Sunday, July 18, 2010

Is There a Dystopia in your Future?

There was an absorbing article in the June 14th New Yorker, Fresh Hell by Laura Hill. The article deals with “dystopian fiction for young readers.” I had certainly heard of utopian literature, but not dystopian writing. Wikipedia describes dystopian literature in these terms: “The utopia and its offshoot, the dystopia, are genres of literature that explore social and political structures. Utopian fiction is the creation of an ideal world, or utopia, as the setting for a novel. Dystopian fiction is the opposite: creation of a nightmare world, or dystopia. We have all read dystopian novels, although we didn’t know it at the time. Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World are good examples. They portray a negative view of the world in which a totalitarian government controls every level of human behavior. Hill describes a number of examples of young adult dystopian books; Uglies, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, etc. Although she identifies one main purpose of adult dystopian books as a warning of dangerous trends in current society, she believes current dystopian fiction for teens to be, in part, a reflection of adolescent disaffection. She wonders if this literature may be so present because kids are feeling over-supervised and over-scrutinized. It did strike me that a more obvious cause might be that we are all becoming more pessimistic about the future. It has become a frequent prophecy that our children’s futures will not have the abundance of  opportunities that ours had. The truism that the next generation is always better off than the previous may no longer be accurate. It is not hard to become convinced that all we have to look forward to is global warming, terrorism, and economic catastrophe. Not a pretty sight, or vision for that matter. A totalitarian dictatorship probably winds up being a relief in this kind of scenario. This new kids' literature may be reflecting our current attitude, if not a new reality.

So what can we as adults do? We could steer our kids to Grimm’s scariest fairy tales. At least they reveal a frightening past rather than a horrific future. There are always books like Pippi Longstocking. However, some have identified her as the source of Lizbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There may not be a lot of solutions in literature. Maybe we will just have to rely on attitude, outlook, and that old polarity of optimism-pessimism.

1 comment:

  1. sy,

    you've made a perspicacious observation, which jibes with my understanding. photographically one turning point between optimism and pessimism, is the mid 1950s, marking the release of the photo exhibit family of man, and robert frank making photos that would 4 years later be published as the americans. night and day. have a look if you've not already.

    i also notice that the word dystopian has become more mainstream. another indicator of the trend you suggest?

    and finally for a novel that seems to be both utopian and dystopian, try leslie marmon silko's almanac of the dead.