Have you ever seen those pictures of a mama duck with a row of ducklings behind her? Small mirror images just trailing along behind the leader, struggling to keep up and eager to play in the big leagues. That’s the YA industry for you. Stephenie Meyer wrote a paranormal romance book that blew all the paranormal romances that came before it out of the water. Suddenly, a million aspiring writers across the globe had a sparkle in their eye (pun intended!) and a dream of making it big overnight. And the road to their success? Paranormal YA novels!
Then came Suzanne Collins. Being a lady of considerable vision and talent, she took a step off the beaten path. Instead of writing about vampires or fairies or werewolves, she decided to write a book about a grim, bleak future where society as we know it had broken down. Her dystopic idea, in a genre that had a sad lack of them, exploded sensationally onto the YA scene. What could all the little ducklings do but follow?
And thus was born the vision of the future – the dystopia.
Dystopian fiction, while somewhat novel for the YA genre, has quietly flourished in adult literary circles for a long time now. Remember the horrific Airstrip One of George Orwell’s 1984? And the pseudo-peaceful consumerist society of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? The collective irrationality and repression of Ayn Rand’s Anthem?
I’ve always had a special fondness for dystopias. There is nothing more effective in getting a person to think of the consequences of their actions than a bleak portrayal of the results in the future. Dystopias are amongst the most difficult worlds to build because they require rationalization on not only a physical level, but an ideological one. Dystopias are a distorted reflection of our world, our worst nightmares clothed in fiction. They hold up a mirror to our actions and force us to think beyond the now.
Most dystopias use social and governmental controls as a means of oppressing their population. Why? Perhaps because the abuse of power and authority is one of our greatest fears. Because every single one of us knows the power of peer pressure, the force of the hive mind beating against the individual. Because so much of our daily lives are controlled by the government, and by society’s expectations of us. This is one of dystopian fiction’s primary goals – to pick up on our greatest fear, and make us face it.
But apparently, this is not the objective of the breed of YA dystopias. YA dystopias, shockingly, are all about tru wuvv. They are about falling in insta-love with some random teenage boy whose face flashes on your computer screen for a second. They are about dithering between you ‘ideal Match’ and your, I repeat myself, tru wuvv. They are about the power of the first kiss and its ability to enlighten you about the true ghastliness of a loveless society. Please, give me a break here.
A dystopia, like any other form of speculative fiction, needs strong worldbuilding to base itself on. 1984, Brave New World, they were all set in a specific part of the world, yes, but they gave a clear idea of what the rest of the world was like. This seems to be too much work for YA dystopian writers, however. They end up either conveniently sinking the rest of the continents, leaving only America’s East Coast intact, or sometimes, not even bothering to speculate about the rest of the world. And even in their little slice of dystopia, the what, how and why of it is explained unconvincingly, at best.
Let’s take that new favourite dystopian trope – The Virus. In Lauren DeStefano’s Wither, the men die at twenty-five, and the women at twenty. Every single one of them. Now, can you name me one single virus in the history of mankind that has afflicted every single person in the world at a specific age? I don’t mean ‘during adolescence’ or ‘in their sixties’, I mean ‘on the dot of twenty and no longer’. Similarly, in Megan McCafferty’s Bumped, all people over the age of eighteen are struck by a virus that renders them infertile. Why eighteen? Does the virus sit around with a little chronological clock saying ‘bada BOOM, you’re eighteen, no more babies!’?
And then there is the behaviour of society at large. All of us intellectual types like to tell ourselves that people are sheep. You show them where to go, and they do it without questioning. But is this really true? Doesn’t the fight against apartheid, the uprising against Mussolini, all show us that if you oppress people enough, they will fight back? That even in societies where people are conditioned to believe in the greater good and the absolute nature of the State, there are subversive free thinkers? And yet, for some reason, in Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, everybody seems to happily accept that love is a Bad Thing and line up to get rid of it. Because all we need to live happy lives is a lobotomy or a collection of little colored pills.
The realisation of the controlling State in these dystopias is abysmal, to say the least. Even dictators need a reason, a rationalization for their actions. When Hitler was dumping the Jews in gas chambers, he truly believed in the racial superiority of the Aryans, and their suppression by the Semitics. But really, what would a government achieve by making the suppression of love its primary, if not only, goal? What is the motivating factor behind a State that plays Matchmaker for its teenagers? What is the big deal behind making every teenager undergo cosmetic surgery to become ‘Pretty’?
And then there is the big one. The subliminal messages underlying the creation of a dystopian society. Freedom of thought and action, abuse of power, censorship, the conflict of the individual versus the collective. Obviously those messages are now passé. The new objective of YA dystopian fiction is to GLORIFY TRU WUVV. Yes, it’s all about teenage angst and star-crossed love. Write the standard love triangle, shove it in a futuristic society where true love is forbidden, and earn your million-dollar paycheck. I think perhaps one of these days, I will write a dystopian novel about the bloodsucking publishing industry.
This is not to say that the current crop of YA dystopias is all bad. In fact, despite some truly abysmal world-building, Lauren DeStefano’s ‘Wither' does a great job with the characterization and atmospheric prose. And more importantly, it doesn’t sink the plot in favour of wangsty romance. Neither does Megan McCafferty’s 'Bumped', a very clever satire on reproductive choice and the loss of innocence in today’s children. However, with more and more authors jumping on the dystopian bandwagon (Stacey Kade of The Ghost and The Goth fame just announced a new dystopian series to be released in 2013), I foresee a long and torturous death for the true dystopian novel. Much like Bram Stoker, I imagine George Orwell and Aldous Huxley turning in their unquiet graves as the love triangles take over the world.