Dystopian literature for young adult readers is enjoying a surge in popularity these days – which, in turn, has prompted a veritable flood of newspapers and magazines articles attempting to explain why. Some people argue it’s because today’s teens are inheriting a world plagued by problems of a global scale unknown to previous generations. A taste for dark, dystopian tales, they say, is simply a natural response to growing up amid the great disasters of our age: 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Japanese and Haitian earthquakes, the BP oil spill, the melting of the polar ice caps, etcetera, etcetera.
But other people point out that this is nothing new; every generation has its disasters and apocalyptic fears. The two of us grew up, for example, with “duck-and-cover” drills in elementary school to “prepare” us for nuclear attack…while our parents lived through childhoods shaped by the ravages and aftershocks of World War II. For as long as dystopian books have existed, generations of readers have been devouring them.
Of all the explanations proffered for why teen readers respond so strongly to dystopian/post-apocalyptic tales, we like Scott Westerfeld’s the best. Scott, of course, is the author of the Uglies series — which are books that, along with Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, deserve a large slice of credit for establishing YA Dyslit as a genre to be reckoned with. In an essay for “Dystopia Week” on the Tor.com website, Scott said:
“Teenagers’ lives are constantly defined by rules, and in response they construct their identities through necessary confrontations with authority, large and small. Imagining a world in which those authorities must be destroyed by any means necessary [as per dystopian fiction] is one way of expanding that game. Imagining a world in which those authorities are utterly gone [as per post-apocalyptic fiction] is another.”
Dystopian fiction itself is nothing new. We can find dystopian elements in a number of early texts, and dystopian fiction as a genre began in the nineteenth century, where it emerged in reaction to those utopian books so beloved by Victorian readers. Distrustful of the bright, lofty visions conjured by Bellamy, Morris, and the other uptopianists, writers such as Anna Bowman Dodd, Ignatius L. Donnelly, Eugen Richter, and H.G. Wells published popular books in the opposite vein: dark, satiric, cautionary tales of utopia-gone-wrong. It was Wells who establish the dystopian genre as literature (and not just polemic) with now-classic books like The Time Machine and When The Sleeper Wakes. The prolific Wells also wrote utopian novels–such as A Utopian Tale and Men Like Gods —which had only mixed critical success and are rarely read today. Aldous Huxley, in fact, disliked Men Like Gods so much that he sat down to write a parody of it, producing his now-classic dystopian novel Brave New World , (set in a futuristic land of consumerism and technology pushed to soulless extremes.
In the nineteen eighties and nineties, a new form of dystopian fiction emerged: tales written specifically for young adult readers, adding younger protagonists and coming-of-age themes to a genre that many teens had already embraced in its adult form. Recommended early works of YA Dyslit include The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh, Futuretrack 5 by Robert Westall, The Devil on My Back by Monica Hughes, Children of the Dust by Louise Lawrence, The Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody, The Giver Trilogy by Lois Lowry, Shade’s Children by Garth Nix …and too many other fine books for us to even begin to list them all.
By the early years of the twenty-first century, YA Dyslit was well on its way to becoming the exceptional field that it is today, with a wide variety of authors exploring dystopic themes in many, many different ways. The explosive growth of the field has been helped, of course, by the commercial success of books by M.T. Anderson (Feed), Paolo Bacigalupi (Ship Breaker), Malorie Blackman (Naughts and Crosses), Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games), Cory Doctorow (Little Brother), Nancy Farmer (The House of the Scorpion), Patrick Ness (Monsters of Men), Carrie Ryan (The Forest of Hands and Teeth), Scott Westerfeld (Uglies), and other best-selling authors. But some of the new, up-and-coming Dyslit writers, too, are producing excellent work that promises to push the field into new directions.
Of course, when any field enjoys popular success, speculation promptly begins on just how long such a “fad” will last – with the doomsayers insisting it will all soon be over, or is over already. Here’s our prediction: modern Dyslit is not disappearing any time soon, because it’s not a passing fad, it’s a literary form. And it’s a form that is still evolving–that is not even close to finding its limits yet–as it shapes itself to the hopes, fears, dreams, and nightmares of each new generation.
Legendary editors Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow have been kind enough to share part of the afterword from their upcoming Anthology After with us today. After, a collection of YA dystopian fiction is due for release from Hyperion in October 2012. For a full TOC check out Ellen’s website. More information about Ellen and Terri, including bios and bibliographies, can be found at www.datlow.com and www.terriwindling.com.
To find out more about The Best Horror of the Year 4, edited by Ellen Datlow and due for release in May from Night Shade Books, visit the Night Shade website.