Sometimes this prompts an enthusiastic gushing from a fellow dystopia-lover, and we exchange book recommendations. Sometimes, I get a curt nod and a slightly confused look. And sometimes, I get someone who asks: “But isn’t that just all poorly written books with love triangles and totalitarian governments?”
My answer? Absolutely not.
Sure, there are a few poorly written YA dystopian books, (ones that do also include love triangles and totalitarian governments), especially with YA dystopian fiction becoming more mainstream in recent years—but that’s the case with any genre; there are always going to be badly written books out there, regardless of their subject matter. And dystopian fiction is so much more than love triangles and totalitarian governments—whether it’s poorly written, or not.
Dystopian fiction, for me at least, is about possibility and potential. It’s a study of how anything can happen, and how people might react. It’s a study of the worst societies—a dystopia is, after all, a terrifying society or world—and it’s a study of our own fears, and what makes us human. Each YA dystopian novel is a glimpse into a possible version of our future, revealing the potential of man—both good and bad. But mainly bad, in the case of dystopian fiction.
Dystopias are all about human nature, and this is what makes them fascinating to me. I can’t read a dystopian novel without thinking about what it means to be human, and the concept of human nature—particularly, whether one’s personality is innate or learned—is something that has always fascinated me. Reading and writing dystopian fiction allows me to explore this area further. Much further.
And the reason I think we can learn so much about ourselves through reading these books is because dystopian fiction focuses on real issues. And this is why I love reading this genre. Underneath all the layers of world-building, love stories (because, let’s face it: most YA novels, regardless of genre, do have a love story of some sorts), and brave action against oppressive groups, a dystopian novel says a lot about real issues. And most importantly, these are issues that real people are concerned about: the misuse of power, poverty, governments, corruption, climate change, control, human nature, scientific advances, perfection, and technology, to name just a few.
A dystopian setting acts as a catalyst for each of these real life issues, magnifying them beyond current proportions, exploring the consequences and, most importantly, making us think about them. And because these issues or problems are real, and they’re problems that many of us do know about, this really makes the social message within dystopian texts stronger. And, the plot has been made a little more believable because we can relate to the major issues and themes throughout the novel, even though we experience it on a (usually) much smaller scale.
In dystopian fiction, one of the most important things is how the dystopia interacts with the real world, and how we can see parts of our own societal systems reflected in these terrifying stories. How, when we feel fear for the protagonist, or experience thoughts of disgust at how a society could actually operate like that, we’re actually feeling fear and horror at the thought that we could end up like that, if things go wrong. And one thing that dystopias do tell us is how easily things can—and do—go wrong. And what really drives home this point is when, quite often, these bad societies aren’t too different from our own, with only one or two things changed (such as the world Teri Terry beautifully builds in Slated). From these books, we can see just how precious society (as we know it) is, and how easily it could go wrong. They really do make us reflect on our own ‘good’ society. Because, let’s face it, quite often the dystopian worlds that we all know and love don’t come about through people intending to make life harder. They come about through people attempting to solve a problem—and solving it in the wrong way. These plots show us how one decision about how a country is run can have devastating effects, therefore making the majority of dystopian novels highly political in nature. These political aspects of dystopias make us ask questions about our own society. It is for this reason—the social messages, questions of ethics, and warnings that are in dystopian texts—that I think everyone should read this genre of young adult literature; the dystopian worlds authors create can teach us show much about our own society, because we’re forced to face a terrifying future that could become reality.
Yet at the same time, there’s comfort in knowing that such a dystopian society is a long, long way away—if it’s going to come at all. Because, let’s face it, no one would be so silly as to implement a regime in our society, that dystopian novels have proven would be disastrous, right? Therefore, in a way, reading dystopian fiction not only makes us reflect on how the seeds for such disaster might already be planted within our societies, but they also draw attention to the security of society, and the sense within man, making us believe that we’re safe from such dark, dystopian futures.
However, one of the reasons I love dystopias is because of their dark, fear-inducing tone, and their sense of realism—although this whole situation is unlikely, it could happen. I love being able to escape into a world where I allow the author to scare me a little, which is, after all, a scenario where I am in control of how much fear I feel (and don’t we all wish we always have control over that?). I can stop reading if I want to at any point. I’m allowing myself to be scared because it provides excitement, drawing me away from an arguably mundane world. As much as I sometimes convince myself that I would like to live in a dystopian society—because nothing exciting ever happens here—I know that most likely, I’m not cut out for actual dystopian life. But reading about dystopias allows me to pretend that I am there, it allows me to feel the fear and experience the adrenaline, without actually putting myself in danger. It’s the best of both worlds: feeling fear, because it feels realistic, but being safe.
And I love it when authors use their readers’ fear as a vital part of the story; the social messages I remember most clearly from dystopias are the ones from the books that have emotionally moved me the most because they’ve used my fear to emphasise real world issues—even if I haven’t consciously realised it at the time of reading. Yes, it’s through reading dystopian fiction, and allowing myself to be scared, that I really explore the capabilities of man, as well as how fragile the concept of a ‘good’ society is—which, in turn, makes us consider our own society.
Indeed, the more YA dystopian novels I read, the more I realise that there’s so much we can learn from dystopian fiction, without experiencing the fearful societies ourselves. Dystopian fiction highlights what is already wrong with the world, or what could go wrong, magnifying small elements into significant downfalls of humanity. And because of this link between the real world and dystopian worlds, I believe that just through reading dystopias we can see exactly how parts of our current world could already be considered as the beginnings of dystopian scenarios. Take Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games for an example; Collins exaggerates the rich/poor divide (a divide that already exists in our world), revealing the extremely harmful effects on human nature and kindness. This, in turn, makes us look at our own society, because Collins has shown what man can evolve into and the devastation this causes. Does this not make us reflect on our society, finding parts that do resemble The Hunger Games, and therefore making us realise that we do need change after all?
But even if a reader doesn’t take away this ‘deeper meaning’ on every reading of a dystopian novel, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t an enjoyable, entertaining read. By nature, dystopian texts tend to be fast-paced, full of tension, action and great characters; they are accessible on multiple levels. If I just want a distraction, then I can read a dystopian novel. And if I want to have a philosophical engagement with the nature of man, then quite often I can also get this from the same book. It is this accessibility that I really love, and how dystopias can teach and deliver social messages without being considered outright ‘preachy’.
Yet, perhaps one of my favourite things about dystopian novels is that they’re about the future. For me, the future is a fascinating concept. No one knows what’s in store for us. And it’s human nature to want to know what’s everything. We are not patient creatures, and it’s human nature to be curious about the unknown. And, because, as I’ve already said, it’s human nature to want to feel fear, we want to imagine these many versions of the future to be scary, but we also want them to stay just that: imagined versions of the future. We don’t really want to find ourselves in life-and-death situations, or being viciously oppressed by violent perpetrators. It’s almost like a defence mechanism: we read about awful futures, and experience them that way, so that they can’t happen to us.
But at the same time, these novels offer something important. Something that tells us that if we do end up in dystopian conditions, there will always be one thing among the darkness that can save us. A thing that will save us. And this very thing is also something engrained in our own lifestyle and culture; when children grow up, we teach them that the dark isn’t scary, because the night always gives way to daylight. We’re taught that in darkness, there will always be a spark of light somewhere ahead of us, and that we just need to look for it.
And what light is there amidst all the darkness in YA dystopian fiction? Yes. You got it. Hope.
No matter how dark these stories are, how bad humanity has become, and how oppressed people are, there’s nearly always a glimmer of hope in these YA novels, whether it’s at the end of the novel, or in chunks throughout a series. They teach us that we can overcome the grittiness of it, and quite often, that one person can implement and lead a successful rebellion. (I’m thinking of you, Katniss.)
And that brings me onto my next point: rebellion. Everyone loves stories where the characters rebel, right? There would be no fun in reading a book where people don’t stand up for themselves, where everyone just suffers without a word. No, we want to read rebellious individuals with plans that will—and do—save the world. We want to see characters getting their voices and opinions across to those in power, even when the odds of it seem impossible. And why do we want to see this? Because it gives us hope. Again, it ties into our world, the real world: we want to get our voice across too. We don’t want our opinions to get lost. And reading YA dystopian fiction is one way to keep this hope within us alive: we will be heard.
In recent years particular there’s been a publishing explosion of YA dystopian novels (such as James Dashner’s The Maze Runner and Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, to name just a few) as the genre’s become more and more mainstream, with plenty of adults reading YA dystopian fiction, not just teenagers. And what do we notice about the majority of dystopian novels that are so popular? Well, they are often expanded into trilogies or series. This is another reason why I absolutely love reading—and writing—dystopian novels. I love to get inside a character’s mind-set and really get to know that individual, seeing how he or she grows and develops into an adult. Indeed, on the whole, humans are social creatures. We want to get to know people (and characters). And we want to know them well. We thrive on others’ secrets, and a sense of companionship. Arguably the most valuable relationships we have are the ones that last the longest. Therefore, what can be better than having the option to follow our favourite characters—the ones we’ve utterly fallen in love with—through multiple books?
Perhaps why I really love this genre is because I started reading these books as a teenager myself. I felt that these books, with their protagonists usually being around the age of seventeen, understood what it meant to be a teenager. YA dystopian novels depict teenagers as real people who are strong, confident and have the power to get their own voices heard. (And there’s no dumbing down the language either, or belittling young adults). These writers show teenagers battling through dystopian conditions and still surviving—often when the older characters can’t. These books show that teenagers are important. But they also show the worries that come along with being a teenager, such as the struggle of trying to grow up in a world that may seem terrifying. And, like I said earlier, these novels offer us hope, whilst educating us in a way that isn’t at all preachy.
But these novels are more than just books written for teenagers. They’re books that adults can—and should—read too. Or at the very least, I wish everyone would give a dystopian novel a chance. Writers of dystopian fiction cover important concepts, and deliver vital social messages wrapped up in the form of entertainment. These novels have multiple layers to them—no two people are going to have exactly the same experience reading them, and take away exactly the same point, and that’s okay. That’s what makes these novels great. They’re accessible to many different people, and you can get from each of these books exactly what you want to; these dystopian plots interact with our own lives, and so we pick out the messages, themes and issues that are most vital to us. This is why I love dystopian fiction, and why I think everyone should read it.
What’s your favorite dystopian novel? Sound off in the comments below!
Madeline Dyer is a speculative fiction writer, whose short fiction has appeared in NonBinary Review, Mirror Dance Fantasy Magazine, Mad Swirl and more. Her debut YA novel, Untamed, releases from Prizm Books on 20th May 2015, and will be available through Prizm Books (US only), Torquere Press (international), Amazon and good bookshops. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.