Dystopians for an Unstable World

I love talking to booksellers about what is trending and getting their thoughts on it, because they often have incisive commentary based on their years of experience in the trade and interactions with customers. It’s not just that I’m interested in the industry as a whole and I like to know what’s trending and to learn more about why, but that the kinds of books people are reading are also, obviously, a direct reflection on what’s going on for us culturally. Especially with young adult books, which are one way people can process the world around them and come to grips with an environment that can seem new and frightening at times, with shifting sands where their parents might see only stability.

I was recently chatting with Christie Olson Day, owner of the Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, about dystopians in young adult fiction, and why they continue to be trendy despite cries of ‘I’m so over dystopians’ ringing from corners right and left. Notably, those cries are coming from adults; young adult readers are obviously not over dystopians because they’re still reading them and demanding more, which suggests they are still getting something important out of them. Intriguing that adults think they should be dictating the reading choices of young readers by dismissing a genre as something they’re ‘over,’ eh?

So why do young adults stubbornly keep reading dystopians, against the suggestions that the genre is old and the flash in the pan should have moved on to something else? What is it about the dystopian that keeps people coming back for more, and not just reading books in the genre but watching the film adaptations, reading the comic books, and demanding more and more media with a dystopian bent? Because obviously this is a phenomenon that is not ready to fade yet, and adults need to acknowledge that rather than being condescending to teen readers who are clearly getting something out it.

Christie argues, and I agree, that the continued trend of dystopians actually makes perfect sense in the current sociopolitical climate, and that we should not be at all surprised that they continue to be immensely popular, because they are such a stark reflection of the world teens are currently living in. Of course teens are drawn to books about worlds falling apart, worlds post-collapse, worlds where everything has gone wrong, because all of the evidence around them suggests that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and it’s being driven that way by the older generation, which then leaves the younger with the responsibility for cleaning it up.

Sometimes in a dismissive and sharp way—it’s immensely trendy to run features on how the current generation of 20-somethings is whiny and entitled and self-centred, unlike their older and wiser betters, as though we are at fault for the tremendous social collapses of the last few decades. And as though it’s at all reasonable to compare our experiences to those of people who graduated from college in eras when it was possible to do that without significant debt, who lived in eras when it was possible to buy a decent home for under $100,000 in many regions of the country (my own house was bought in 1973 for $25,000), when it was possible to survive as a young adult entering the world.

And young adults and teens have it even worse, informed at every turn that they have it so very good and shouldn’t whine, while being constantly confronted with total social destruction. We’re trashing the environment and we’re boarded a runaway train towards irreversible climate change that could have devastating effects in their lifetimes. Globally, numerous governments are gripped by austerity measures that create harsh living conditions. Racist anti-immigration rhetoric is on the rise in many nations, as is nationalism, which goes hand-in-hand with it. Food resources and water supplies are being crunched thanks to a growing population and lack of planning and coordination.

People are starving, people are dying in the streets, the social welfare system is in a state of collapse, the United States is at perpetual war, politics are divisive and brutal, women’s rights are under assault. Is it any wonder that at least some young adults view their current living conditions as verging on dystopian? And see these imagined worlds as not-too-unreasonable visions of possible futures if we can’t clean up our act as a collective society? Is it any wonder that young adults confronted with a world falling down in tatters around them might possibly want to choose escapist literature that also touches upon the world they live in?

In an era of growing sexual liberation and understanding of civil rights and bodily autonomy, we had books about teens exploring their sexuality, about racial integration, about inclusion and not just tolerance. That made sense for teens wanting to explore the world blooming around them in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, when a techno-future seemed like a looming and glittering possibility, cyberpunk was born. And now we’re looking at an era where everything seems to have gone belly-up, making it utterly unsurprising that young adult readers are voracious for books in which the worst has happened and the world has fundamentally changed.

Those who decry the dystopian genre and wish to bury it deep below the social consciousness might want to start by addressing the social issues that are feeding the genre. Stabilise the world, and young adults might move on to something new, something that will resonate with them more in a changed world. For now, dystopians strike disturbingly and creepily close to the heart, and that’s why people keep reading them, and loving them, and talking about them. Welcome to the zeitgeist.