Dystopian Fever

I, like many others of you, have been hooked on dystopian lit lately.  Even my husband, who reads fiction very sparingly, told me yesterday that he needs to finally get through Brave New World.  I told him I’d been thinking the exact same thing.  (I foresee a trip to the bookstore in our future!)  My friends who haven’t heard the term “dystopia” loved The Hunger Games and gush about it on facebook (the only reason I picked up the books in the first place, I am not a trendsetter).  Apparently dystopia is such a trend that even NPR is reporting on the explosion in dystopian lit being published.

So, the historian/cultural studies person in me asks… what is going on in this cultural moment* that makes post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories so appealing?

In the NPR article I linked to, Lauren Oliver, author of Delirium, is quoted saying that in dystopia lit, “The young protagonists are inheriting this kind of dark and broken world, and with a little bit of pluck and courage, try to navigate it and try to salvage some kind of a happy ending. And I do think there’s a lot of parallels to how young people kind of feel nowadays as they’re confronting this future that’s very uncertain in this country economically and they’re inheriting what they see as kind of a broken world.”

I agree with Oliver’s assertion that dystopian lit is appealing because of the economic uncertainty of our times. In addition, I would add to the list of reasons why dystopian lit fits right now our increasing dependence on technology and our increasing awareness of environmental issues, social inequality, and political nonsense.  It doesn’t seem that far-fetched right now to imagine our world being destroyed as a result of greed, social or political upheaval, environmental ruin, or technological disaster.  There are a multitude of contemporary issues– unemployment, political polarization, women’s reproductive rights, energy supplies, fracking, the higher education bubble, social inequality, big government, religious freedom– that could, if taken to their extremes, drastically change the way we live now.  What would happen if we let these things get the worst of us?  Dystopian lit offers some cringe-worthy answers, for sure. I like to think, though, that most dystopian tales are also empowering and hopeful.

Dystopian protagonists have their work cut out for them.  People they love die.  People they love are lost to them.  They have to grow up too quickly.  They face life-threatening situations.  They have to make choices that no one envies. But often there is a glimmer of hope in seeing these young heroes fight the establishment, fight for right, and fight to heal their broken world.  These are young people standing up for what they believe in!  These are young people fighting to make a difference no matter the personal cost!  Those are some pretty awesome heroes and role models, if you ask me.  Who doesn’t want to imagine that the human spirit and love can persist even in the most daunting circumstances?

So while we may relate to dystopian lit because it portrays a world similar to our own, I think we love it because it presents us with some really worthy heroes and gives us all a little hope that we can mend the problems we face today.

What do you think?  Why are we so fond of dystopian lit right now?  Is this a trend you are in on or are you hoping for it to pass quickly?  What are your favorite dystopian novels?

And if you are looking for even more books to satisfy your dystopian fever, here is a list of Hunger Games Readalikes that I found helpful!

*I just want to be up front and say that I write my opinions as an American, so some of my conclusions may not ring true for other parts of the world.