Not Your Parents' Dystopias

Millennial fondness for worlds gone wrong


Anyone who has wandered by a bookstore or a movie theater lately knows the kids these days love a nice dystopia. Their heroes are Katniss from Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, Tris from Veronica Roth's Divergent series, Thomas from James Dashner's Maze Runner novels. The number of English-language dystopian novels published from 2000 to 2009 quadrupled that of the previous decade, and not quite four years into the 2010s, we have already left that decade's record in the dust.

For most of this century, literary critics have been proclaiming an "explosion" in the young adult (YA) category, and the trend shows no sign of losing momentum. Sales figures are buoyed, in part, by crossover readers-adult fans of books targeted at kids, part of the so-called "Hunger Games effect." In 2012, Bowker Market Research, an affiliate of global information company ProQuest, came to the (now much-cited) conclusion that 55 percent of YA titles are currently purchased by adults for their own reading pleasure. So impressive is these novels' success that even if only 45 percent of their readers are young adults, this would still represent a gain in readership over past decades.

Youth-oriented fiction about worlds gone awry is not new. The tradition stretches back generations and involves works now revered as classics. Some of the giants of what was then called juvenile science fiction-Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Poul Anderson-wrote what now would be classified as YA dystopias. But the exponential recent growth of the genre suggests something else at play: a generation's lost wonder and mounting anxiety.


In the Golden Age of science fiction (which may be measured roughly from the time John W. Campbell Jr. came into his full powers as editor of Astounding Stories in 1938 until the time Michael Moorcock's editorship of New Worlds in 1964 signaled the rise of the New Wave), worlds gone wrong often served as catalysts for young protagonists to pluck up their courage, exercise their agency, and affect change. The titular character in Heinlein's Starman Jones (1953), Max Jones, inherits a bleak Earth depleted of natural resources. Hereditary guilds have the planet in a stranglehold, regulating information and determining what (if any) profession an individual may pursue. Young Max's options are few, and his dream of being an "astrogator" in space seems completely out of reach. The risk-taking, indefatigable character pursues his goal anyway, ultimately finding himself in the right place and time to showcase his hard-won skill and-just as important-moral integrity.

Max's scientific expertise and common sense save lives and win the day. When he finally confesses to lying his way past the rules that would have excluded him from gaining the position at which he excels, that only serves to illustrate how wrong-minded the laws are. The novel ends with Jones not only secure in his chosen calling but paving the way for changes to the oppressive guild system.

These early dystopias showed young men, and sometimes even young women, facing down dangers in their fallen worlds with determination and commitment. The novels suggested that the forward march of freedom and science may meet grave obstacles and even grind to a halt, but if young people rise to the occasion, the story doesn't have to end there.

Those Golden Age dystopian visions were balanced by another subgenre of juvenile science fiction popular at the time: tales that portrayed the future as exciting new territory full of marvels and possibilities. Contemporary scholars classify these books as "sensawunda" works, because they conveyed a sense of wonder in contemplating tomorrow.

The poster child for this phenomenon is Tom Swift, the hero of more than 100 novels across five fiction series. In the 1950s, while Heinlein's Max Jones was fighting for his life and struggling for his livelihood, young Tom was inventing new technologies in his basement (our modern word Taser is an acronym for "Tom A. Swift's Electric Rifle"), journeying underwater and into space, thwarting baddies of all descriptions, and illustrating just how cool the future would be.

Tom Swift had a triphibian atomicar. Where have all the triphibian atomicars gone now? The millennials, it seems, don't want a ride.

There is no modern-day equivalent of the "sensawunda" novels. Their heroes-scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, explorers-are the children of progress, curiosity, innovation, and hope. Today, the only genre targeted at young people that rivals the popularity of worlds gone wrong is fantasy. But do paranormal and fanciful tales such as the House of Night series by P.C. and Kristin Cast (2007-2014) and Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series (2007-2014) balance the bleak vision of dystopias, as sense-of-wonder science fiction once did? Not exactly.

The standing consensus of genre historians is that general readers are likely to turn to fantasy during times of anxiety and dissatisfaction, preferring to look away (the "it's my high school, but with zombies/werewolves/vampires" direction of urban fantasy) or behind (the "it's another time and another place, but it looks/sounds/smells like medieval Europe" direction of high fantasy) rather than ahead to what they perceive as an unwelcoming, problematic future. Fantasy doesn't offer an alternate view of tomorrow. It provides an escape from it.

Snother difference between yesteryear's dystopias and today's: The older authors were usually either trained in the sciences (Heinlein was a naval engineer; Anderson earned a B.A. in physics) or sympathetic to them (Norton, a librarian, conducted her own research). Like the pioneering author/editor Hugo Gernsback, they believed that quality futuristic fiction could seduce readers into a love affair with science and show them the possibilities it held for a better tomorrow. Thus Anderson's teenage hero Carl, in Vault of the Ages (1952), ends a future dark ages by unearthing and reintroducing advanced technology to the world. Progress and science walk hand in hand, these authors implied, and no one is in a better position to appreciate this fact than young people.

Today, science is often portrayed as the problem rather than the solution. Many current authors, children's literature scholar Noga Applebaum notes in her outstanding 2009 study Representations of Technology in Science Fiction for Young People, are neither trained in nor sympathetic to the sciences. In fact, a majority of the many novels she analyzes vilify the over-polluted, over-complicated, and over-indulgent present while glorifying the past and the pastoral, a kind of mythical pre-industrial, pre-commercial, subsistence existence-in short, the kind of dark ages that Poul Anderson's teen hero Carl brought to a welcome end in Vault of the Ages.

As active participants in the contemporary world, young readers are dished a heaping plate of guilt and self-loathing. Why is there global warming, or worldwide poverty, or runaway disease? The answer is as close as the millennials' smartphones and tablets and gaming systems: Youth and innovation and modernity are to blame.

David Patneade's Epitaph Road (2010) throws in everything but the kitchen sink when describing the sheer trial of being alive in the oh-so-terrible year of 2010: it was a "world of poverty and hunger and crime and disease and greed and dishonesty and prejudice and war and genocide and religious bigotry and runaway population growth and abuse of the environment and immigration strife and you-get-the-leftovers educational policies and a hundred other horrors."

Saci Lloyd goes a step further in her award-winning The Carbon Diaries: 2015 (2008). Teen heroine Laura apparently is part of the problem by pursuing a music career with her band, gaining a following online, and benefitting from how easy it is to record and distribute music digitally. She only becomes part of the solution after abandoning her music to become a commune-dwelling, pig-raising, socially conscious activist-though not before performing the novel's anthem, "Death to Capitalism":

"death to capitalism

a new world waiting to be born

murder is capitalism

cast off the cloak of scorn

you selling us Mercedes, Nike, mp3

Gucci, Rolex, Toys R Us

trying to sedate us-but the tragedy

is that in reality you are killing us"

Are these works the literary equivalent of yelling at those darned kids to get off your lawn, oldsters scolding the youngsters for their perceived failings? Applebaum thinks so, arguing that the trend toward technophobia exposes "adults' reluctance to embrace the changing face of childhood and the shift in the power dynamic which accompanies this change." Viewed through its attitudes about technology, she writes, "literature aimed at young people is exposed afresh as problematic, a socialization agent serving adults' agenda." Certain adults' agenda, to be sure.

The biggest exceptions to these trends can be found in the Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010), which celebrates self-reliance, individual choice, and markets (like The Hob), while warning readers against those who gravitate toward power. (Suzanne Collins also masterfully answers the classic question "Who was right, Aldous Huxley or George Orwell?" by agreeing with both.) But although the Hunger Games novels and their film adaptations are an undeniable sensation, they also represent something of an outlier in terms of theme.

Another exception-or partial exception-is the work of Cory Doctorow. Doctorow's novels depict technology as the natural ally of youth. The millennials are at a tremendous advantage in the 21st-century landscape, he proposes, because unlike their elders they grew up with a high degree of comfort with both technology and its continual state of change. But even Doctorow's novels tell a sobering story about the present.

Whether it's the hackers of Little Brother (2008) and Homeland (2013) or the fan filmmakers of Pirate Cinema (2012), Doctorow's teen protagonists are routinely forced to defend themselves from older interests who are supported by the government simply because they are more powerful and entrenched in the system. The mighty surveillance state will not disappear, readers realize time and again; the most that kids can hope for is to watch the watchers and let them know that the scrutiny goes both ways. Readers cheer on the gutsy young heroes fighting for their liberty, but we also mourn all the time and effort and creative energy they lose in the struggle simply to stay free and see another day. Their best-case scenario is to fight the powers-that-be to a stalemate.

By contemporary standards, Doctorow's protagonists are triumphant. They win battles, if not wars. And here lies perhaps the greatest shift in young adult dystopias over recent decades.

Heinlein's Starman Jones lived in a grim world, but the bleakest, worst-case scenario he faced was a tough life of subsistence farming without the opportunity to visit the stars. He would have survived. The same fate cannot be assumed for heroes and heroines today.

For example, no young character is safe in Neal Shusterman's Unwind dystology (2007-2014), in which the second U.S. Civil War (fought over abortion) ends in a compromise allowing parents to choose retroactive abortions-"unwindings," or the harvesting of all organs and body parts-for their children until they come of age. In many contemporary dystopias, the most the protagonists can hope for is to reach their 18th birthdays.

The YA label offers no promise of a happy ending and no shield against a high body count, Anglia Ruskin University professor Farah Mendlesohn notes in her 2009 survey The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children's and Teens' Science Fiction. Mendlesohn coined the term "anti-survivalist" to describe these novels, because it's not unusual for main characters to be sacrificed to the author's message. Tris, the hero from the Divergent series, fails to survive her own story, and she has plenty of company.

Death is a perennial subject for literature, especially science fiction, which wrestles with questions about what it means to be human, and brushes up against humanity's outer technological limits. But a shift has taken place. Works based on a trust in individual agency once used dystopias as catalysts for heroes to rise up, take responsibility for their lives, and make change. Now works offer worlds gone wrong to suggest that modernity itself was a wrong turn, that the best that young people can hope for is to survive the broken planet they've inherited.

"I suspect that young adults crave stories of broken futures," the novelist Paolo Bacigalupi wrote in The New York Times in 2010, "because they themselves are uneasily aware that their world is falling apart." But is it? A strong case could be made that millennials enjoy a reality of greater prosperity and safety, relatively speaking, than preceding generations. The question is whether they know this.

We're left with a chicken-and-egg dilemma. As a Gen Xer, I like to think my generation redefined all things cynical and emo. A heaping dose of bleakness doesn't bother me. I toss back dystopias like vitamins, convinced they will do me good. One of my favorite novels is Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826). Here's a quick synopsis: Everybody dies.

That said, I view the changing tides in the YA dystopian sea-the absence of sensawunda, the technophobia and anti-modernity, the protagonists' reduced ambitions-with sober attention. Gen X pessimism carried with it a healthy disrespect for authority. Millennials and the fiction they consume manage to be both more reverent and more resigned, blasé about the technological marvels around them.

I may have known I'd never get my triphibian atomicar, but I never expected a smartphone, either. Today we all hold more complex and sophisticated technology in the palms of our hands than sent humanity to the moon. Yet what giant step for man can the members of the next generation achieve when the most their heroes can hope for is to survive?