Over the past couple of years, I have found myself binging on dystopian literature, television and film. What I like most about dystopian fiction is the discomfort I willingly subject myself to in reading it. It’s the fact that we know facets of dystopian life are possible, that we’ve seen evidence of them before in real history and within current events that make the genre so compelling; it appeals to our sense of urgency, to fight or flight, as all the horrifying possibilities seem only a breath away. I enjoy the glimpse into an author’s idea of future technology, the hierarchy of society and, most of all, the outlook he or she has imagined for the direction and definition of humanity. By imagining the future of humanity, we study what it means to be human now.
The increasing popularity of the dystopian genre, and the fact that the last ten years has seen a considerable rise in the quantity of post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories in books and film, suggests to me a heightened anxiety about the reality of its themes. However, based on the history of the dystopian genre, with its reincarnations based on the anxieties of each generation, we can also extract what gives each generation hope, and better understand where our own contemporary society finds its strength. In addition to films like Z for Zachariah, a Mad Max reboot and a Maze Runner sequel, in the next year audiences will see the completion of The Hunger Games film franchise (Nov. 20) and the second film installment of the Divergent trilogy, Insurgent (March 20). Both book series, and to a lesser degree the film franchises (more on this later), are particularly interesting in the way that they deviate from the dystopias written by previous generations.
While Utopian and dystopian ideas have existed since the Age of Enlightenment, much of the dystopian fiction created in the early and mid-20th century was born from the growing pains and anxieties of a world too quickly outgrowing its old clothes. Books like Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) focus on male characters who find their individualities at odds with large, totalitarian states. They are male stories, stories that focus on personal masculinities, stories that ask what a man’s role is in a world against him.
The dystopian stories of the past decade, however, have shifted and broadened their focus: they have become more inclusive, feature central female characters, and are often, though certainly not exclusively, geared towards young adult (YA) readers. While there is no perfect text, and while both Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent certainly contain their share of problems—particularly in the adaptations from book to film (for instance, the many accusations that Katniss Everdeen’s character was whitewashed for the films)—both series push young women into positions of power and increasingly embrace racially and culturally diverse casts of characters.
If mid-20th century dystopian novels found their heroes impotent against the powers against them, we now find new hope in perhaps the unlikeliest of heroes: young, inexperienced women. In Katniss leading the revolt against Panem, Tris challenging the authority of the Factions, or Juliette (from Hugh Howey’s Wool, first in the Silo series, which is not YA, let the record show) rebelling against the system of the Silo, their strength comes from being normal: they are not only unlikely heroes; they are reluctant ones.
So where does this leave us? Certainly not all contemporary dystopian films provide us with the heroes or heroines we need, but, like Snowpiercer or The Handmaid’s Tale, instead only offer the heroes we deserve—ones that despite their will to initiate change or escape from under the thumb of power, are only left with uncertainty or powerlessness. YA dystopian literature and film, for all of its formulaic plots and teen romances, comes very close to breaking the fourth wall, as if to look at the audience and volunteer us all as tribute.
At the risk of sounding corny, YA dystopias (and increasingly, contemporary dystopian fiction in general) recognize the potential for a hero in all of us, that we are all capable of leading change despite ourselves. They empower groups of people who usually do not have real power in society — young people, women, people of color — and the universes the authors create are authentic because they are built from genuine fears and anxieties. In our imaginations these stories act out real-life problems and carry them to extremes, forcing us to examine not only society’s “what-ifs” but also our own roles in society’s right-now.
YA dystopian literature, and literature in general, is hardly finished in its growth to be more inclusive, to tell the stories of all shapes and sizes of people, but it is perhaps dystopian fiction that holds the most potential in reaching this goal. In imagining dark futures for humanity, what better opportunity to imagine diversity in both solutions and people? When the tradition of dystopian literature featuring white, middle-aged men fails to offer us a champion, we look to others. We stop fighting fire with fire, and, as if it is the most genius idea in the world, we start fighting fire with water.