satisfied with this generation's dystopias. More ambitious science could be a start. Let's coddle teens less and get back to the standard intention of YA dystopia: Scare 'em straight. Give them an added appreciation of what they have, so that they aren't just mindlessly devolving down some YouTube rabbit hole while the government strips us of our interests and replaces them with single-minded tasks and formulaic lives. If you think that's a laughable notion, continue wondering if Katniss belongs with Peeta or Gale while DVR-ing reality television, and enjoy the fact that unlike the heroine of The Hunger Games, you never have to wonder if the moon is real or simply a projection.
Ashley Belanger is a regular contributor to Orlando Weekly where this piece originally appeared. She is also working on a YAL book. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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