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.
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.)
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.