Sunday, November 6, 2011

World Fantasy Con: Why Do Teens Read Dystopian Fiction?

Dystopian fiction has so overtaken science fiction and fantasy (sf/f) that only a small percentage of newly published books catch my interest.

I went to World Fantasy Con (WFC) 2011 in San Diego last week, and the first panel I attended was on why so much young adult (YA)  sf/f is dystopian. At last, I hoped, I would understand the appeal of the seamy side of life shown in so much sf/f today.

The panelists were Marissa Lingen, John Pitts, Lissa Price, and Chandra Rooney. Below are the main points I came away with.  Some are statements that panelists or audience members made, while some are conclusions I drew or my amplifications of the points.

Reasons why there's so much dystopian fiction for teens
  • Writers who got hooked on sf/f in the 1970s, when dystopias were common, are now writing what they read in their formative years.
  • Baby boomer authors, who grew up in the 1960s  with high hopes for a brighter future with regular travel to the moon and the end of bigotry and war, are disappointed in what happened instead. Their writing reflects their sense of hopelessness about society.
  • 9/11 influenced the mood of the country and made the future seem bleak.
  • A novel needs a conflict. A novel about a dystopia has a built-in conflict. Some conflicts in the past arose from social divisions based on class, wealth, race, ethnicity, or sex. These conflicts admit easier solutions than in the past.
  • Teens are under much more surveillance now. Schools have metal detectors. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. Parents can keep constant tabs on their kids through cell phones and social media. The "Big Brother is Watching You" aspect of some dystopian fiction rings true to teens because they are living that reality.
  • Helicopter parents have disempowered teens by trying to control what they read—a librarian in the audience said that parents come into the library with their teens to choose the books they will check out!—and making other decisions for them they should be making on their own. So the oppressive governments in dystopian fiction also ring true.
  • Teens today are less concerned about privacy and more concerned with assertion of independence. So they are attracted to the trope of a young person acting against authority to change the world for the better. Books based on that trope give teens a sense of empowerment.
Oddly enough, no one in the panel or the audience brought up the poor economy or the dysfunctional U.S. Congress. American teens do not remember a time in which young people got good jobs (or at least a job of some sort) or had a functioning national government. I don't view the United States as a dystopia because I have a long-range view; teens who have only been aware of the greater society for a few years may view the United States and other Western countries as dystopias, making traditional fantasy seem unbelievably utopian.

Other random comments made by panelists about dystopian fiction
  • Some people disapprove of dystopian teen fiction because they think it glamorizes a dark view of the world.
  • Publishers are getting away from the word "dystopia." One panelist's new book was labeled "futuristic thriller" instead.
  • Adults and teens may take away different messages from the same books. Teens of different ages may also take away different messages.
  • Old dystopian speculative fiction gets assigned as reading in high schools. (The panelist gave several examples; I got down only 1984 and Flowers for Algernon.) This gives dystopian fiction the status of literature. (She drew no conclusion, but if parents nowadays are choosing the books their teens read, I can see that parents might be drawn to sf/f that they think is "literature" and "less trashy.")
  • Most dystopias have a happy ending. (This surprised me.)
I thought the panelists' and audience comments made a lot of sense. I won't be increasing the amount of dystopian fiction I read, but at least I have a better grasp of its appeal for teens.

What do you like and dislike about dystopian fiction in sf/f, romance, or other genres? If you are a teen who reads dystopian fiction, do you agree with what the adults at the panel said? If you are a parent of a teen, why do you think teens are drawn to bleak books?

Thanks for stopping by today. I'll be blogging here at Novel Spaces again on November 21, when I likely will discuss one of the other great panels I attended at World Fantasy Con.

—Shauna Roberts


Ralph said...

Dystopian fiction challenges the basic concepts of loyalty and patriotism by speculating on some nationalized belief system that is inherently evil, showing conformity with such belief to be part of that evil. The unspoken part of the story is the reciprocal of all that is being shown – some ultimate good that remains aloof. This allows a youthful mind to philosophies about what is “good” outside of some dogma that would dictate it. The message is, “being good” is something more than just staying out of trouble.

Charles Gramlich said...

For me, I was attracted to Dystopian fiction because I couldn't imagine as a young person that I wouldn't be able to handle the demands of such a world. In fact, I saw myself thriving. Dying myself was not part of my thought processes. I felt invincible.

Ralph said...

As a youth I saw books like 1984, F-451, and Anthem as warnings about what could happen. Then, in HS I read some good source material about the inside of NAZI Germany (plus accounts from survivors of the concentration camps!) and realized that a far worse world than those books had been accepted by a very advanced, technological society. Several TZ episodes gave excellent warnings that went over me as a kid (The Obsolete Man; Number 12 Looks Just Like You; The Eye Of The Beholder – all even more relevant today), and it was while I was in college that I saw that 1984 was really about the monks and nuns of the medieval church imagined in the setting Orwell saw around him, and I could see our own nation being eager to go in that direction. This put theocracies at the top of my list of evil forms of government (I shiver in horror at the thought of ANY religious order being THE ORDER). Dystopian literature allows a youth to entertain anarchistic views while going forward into pragmatic reality.
(BTW, my earlier post had a typo “philosophies” for what should read “philosophize”)

Anonymous said...

What's NOT to like about dystopian fiction? Wasn't Fahrenheit 451 right about everything?

Also, Bureau of Labor Statistics forcasts 7 of every 10 jobs in the next few years will involve customer service, retail, or bathing elderly people.

Honestly, I think dystopian fiction is a little more uplifting than reading the newspaper.

William Doonan

Anonymous said...

It was almost impossible to read Hunger Games without seeing the parallels between President Snow and certain Republican politicians in power.

But modern dystopian fiction differs from the past in that the heroic adults in power are often just as oppressive as the villainous adults in power; the teen protagonist not only has to battle the adult villains but has to learn not to give any trust over to the adults who would be the heroes in more traditional stories.

In modern dystopian fiction, the teen protagonists are not victims of oppression by a single totalitarian state -- they are pawns, caught in the "hero/villain" game skirmishes between the oppressive adults in power and the equally oppressive adults who are not in power, and their victory is that they bypass both adults by using the compassionate common sense that only the underdogs possess in these tales.