Young Adult Dystopian Fiction Avoids the Big Issues

The young adult dystopian genre has, in recent years, reached far beyond its eponymous target audience and found fertile ground in the imaginations of adults and children alike. With the expansion of the YA genre into film, it has only become more popular. This stems from a number of factors from authors being unconstrained by the genre conventions so embedded in fare aimed at adults to a general likability to characters that can carry even a bad plot at times.

That being said, perhaps the biggest aspect of this genre that makes it attractive is that it actually seems to talk about something. Whether that thing is oppressive government or fears of the rise of technology, they touch on issues in the way that science fiction is designed to. However, many of these stories seem to ignore certain societal problems that would open up their audience to a wider variety of themes.

Much of the dystopian YA literature available ends up discussing many of the same issues. For example, in almost every case from The Hunger Games to Divergent, the world our protagonists are in are split into rigidly defined but otherwise arbitrary divisions. Whether they are based on skill or geography, the divisions are usually imposed and unassailable, created by an oppressive regime with often vague motivations. Usually the characters have some sort of special talent that is frowned upon by society until such time as it becomes important, and global warming is often a past event that has driven society into a state of near agrarianism but otherwise left no sign.

While these are unquestionably important issues, it is easy to forget that YA novels are written for young adults. Dystopian futures are often chosen because many of the issues that are being discussed are analogous to the teen and tween experience. An oppressive and often arbitrary-seeming government is a good stand in for adults and their rules. Deep divisions with little wiggle room are both associated with social cliques and the regimented nature of schools. Global warming is just global warming, which is why it seems to be “over” in most cases and rarely does anything other than serve as catalyst for the backstory.

What we have in most cases is an inherently political genre that has been stripped of politics in favor of metaphors for the teen experience. While those metaphors are important, the sheer number of copycats that have risen in the wake of the success of early entrants into the genre, including Divergent and Insurgent (details here on finding those two on demand), end up diluting the effect of all of them.

There is also the fact that some issues are rarely, if ever, approached. Racism and sexism are often things of the past in these novels. While it is admirable that authors will often include people of color in supporting roles, and The Hunger Games did write Katniss as having “olive skin,” the implication seems to be that with the problems everybody is facing that other issues have fallen by the wayside. In reality, as social situations become more untenable, issues like racism and sexism tend to increase, not decrease. These are incredibly difficult subjects to handle, especially for the copycats that want to churn out a hit trilogy instead of address real social problems.

If dystopian futures are written to help us better grapple with modern realities, then it is vital to have the courage to deal with pressing issues rather than nebulous ones. Discussing race and sex helps us become more aware of the effects they have on minorities. It also allows minority readers and viewers to see their concerns being addressed and invests them more heavily in the text. Going forward, we need to use the freedom granted by the YA genre to propose worlds where we haven’t solved major issues off screen because they’re tough to write about.

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