Publishing industry insiders are predicting that 2017 will find readers turning to happier tales of escapism and hope. As a result, genre publishers are talking about the This is a big shift from the pessimistic dystopias that have dominated bestseller lists (and Hollywood box office takings) for years. Commentators are basing this prediction on the current state of world politics and the media’s sensationalism of it – that this is the end of the world as we know it. Donald Trump, Brexit, and the general rise of the far-right in Europe are depressing realities, it’s true, but are these problems enough of a downer to have readers turning to more positive escapism?
This is hardly the first time people have predicted that readers’ obsession with dysfic was on the way out. Lowis Lowry, whose 1993 novel The Giver arguably started the trend with the YA market, has also been quoted saying that the genre is now passé. While dystopia is hardly limited to YA fiction, with literary heavyweights such as Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro writing adult dystopias, the genre has struck a particular chord with younger readers. Why have dystopian fictions been so popular for so long? Surely readers are suffering from dystopia-fatigue by now.
YA’s love of dystopia
Why have dystopia’s proven so popular with young adult readers? Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past twenty years, you should be aware of just how pervasive dystopian fiction is with young adult readers. This popularity is reflected in the constant adaptation of such books by Hollywood, from The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and Divergent to those properties whose rights have been sold but yet to grace our screens, such as The Bone Season. Is there something about dystopian stories that particularly appeal to teenagers?
A common aspect to many YA dystopian novels is a feeling of helpless isolation. The protagonists recognize the social injustices within their society and attempt to take action against a perceived hopelessness and complacency of those around them. This naturally appeals to teenage readers, as they are on the brink of adulthood, seeing the problems of the society they are about to enter into but feel unable to influence it yet. Similarly, the protagonists that take matters into their own hands, railing against the status quo, help readers to feel empowered to take control of their own lives. (If you are interested in this topic, read the academic article ‘Understanding the Appeal of Dystopian Young Adult Fiction’ by Justin Scholes and Jon Ostenson from 2013.) If the status quo is an ideal one, what would there be for these angry young teens to rail against?
On a less pseudo-psychological note, dystopian novels are often exciting. They are epic page-turners full of peril and protagonists that create change (not to mention so many of them being driven by young women, generally considered the bigger readers at that age). At the end of the day, books are there for entertainment and enjoyment. So could a Utopia ever be an exciting as a dystopia? If there’s nothing to rail against, what will keep the readers turning the page?
Can utopias knock dystopias from the top spot?
I admit that I’m loving some thoroughly escapist fiction at the moment – shutting myself off from the depressing political situation playing out around me and embracing silliness. But an essential part of storytelling is tension. If a writer were to create a true utopian society, where would that tension be? Try to imagine it: a place where everyone is equal, the justice system is perfect, no one is suffering… where would the issues be? Of course, there’s also the problem of human nature; call me a skeptic but I don’t believe it is possible to have a true utopia with human beings (perhaps with a completely new and different race of beings, but I struggle to imagine what a species without *any* violence, dissatisfaction, corruption, power plays, etc was possible… though this might simply be a limitation of my own imagination).
Books that are often held up as utopias tend to be dystopias in disguise or at least critical of the very idea of an ‘ideal state’. In a recent interview, writer Ada Palmer flagged this trend: “There is a lot of anti-utopian science fiction, in which we are shown a world which seems utopian but turns out secretly to be achieved through oppression or brainwashing etc.” Even The Giver is both a utopia and a dystopia. To achieve the outward façade of an utopia, the society is built on some ethically grey practices. If you look at Ursula Le Guin’s classic novel The Dispossessed, it is a satire of both a kind of socialist utopia and a capitalist dystopia, with Urras being corrupt and driven by ownership of ‘things’ and Anarres limiting personal creativity and a societal structure that doesn’t allow growth or change.
At the end of the day, we need tension in a novel to keep the reader interested. While that tension doesn’t necessarily need to come from the structure of society, utopias are based on the idea that they create an idyllic state for everyone living within them. I don’t believe it is possible to create an interesting story with a true utopia (assuming one could ever exist). Malka Older suggests that we should move away from the absolutes of dystopia/utopia. And she’s right, no society will ever be entirely one or the other. Perhaps what we should be aiming for is not utopian stories, but simply tales that aren’t quite so pessimistic or as focused on the darkest aspects of human nature and political corruption.
Despite the depressing political path we seem to be on, I don’t see this denting the popularity of dystopian literature in any serious way. If anything, it may find itself renewed as more readers are interested in the parallels to their own way, looking to these dysfic tales for inspiration and hope – if their beloved fictional characters can make a difference, maybe they can too.