Dystopias – Why So Popular?

Why Dystopias?

I have two suggestions to explain the current popularity of dystopias/post-apocalyptic fiction, especially for teenagers. I understand that dystopic fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction are not necessarily the same thing, but they’re often conflated and I’ll settle for the combination term in this discussion.

Firstly, I’ll offer the historical precedent as an explanation: the popularity of dystopic fiction is a reflection of the anxieties of the time. One of the great flowerings of ‘end of the world’ fiction was in the 1950s, the stories that Brian Aldiss dubbed ‘the cosy catastrophe’, such as John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951). Walter M Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) was anything but cosy, but its depiction of a post-nuclear holocaust world was also emblematic of the era. The readers at this time, of course, had just been through the Second World War an experience from which the end of the world was easily extrapolated. Added to this was the nuclear arms race where mass annihilation on a scale hitherto undreamed of was the talk of the day. Thinking the unthinkable was an everyday occurrence, and so stories where the world ended were simply capturing of the spirit of the times.

As well as documenting the fears of the times, these narratives were performing one of the fundamental purposes of story. If these anxieties are made into stories they become less frightening, more manageable. The vast, irrational horrors that are lurking on edges of the real world can be tamed by our imaginations and our nightmares given an outlet.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, in response to a growing awareness of the ecology, we had a steady stream of environmental apocalypses in fiction. Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966) was filmed as Soylent Green in 1973 and let Charlton Heston scream the immortal: ‘Soylent Green is people!’. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar was an unforgettable ride through a world collapsing under our own numbers.

Given this, is it too long a bow to draw to suggest that the most popular dystopias in fiction today – where society has collapsed and is replaced by a savage, dog eat dog world with only the fittest surviving – is a reaction to the Global Financial Collapse and the teetering state of the international economy, bruited on news services as stridently and as tirelessly as the Red Menace doomsayers were in the late 1950s?

I don’t want to suggest some sort of crude, reductive, one to one correspondence here. The counter-claims abound. It’s well documented, for instance, that the Great Depression was a time when the fluffiest, frothiest, most escapist movie musicals were popular, when people wanted to dance all their cares away.

Still, in today’s 24 hour constant coverage of the state of the world, is it any wonder that this atmosphere of crisis, meltdown and disaster is a context from which dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction has grown?

Secondly, I’ll suggest that dystopic fiction/post-apocalyptic fiction is particularly popular with Young Adults is because of the paradoxical liberation for teenage characters that comes about in these dystopian worlds. Traditional structures have collapsed or subverted, so teenagers aren’t controlled or ordered about, or coddled as they are in today’s beneficent society. Not only are teenagers allowed to be free from these restrictions, they don’t have anyone to rely on for their own survival. The independence they yearn for is thrust upon them, is inevitable if they are to survive. Yes, it’s terrible that civilisation has collapsed, but no-one’s going to be telling them they have to be in bed by 10 pm.

In some ways, this can be seen as a way of dealing with an age-old problem in writing YA fiction. When there’s a problem, why don’t the kids just call the police/get their parents to help/contact the authorities? This is particular challenge when writing YA Crime Fiction, and can lead to all sorts of contrived situations. It also results in the ‘dead parent’ syndrome in lots of contemporary YA fiction, where it seems as if the only way to explore a YA character taking charge of her own life is to remove the parents from the narrative completely. They’re dead, Jim.

A post-apocalyptic world, where all normal societal restraints are gone is a testing setting in which to place a YA character, to see whether she will cope on her own, how she will grow and what she will do when faced with challenges vastly removed from our comfortable day to day lives. In extreme situations, we can discover truths.

Call them dystopias, call them post-apocalyptic stories, their appeal is undeniable. Some of the appeal comes from the shudder at the futures presented, some of it from a sense of escapism into a world of danger and adventure. For many young readers, though, the end of the world is proving to be just the beginning …