Are we supposed to be bothered by the “dystopian trend” in Young Adult Fiction? Let me suggest that there is an upside to the dark and post-apocalyptic themes that currently dominate YA titles.
The NY Times recently posed this question to a panel of YA authors: Why do bestselling young adult novels seem darker in theme now than in past years? What’s behind this dystopian trend, and why is there so much demand for it?
Here’s a sampling of a recurrent theme found in the responses:
Andrew Clements — Perhaps the dystopian stories of today are darker because all of us, writers and readers alike, have become more aware of the many awful things that happen in our world.
Maggie Stiefvater — The question of why these dark novels appeal to teenagers has been around awhile, and there’s a pretty standard response. It tends to be some variation of “these are dark, pessimistic times with the economy and culture; the darkness of the subject matter reflects those fears.”
Lisa Rowe Fraustino — …to hold on to his goodness, not to become jaded… that’s still the ultimate goal of young adult fiction… in a decade dominated by global fears of war, terrorism, climate change, economic hardship, class divides, and a generally uncertain future for many.
Paolo Bacigalupi — I suspect that young adults crave stories of broken futures because they themselves are uneasily aware that their world is falling apart.
One of the most common responses to the new dystopian trend in YA fiction is that Young Adult Fiction is a reflection of the bleak age we live in. That assessment, while ultimately unsatisfying to some, cannot be denied a basis in reality. Our world is screwed up and the next generation knows it.
But shouldn’t YA fiction offer some sort of hope? I mean, aren’t we predisposing our children to despair by focusing on the darkness? On the other hand, by denying that our futures look grim and failing to look honestly at the state of planet earth and humankind, aren’t we culpable for denial? Painting rosy futures and happy endings may work for pre-schoolers, but teenagers can see through the veneer.
In this debate, religious fiction authors and readers understandably tend to side with hope. “Our YA novels should be a light in darkness,” we say. “We should offer the next generation a way out of despair.” However, “the way out,” for Christians (and this is not meant to sound simplistic or formulaic, because it’s not), is not through nuclear disarmament, climate control, or humanitarian outreach, it is through repentance and faith. In fact, most Christians believe in some sort of dystopian future, whether it be a Great Tribulation, the Mark of the Beast, or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In other words, our version of “hope” is not shorn of a grim future reality.
For this reason, I’d like to suggest that the trend toward dark, bleak, dystopian YA novels is actually a good thing.
According to Scripture, all our peace treaties, technological advances, and therapeutic skills still land us in Armageddon. No amount of fiction, firepower, or psychobabble can stave of these approaching hoofbeats. Thus the genre of dystopian novels and films, maybe more than any other, reinforces a vital biblical theme — Man is broken. History and experience bear this out. Dystopia far more accurately reflects the human condition than does utopia.
The “danger” of YA dystopian novels, in my opinion, is not in their portrayal of some bleak future. Rather, it is in their portrayal of possible “hope.” Frankly, the answer proffered by many YA authors is the same empty humanistic jargon that has landed us in this mess. “Believe in yourself. Believe in the human race. Nature will find a way.” Yada, yada, yada. But unless the human condition is altered, Armageddon is inevitable.
The upside of dystopian YA novels is that they accurately reflect our grim future. The downside is that conventional wisdom has no way to stop that future from happening.