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?