Dystopia – barren, bleak and disturbing or is there room for hope?

Danielle Binks is a graduate of the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing program and has spent three years as a book reviewer for major Australian publishers. You can find Danielle’s blog at alphareader.blogspot.com.

Dystopia – an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.  The opposite of Utopia.

Famous dystopian novels: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

The young adult genre is a guessing game. Yesterday’s boy wizards are tomorrow’s vampires, and without a crystal ball it’s near impossible to predict the next big trend. But it seems that the changing landscape of young adult fiction is becoming decidedly barren with Dystopian novels ruling the shelves, and for good reason. YA blogger Danielle gives us her take on the dystopian genre.

The word ‘Dystopia’ was coined by Thomas More in 1516, as a counter-point to his theoretical creation of the perfect society called a ‘Utopia’. Dystopia can be post-apocalyptic, alternate universe, science fiction or a prediction of what’s to come. Dystopic society is characterized by human misery and oppression – stories are often set in rural cities, where humans have little contact with nature and are suffocated by their modernized surroundings. Politics in such novels are often brutal and dictatorial, exemplifying the belief that ‘power corrupts’.

The genre is bleak by its very definition. It explores and fictionalizes the worst traits of humanity and often predicts a desolate future. So should we be concerned that a genre which exemplifies human misery should be so popular for young readers? How can such storytelling be considered beneficial, let alone entertaining, for young adults? . . .

Bleak it may be, but the Dystopian genre is also a YA category that demands the highest quality of authors and the finest of writing. Complex themes are layered with heroic journeys as writers hold up a fun-house-mirror version of our society – embellished and ruined.

YA dystopian novels have a number of key attributes that I’d like to highlight through a focus on some fantastic new books.

Child Heroes

The YA Dystopian genre makes heroes of its child protagonists. Days Like This is the ultimate in child empowerment partly because in Stewart’s alternate world adults are not saviours, they are the enemy. Children are confined to their homes and turned into parental commodities. The Central Governing Committee rules. The Committee have had the people’s best interests at heart ever since The Wall was built 12 years ago. When water became scarce and only the privileged could afford to drink, The Wall was built to cordon off the wealthy areas around Sydney Harbor, keeping out the riff-raff with the help of patrolling Blacktroopers.  The ultimate betrayal comes when parents start experimenting on their offspring, in the hopes of gaining their youth and using it for themselves. The protagonist Lily, must escape her distorted parents and learn to live without them, but what she discovers on the outside is worse than she ever imagined.

Grain of Truth

Many Dystopian novels are based on a distortion of the real-world. They have believability. Often there is a grain of truth to these paradigms of human misery and desolate society and authors will take one aspect of the real-world and examine it under an unflattering microscope – distorting and wondering ‘what if?’ We are living in a world where global warming has never been more terrifying or close to home. Mother Nature has already tested us with the Queensland floods and Japanese earthquake. Is it any wonder then that the theme of many Dystopian novels is the absence of nature, or humanity’s destruction of the natural world?

This is the premise of Across the Universe. Planet Earth is dying. Natural resources are depleting and Mother Nature cannot sustain humanity for much longer. To try and save the human race a spaceship carrying 100 people with varying specialties in genetics, combat, vegetation etc are being sent to an uninhabited planet, Centauri-Earth. These people have the various resources needed to develop a new civilization on this faraway planet. . . a planet that it will take 300 years for the spaceship to reach, unless a killer onboard can succeed in wiping out humanity forever. acrosstheuniversebook.com

Looking Glass

Perhaps the biggest moral advantage of the YA Dystopian genre is simply that it challenges readers to think about their own world. Ally Condie’s novel Matched is a wonderful example. The protagonist Cassia, is a young girl who trusts the Society. The Society chooses everything – what people eat, where they work, who they marry, when they have children and when they die. Everything is orchestrated by the Society, and Cassia, like everyone else, trusts them implicitly.

Ally Condie’s world is austere – and the root of the misery lies in the characters being none the wiser to their desolation. In this world the Society has eliminated creativity and curbed free-will. The Society have limited art and creation, allowing only a Hundred Songs, Hundred Poems, Hundred Paintings and Hundred Stories to exist – everything else from ‘before’ was destroyed.

Ally Condie’s novel is one that pushes readers to articulate the wrongness of this Society, realizing what the protagonist initially fails to see.

The brilliant turning-point of Matched comes when Cassia discovers an unauthorized poem. She reads the pulsing words of Dylan Thomas, and her world is forever altered; ‘Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

In Condie’s follow-up novel, Crossed, we read the impact of Cassia’s fractured thinking. Now that the blinkers are off how will she function in this stifling society – or will she choose another route, by way of rebellion?

In Crossed, Condie is writing the origins of a revolution, with a mysterious ‘Pilot’ leader to head the rebellion against the Society. Condie is creating a veritable  Che Guevara or Rosa Parks –showing her young audience just how orchestrated and make-believe a revolution can be. Uprisings don’t happen overnight – they need people and symbols to stir the embers of discontent.  matched-book.com

Paradise Lost

Dystopian novels will often follow one of two plot trajectories; awareness and discovery – paradise lost, and paradise never found. Legend is the perfect example of this awareness and discovery. The novel has two protagonists, one from each school of Dystopian-thought.  America as we know it is no more; instead North America is split into two warring factions of East VS. West, The Republic against The Colonies. Day is a fifteen-year-old boy born in the slums of Los Angeles – he is a wanted criminal and public dissident. By contrast, June is a Republic darling – a child protégé destined for military greatness. Their paths cross when June is tasked to bring Day to justice before the Republic – but their chance meeting will shatter June’s world-order and open her eyes to the truth of the war.  marielu.org

Dystopia may be a bleak landscape – a barren world with super-computers, dictators and assigned love, where humanity lives in formation and power corrupts, absolutely. But this is also a genre which makes heroes of its young protagonists, demands them to question the norm and fight for a better world. It’s a genre about choosing to die on your feet, rather than live on your knees . . .


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