First of a three-part series on the depiction of the United States in YA dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction.
Every decision and choice we make as individuals or as part of a whole community is based on the general idea of how it could affect our futures. We constantly worry about how each step we take will inevitably affect the paths we walk: not just for us, but also for those around us, for the entire societal structure and the world. We take an issue and explore its importance and the impact it may have until it is everything we see. In our view of the future, these issues and how we handle them – from political to social, from environmental to personal – can become a good thing, as Sir Thomas More envisioned in his 1516 book Utopia when he coined the term and genre. It can also take a turn for the downright frightening as exemplified in the downpour of dystopian and post-apocalyptic titles hitting the shelves for the Young Adult genre.
Dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels are hardly new: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, one of the most well-known dystopian novels, is 60 years old, and post-apocalyptic fiction can be traced farther back than Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, which is almost 200 years old. But the smashing success of The Hunger Games has made dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction arguably the most prolific literary genres these days in YA with chart-topping titles like Divergent, Matched, Delirium and Under the Never Sky, among many, many others, all of which have become powerhouse franchises with everything from exorbitant marketing budgets and movie deals to legions of loyal and adoring fans.
Far beyond just wondering how we would carry on after the end of life as we know it, titles in the popular dystopian and post-apocalyptic genres have also taken it upon themselves to impose questions that encompass the possibility of survival – not just of the individual, but also of societal structure as we know it. The impact of the genre is even more powerful considering America itself is the genre’s preferred target.
Many recent and successful YA dystopian novels take place in the United States, even those in which no one can remember what the U.S. or America were, like in Blood Red Road and Enclave. In several popular dystopian and post-apocalyptic YA novels such as Legend and Wither, the United States is claimed by the characters to be the only place to have survived whatever it is that ravished the entire planet in their particular story lines. Not only was the U.S. the only nation to survive, its citizens have also managed to maintain a functioning society that survives and develops in spite being the last bastion of humanity.
One could think that the setting would just be a product of the authors’ familiarity with the place since most of these authors are from the U.S. themselves, and perhaps that is the case with some titles. But in the great majority of the latest offerings in the genre, the importance of this selection is often found in the issue these authors tackle in their novels. The focus on particular themes and topics in several of these novels – the way the authors choose to portray and criticize certain aspects of their advanced, oppressive and totalitarian societies – could make readers wonder if the setting is chosen to make a statement rather than just because of convenience.
In the majority of YA dystopian novels, one detail of society has its impact maximized until it becomes a serious issue that challenges the physical, emotional or psychological well-being of the community and is often morally and ethically questionable. In the dystopian classic The Giver, censoring and a general misconception of what accounts for equality evolved into the code of a society that makes its citizens blind to color and cold to emotions. Making the importance of the setting even clearer, The Hunger Games, perhaps the biggest landmark in the genre in recent history, builds a whole dysfunctional world on capitalism, one of the biggest threads in the fabric that makes the United States.
The American issues don’t stop there. War and military power represent some of the most prominent themes in YA dystopian, like in Legend, Shatter Me and The 5th Wave. The always-increasing power of science and the erasing of ethical limitations are very common themes in the genre as well as our reliance and co-dependence on technology, as exemplified in titles such as Glitch and Matched. America’s social issues also take center stage in the genre, with everything from concerns with beauty culture in Uglies to religious persecution in novels like Struck and The Forest of Hands and Teeth, and even social dissemination and segregation as seen in the bestseller Divergent.
The list can go on and on, for every title out there in the genre takes a personal concern with something about what defines our culture. It can be as big as the over-reliance on the military or our abuse of nature or something as seemingly silly as online dating, but they are an undeniable part of culture and society in the U.S., and the dystopian and post-apocalyptic genres in YA have a lot of bones to pick with that.
Lorraine Acevedo Franqui writes for Girl In Capes from Puerto Rico and holds degrees in English Literature and Psychology. Her main interests are young adult lit, anything related to The Legend of Zelda and Kingdom Hearts, assorted shounen manga and cats.