Over at the Guardian, Ewan Morrison is pissed off that young-adult novels don't preach a left-wing, progressive vision. In fact, he writes, many of the most popular titles actually undermine the collectivism at the heart of so many utopias-gone-bad:
Books such as The Giver, Divergent and the Hunger Games trilogy are, whether intentionally or not, substantial attacks on many of the foundational projects and aims of the left: big government, the welfare state, progress, social planning and equality. They support one of the key ideologies that the left has been battling against for a century: the idea that human nature, rather than nurture, determines how we act and live. These books propose a laissez-faire existence, with heroic individuals who are guided by the innate forces of human nature against evil social planners….
Jeebus, the sourness runs strong in this one. Morrison is in such a rush to denounce the neoliberalism of the books that he manages to misrepresent them. Far from being anti-community, these books are anti-collectivist, at least when the group is based on involuntary servitude, perceived mental and physical capacities (mostly the result of genetics in these books), or accidents of geography. To the extent that they—like virtually all novels—rely on individual protagonists, those heroes are all about political and social equality rather than any sort of elevation of the great man or woman at the expense of others. None of the books he cites is against community per se. They are against reactionary states that rule by dictate rather than democracy (whether in a the voting booth or the marketplace).
And there's this:
This generation of YA dystopian novels is really our neoliberal society dreaming its last nightmares about the threat from communism, socialism and the planned society. We've simplified it to make it a story we can tell to children and in so doing we've calmed the child inside us….
If you see yourself as a left-leaning progressive parent, you might want to exercise some of that oppressive parental control and limit your kids exposure to the "freedom" expressed in YA dystopian fiction. But let's not worry about it too much, the good thing about laissez-faire capitalism is that things come in waves and pass out of fashion quickly.
More here. Whatevs, Morrison, whatevs. What is it about the growing surveillance state in the U.K. and the U.S. that might freak the kids out a bit and cause them to long for a place beyond all-seeing adults who get to tell them what jobs they will take? And while communism and socialism seem pretty well dead (not coming back in fashion anywhere these days, really, despite coff, coff "late capitalism"'s desperate need for novelty), the planned society really is not a favorite with anybody except the planners themselves. Don't blame markets for that one. The 20th century was chockful of nuts who planned everybody's life for them. Didn't work out too swell.
Morrison would do better to park his cranky post-Marxist POV for a second and check out Amy Sturgis' essay about the changing tenor of young-adult dystopias in the current issue of Reason. Yes, agrees Sturgis, there's plenty of individualism and respect for markets as places of mutually satisfying exchanges in The Hunger Games, Divergent, and the like. But there's also a weird disdain for technology and the possibilities of life, too:
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, blase 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?
That's a nuanced reading not just of three books recently made into movies but a wider set of young-adult dystopias that, like most good books, can't be reduced to a simple political fable.