Quick, what’s your version of dystopia? What does your living hell look like? Is it a world ravaged by war, disease, or pollution? Are there zombies lumbering about? Is it like The Handmaid’s Tale—a totalitarian theocracy? Or would your dystopia be a time of ultraviolence like in A Clockwork Orange? Perhaps your dystopia is more complicated, like mine, where everyone rides around on those misnamed hoverboard things while talking about Bitcoin through duck whistles.
Dystopia means different things to different people. But one thing is for sure: much like the world’s temperature and sea levels, the popularity of the dystopian novel continues to rise.
Dystopian literature, characterized by human misery and a setting where everything is pretty much as bad as it can be, isn’t exactly new; it dates back to the 19th century. E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909), a short story in which humans live underground and communicate with one another via an omnipotent global machine, was written as a reaction to H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), in which the protagonist visits a far-future utopia where humanity has conquered nature with technology, and everyone is just kinda lazy and loving it.
One could argue that dystopian literature continues to be popular today because that’s where readers think our world is headed, and we’re either fascinated by it or we’re trying to figure out how to turn it all around. It’s no coincidence that George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four saw a huge increase in sales the month of Donald Trump’s inauguration. But it’s not as if the dystopian novel sold poorly under Obama; The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, Legend, and Shatter Me each hit the bestsellers list. And take another look at those titles: they’re all young adult books.
Tahereh Mafi, author of the YA Shatter Me series, paints a world where disease has taken over and an oppressive government exploits its citizens. She believes it’s dark optimism that drives the YA book market: “I think that’s what makes it such a safe place for young people to explore their burgeoning understanding of darkness in the world. The realization that there is, in fact, evil in the world is a realization that’s so unique to that coming-of-age experience—it makes dystopian novels evergreen. There will forever and ever be young people growing up and grappling with the harsh realities of the world.”
Despite its darkness and violence, Mafi says, YA dystopia almost always leaves the reader with a bit of hope. These books manage to reflect our fears while still offering a beam of light.
Combine all of the above with the fact that young adult dystopian books are, by and large, fast paced and fun to read, with characters trying to save the world (while also—hey, why not?—falling in love), and it’s not hard to see why they sell and why authors continue writing more and more of them.
I write dystopian young adult books because they’re honestly fun to work on. I not only get to try to predict the future—like in my last book, Achilles: The Deep Sky Saga—but I also get to reflect on the past. What did 15-year-old me want to read? I wanted to be a quiet hero, if only given the chance. So, with the main character, Jonah, in Achilles, I throw this introverted kid into an extremely chaotic situation where he has to react, or else people die. A lot of us have dreams of great heroics in a world gone wrong, and that’s why we keep reading the stuff.
Perhaps in the future, a slew of utopian texts will come out as a reaction to all the bleak visions of the world being shared now, or maybe we will find ourselves living in a real dystopia, and we’ll stop reading about it because it will just hit too close to home. Until then, YA dystopian literature will continue to rule the zombie-littered landscape, and I’m okay with that.
Greg Boose is the author of Achilles: The Deep Sky Saga (Diversion).