Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
This spring, author Suzanne Collins announced the May 2020 release of a new Hunger Games novel, an untitled prequel set 64 years before the events of her wildly successful Hunger Games trilogy. Comprising The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, the original trilogy follows the exploits of Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who “volunteers as tribute” to take her sister’s place in the infamous Hunger Games. A gladiator-esque fight to the death, the Hunger Games are meant to keep the citizens of Panem—Collins’s vision of a future America—subservient to the Capitol, an oppressive and opulent fascist regime. The twist of the tale, however, and what makes these books young adult, is that these gladiator games are fought between children.
It is The Hunger Games that, in a relatively short span, both popularized and fatigued YA dystopia. Like most dystopian stories, The Hunger Games is filled with horror and with dire warnings, but as a story intended for children and teens, it has the potential to cast its darkness against a greater contrast than adult stories of the same type. Whereas a trademark theme of young adult literature is hope, when Suzanne Collins introduced Katniss Everdeen to the world, she injected the YA market with the grim and hopeless foretelling that marks the dystopian genre—and she seems poised to do it again.
When The Hunger Games first became popular, dystopia was more commonly relegated to adult audiences—classic stories like 1984, Brave New World, or more recent ones like The Handmaid’s Tale or The Road. Adults seem better suited to handle dystopian literature, which is grimdark, a form of science fiction set in a future where everything is bad (dystopia is the opposite of utopia). Science fiction falls under the broad umbrella of speculative fiction, but science fiction is uniquely speculative, grounded as it is in the present. It is not fantasy, which transplants our human struggles into “other” realms. Science fiction tries to foretell the future of our own world, looking forward—a speculation, an “if/then.” Although science fiction writers still transplant human struggles into a realm that does not exist, they do so with the audacity of believing that someday what they are writing could, possibly, come true—at least in some form. Perhaps writers of the sub-genre of dystopian literature are the most guilty of this particular hubris, and because dystopian settings are by definition bad, authors of such stories have to pull from the present to imagine what could go wrong in the future.
What we see from YA dystopian authors will tell us much about what these authors perceive to be the greatest challenges facing young people as we move into the future—distant and not-so-distant. It will tell us about the authors’ fears (personal and fears for others), their challenges, their anger, and their view of society. It will also reveal how these authors perceive us to have gotten where we are, because dystopian futures are often just stand-ins or exaggerations for our current cultural moments. Some dystopian stories even present solutions, if the authors believe they have them. Dystopian futures are full of problems—by definition, they have to be—and authors of these stories want their readers see what has gone wrong in their worlds and to look around in their own world to draw parallels. For example, a dystopian story set in a world where people have resorted to cannibalism because climate change has decimated all our natural resources carries a not-so-veiled warning for the reader to take heed about the impending dangers of climate change. Dystopian stories of the past—YA or otherwise—told us what the authors feared then. Dystopian stories of the present and future will likewise uncover present anxieties and carry a similar predictive power.Subverting readers’ expectations is always a good way to get them to pay attention, and dystopian authors want you to pay attention.
And we are living in a cultural moment ripe for dystopian fear. It’s actually remarkable the YA market hasn’t already turned back into the dystopian winds, with adult shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Man in the High Castle (both adaptations of novels) racking up viewership and awards. Not to mention our vehemently divided political climate and the very real and varied human rights abuses we seem poised to tolerate. These are extreme times during which people adhere to extreme positions. Not all the anxiety is overblown, or unfounded. So why hasn’t YA dystopian literature returned before now, especially when it is taking up ample space on our television and movie screens, and in real life?
I think the answer is a simple matter of capitalism. Following the success of The Hunger Games trilogy, the world of young adult dystopian literature exploded with copycat books pouring out of publishing houses like ants out of a dead log. Everyone was eager for a slice of the trend, and before long the market was so saturated with YA dystopian literature that the largest publishers stopped acquiring it. Many speculated that YA dystopian lit was dead. Half a decade ago, I myself was trying to interest an agent in my first YA dystopian novel. She read it, said she loved it and was interested in it, but she wasn’t able to sign me or acquire it as the market was “too saturated,” and she had no confidence that she would be able to sell it. I could not fault her. Publishing, as always, remains a business, no matter how ideological those involved may be.
But the business of publishing can be cracked wide open with an announcement like Suzanne Collins’s recent one, opening it up to a new generation of dystopian writers who can bring fresh perspectives to what is happening in our current age. Not all of them will be great “takes” or worthy of serious analysis, but all of them will be windows into the minds of writers who are concerned about the future of our youth, our nation, and our world.
Although The Hunger Games came along and dominated best-selling lists in the late aughts, it was not the first dystopian tale successfully told for children. Most notably, Lois Lowry’s The Giver comes to mind. In fewer than 44,000 words, The Giver manages to be full of both horror and hope, something few dystopian stories balance well. It is not a flashy narrative of youthful rebellion against a fascist regime, but a thoughtful one where a young boy must take on himself the memories of a society that wants to preserve “sameness” at all costs. In the process, that boy (Jonas), learns about love and pain, and must flee with an infant boy named Gabriel to save the child from death at the hands of those who rule and enforce the sameness. The Giver is widely read and acclaimed, and other YA dystopian stories, such as Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card) have achieved success far beyond what most books will ever reach, but it is The Hunger Games that truly shifted the public’s awareness of dystopia into the YA arena.
What we gain from this shift to youthful characters is greater than just a broadening of the market. Good dystopian literature springs out of an author’s earnest desire to make sense of what is happening in the world, thus grappling with what that means for our future. Dystopian stories tend to be grand-scale stories, while still focusing on the individual’s place and responsibility in society. In shaping hypothetical futures where everything turns out bad, dystopian authors paint pictures of a world saturated in sin. Whether they choose to acknowledge this terminology or not, this is how they establish the base premises and conflicts of these types of stories. A world where children are pitted against each other to fight to the death is a world saturated in sin. A world where one infant is chosen to live over another because it weighs slightly more is a world saturated in sin. Sin, the effects of sin, the choices we make because of sin, the decay of sin—these form the base realities of dystopia, and when you place the horrors of dystopia on the shoulders of children, those horrors become that much clearer.
Subverting readers’ expectations is always a good way to get them to pay attention, and dystopian authors want you to pay attention. Juxtaposing the innocence and hopefulness of youth against the horror of dystopia is a shock to the system. We may stomach gladiatorial combat between adults, but children killing children is too much to bear. Baby Gabriel should not have to die for being different from the other infants. Such things are not meant to happen to children.
YA dystopia should present to us sins that, as a friend once told me, “we can all rage at together,” but I fear we live in a time where we can no longer agree on those things. We are keeping children in internment camps on our own soil and bickering over whether or not toothbrushes and soap are necessary for their well-being, and it does cause me to wonder whether or not we have lost our moral compass entirely. A society that allows such treatment of children is in need of far more than some dystopian tales of warning about where we could end up in the future—we are in need of repentance, of the Gospel of Christ—but I know the dystopian stories we tell are still important. Those that will be rooted in this cultural moment, now that Suzanne Collins has made them lucrative again, will reflect the ugliness of this age. They will place children in unimaginable scenarios and ask us to imagine them. And in those stories, we will see that the sins against the “least of these” that seem so ludicrous, are not so ludicrous at all. They have been before us all along.