YA is having a golden moment – and so is the dystopia genre. Dystopian novels are burning up the bestseller list, scoring seven-figure advances and captivating (or perhaps terrifying) readers, young and old alike. The question of what is driving the genre’s success is inevitable; its answer, however, is less certain.
Dystopic worlds, in their simplest form, are about the dispersion of power and its inherent inequality. It’s no surprise, then, that today’s teens – so often at the mercy of parents, teachers and the dominant ideologies of their societies – are connecting with the characters inhabiting the controlled, oppressed worlds of their favourite books. As they recognise elements of our own world within these societies – from an overreliance and acceptance of invasive technology to political, social and environmental instabilities – they also recognise their own adolescent struggles in the trials of these characters. It’s such struggles that both shape dystopian YA and form the basis for its popularity.
What is it teenagers want? At a time when they are beginning to explore life outside the world childhood has confined them to, as they become better aware of politics and world affairs and the environment and The Man, teens desire a voice to express their own perspectives. (And they will take it any way they can get it; social networking is the new soapbox, and teens have rarely been more empowered.) As advertising and the internet offers them everything and nothing, they want real choice, and not just between sneakers and heels, or Facebook and Twitter. They crave, above all, freedom.
And so they see themselves in dystopia’s creations: in Katniss’s struggle for freedom from the Capitol’s control throughout THE HUNGER GAMES; in Cassia’s complete deprivation of choice in MATCHED; and or the suppression of dissenting voices in THE SILENCED. Real-life teens may not undergo the operations, bloodbaths, pre-arranged marriages and various other tortures of their favourite protagonists, but in dystopian YA, ‘what-if’ becomes window to a new (and perhaps potential) world – one where choice is often demanded of the MC, even if physical freedom doesn’t seem to be on the cards. And, crucially, teens get behind their protagonists because they fight. Dystopian worlds are never static; the protagonist endures the trials of their own dystopic world because they choose to fight for a new one. Dystopian encompasses despair and hope, choice and coercion, submission and rebellion, depicted via characters who (in slightly-altered circumstances) undergo many of the same basic struggles as us.
Teens don’t just see themselves; they see their world. Dystopia holds the pull of something all too real. In our global society, where technology is omnipresent and seemingly omniscient, and the word reality demands inverted commas, teens can find the world at their fingertips and inside their heads. It’s accessible and controlling both. Reading affords an escape and, in the dystopian genre especially, is often a reminder that our world is not as bad as it has the potential to be (just ask 1984). It is a narrative of warning, and of optimism. And it highlights that indelible truth: no world ever exists without some discontent, some unequal power dispersion, least of all our own. Dystopia emphasises the perfect imperfectability of independent thought, and hence of people, as well as the price we – and our characters – can pay for it.