Dystop-a-rama

Post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian fiction! It’s: a) pretty much all I read as an adolescent, b) what made the hippie I am today, c) ridiculously popular all of a sudden in YA lit, or d) all of the above?

D, obviously. The YA lit world is exploding with talk of dystopias. This article from Publishers Weekly gives a good overview of what’s coming out, and theorizes about its current popularity:

“In the late ’80s, the government was seemingly more in control of terrorist things, and the financial system seemed more in control,” says Regina Griffin, executive editor at Egmont USA…. “People didn’t feel that same sense of perpetual unease that is invading books now.” In other words, the time is ripe. “The dystopic novel reflects the current mood of the new generation of young people who see that their future isn’t as rosy,” says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character.

As someone who read boatloads of these books in the late ’80s, I don’t know that I agree with this. I remember my 3-2-1 Contacts being full of acid rain and pollution, and anyone who grew up in a liberal household like mine was unsettled by the “traditional values” of the Reagan/H.W. Bush era. Maybe the government was “more in control of terrorist things,” but that just means that didn’t happen to be our Number One Fear at the time. Or maybe I was just a downer kid.

Diana Peterfreund, author of Rampant, tries to untangle “post-apocalyptic” from “dystopian.” (This is slightly easier than defining “fantasy” vs. “science fiction,” but only slightly.) It’s getting more common to lump the terms together, but Diana seems to prefer thinking of a dystopia as “a utopia gone horribly wrong” or “aiming for utopia and missing.”

I’m inclined to agree. Dystopias often follow apocalypses (cue Buffy line about “the plural of apocalypse”), but the beauty of the English language is specificity. We have two words for a reason. Uglies and The Ask and the Answer are both post-apoc and dystopian, The Forest of Hands and Teeth is just plain post-apoc, and Little Brother is just plain dystopian (assuming you would argue, considering the book takes place years later on the other side of the country, that Sept. 11th was not an apocalypse).

As Diana says, “Like a scientist, the author of a dystopian work of fiction creates a set of very particular conditions within which he runs his human experiment.” I love this; that’s exactly what appeals to me about dystopias. Whereas while post-apocalyptics can be this specific, they often boil down to the same themes, with the restrictive governments and/or warlord anarchy.

It does make me wish that we had a word that would lump the two sub-genres together, though, since as Diana points out, they appeal to the same readers. I usually say “speculative fiction,” but that’s not specific enough. Thoughts, clever readers?

Finally, Presenting Lenore is wrapping up Dystopian February, with a world of reviews and author interviews! Here’s one with Patrick Ness, of my beloved Knife of Never Letting Go.

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11 Responses to Dystop-a-rama

  1. Sam says:

    Interesting question. I would argue that that “golden era” was also the era of Jim Crow, restrictive gender roles, and a general drive toward conformity — rigid conformity in the name of harmony, of course, being a pretty standard trope in dystopian novels. Our economy certainly isn’t as successful as it was in the post-war era, but that was the beginning of the materialist, disposable culture that, taken to its furthest conclusion, also has a dystopian feel about it.

    The U.S. might, I suppose, be pre-apocalyptic now, but I don’t think it has the “aiming for utopia and missing” quality that I think defines a dystopia. Do you?

  2. Drogon says:

    Could the US now be considered a Dystopia, a falling out of the golden era of Ford and post war boom?

  3. jess says:

    Apocatopia? Dyspocalypse?

  4. Jessica says:

    You reminded me of an article I read a while back: http://io9.com/5392430/research-reveals-that-apocalyptic-stories-changed-dramatically-20-years-ago

    For her senior thesis, she looking at the changing causes of apocalypses in book over the past 100 years.

  5. Sam says:

    Lenore: “Set in the future” and “warning” usually apply to post-apoc too, though — the warning’s about not doing the stuff that led to the apocalypse, rather than not doing the stuff in our current government that leads to a dystopia, but still.

    That’s interesting about non-fiction: can these terms apply outside of the science fiction genre? Something like Richard Lewis’s The Killing Sea, about the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004… is that post-apoc? I’d been thinking of these as science fiction only, but maybe there are some things in common about modern-day apocalypses or dystopias that make it useful to include them, too.

  6. Sam says:

    JFP: Well, I would argue that dystopia requires government — government is the body shooting for utopia and missing.

    But yes, I totally agree about the shift in type of apocalypse. They do tend to be biological or ecological these days. Biological gets you a nice quick apocalypse for the characters to react to, whereas ecological (when written in a way that’s remotely believable, anyway) is a slower slide, so the book is usually set much later.

    (I wrote about this more a couple of years ago .)

  7. Lenore says:

    The terminology is definitely murky. In most cases, dystopian fiction is set in the future and seems like a warning. There are plenty of modern day non-fiction dystopias if you think about it – Zimbabwe, North Korea, Somalia (more post apoc conditions though) just to name a few.

  8. jfpbookworm says:

    “Doom books” is a great term.

    I really have to wonder at the idea that we didn’t have much dystopic/post-apocalyptic fiction in our day, and especially because “the government was in control.” I remember reading a *lot* of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction as a kid, and some of the most common dystopias were about the extent government control (with the Soviet bogeyman lurking in the subtext). The most common source for the apocalypse, of course, was nuclear war. It just seems like the details have changed, where the dystopia is the collapse of government (though even in the 80s we had the not-for-kids-but-we-watched-‘em-anyway Mad Max, Escape From New York, RoboCop, etc.) and the apocalypse is biological or ecological.

  9. Sam says:

    Ooh! My friend Miriam just texted me, “Powell’s Books in Portland has an ‘apocalypse’ tag on doom books! It has a mushroom cloud!”

    “Doom books” it is, for the combo term. Thanks, Mim!

  10. Sam says:

    What blew me away was Po(sey) Sessions introducing her Presenting Lenore interview with, “Oddly, I never realized that a lot of dystopian fiction can be classified as science fiction.” Apparently I take a lot of genre classification for granted!

    I guess that might explain why so many people still get sniffy about science fiction (Margaret Atwood, I’m looking at you) while loving, say, Never Let Me Go.

  11. Great post. I also wish there was a word that could cover them both, but I feel like that is the reason they are being lumped together (the title of the PW article was even “Apocalypse Now?” though it was supposedly about “dystopian” fiction. Eh, if it helps peole find it in the bookstore, I guess. Because it is a very specific type (or two types, but they are definitely connected) of SF, and very different from, say, space opera (which you pretty much never see in YA anymore).

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