The Rise of Young Adult Dystopias

(Written for the Gloucestershire Citizen/Echo)

An undesirable community or society set in the future – that’s the easiest way of explaining what a dystopia is. But what would you consider the best in its genre? The classic that is George Orwell’s 1984? Or the recent young adult franchises taking on the genre, including Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games?

Dating back to as early as the 18th century, the first recognised dystopian novel is considered to be Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, which follows the travels of a ship’s surgeon who explores a number of unknown islands inhabited by people and animals of unusual sizes, behaviours, and philosophies.

The opposite of a utopia, dystopian settings can take on varying forms and threats, with many novels exploring societies run by totalitarian governments who have complete control over their citizens, often drawing attention to real-world issues including the environment, politics, religion, ethics, technology, and science.

Dystopias, therefore, allow authors to imagine a future world full of fantasy, but also one that can have the potential of coming true. Because of this, they have managed to scare generations for decades, with many audiences believing such fears as the government being able to see through our TV screens (1984), human life one day being terminated early to maintain a steady population (Logan’s Run), and even more far-out threats such as the apes taking over (Planet of the Apes).

Many of these examples are what spring to mind when you think of a dystopian setting, but more recently, however, you may be more aware of a cluster of somewhat less threatening dystopias, with the rise of young adult franchises taking on the genre.

With some of the most recent franchises including The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner, these stories are led by younger characters who see the dystopian setting through a different light. Unlike Winston Smith (1984) who has an affair as a selfish act of protest, or Alex DeLarge (A Clockwork Orange) who is experimented on in an attempt to force conformity, young adult franchises, instead, see their lead characters rebel against their regimes, thus creating heroes and heroines for their younger audiences to be inspired by.

Nevertheless, whilst young adult dystopias establish similar threats on a larger scale, their focus on entertaining a younger target audience does, however, mean that they’re unable to capture the same degree of fear.

Then again, as much as I would like to see more films such as last year’s hard-hitting dystopia, Snowpiercer, which follows the few survivors on Earth who had boarded a train when a failed climate-change experiment killed all life on the planet and the class system that is subsequently put in place, this currently popular young adult take on the dystopian genre adds an added level of engagement – they encourage younger audiences to stand up for what they believe in, give audiences someone and something to root for, and prove that actions can make a difference if you act on your beliefs.

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