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Land of the Free: America in Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic YA Fiction

Land of the Free: America in Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic YA Fiction

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.

tumblr_inline_mh7e2j6XHv1qz4rgpDystopian 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.

Lorraine Acevedo Franqui
Lorraine writes for Girls 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 mangas and cats.
Lorraine Acevedo Franqui
Written by Lorraine Acevedo Franqui

Lorraine writes for Girls 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 mangas and cats.

  • readthiseatthat

    I set out to write a one sentence response, and I ended up writing a whole essay about one sentence in your article. I feel as though this happens whenever I read anything on Girls In Capes! (At least I didn’t have enough to make a separate blog post this time! :-) )

    -Susan, with apologies for being so long-winded

    I’ve been thinking about what you said about the Hunger Games for a few minutes now because I had never considered that Hunger Games had anything to do with capitalism. I am guessing you’re drawing that from the sybaritic society of the capital since the rest of the series seems to uphold capitalism.

    I’m not entirely convinced even the capital is a portrayal of capitalism taken to the extreme–the name of the country comes from Juvenal’s complaints that people who used to have ambition and play a role in politics have stopped caring about the true issues in Rome, and instead are letting their votes be bought by politicians’ gifts of panem et circenses. If the government is being true to Juvenal, the people of the capital are happy not to strive for their own things, but to be fed and amused by the government.

    I thought what made Panem so dystopian is the level of control the government has over the production of each district, the general food supply, and people’s right to expression. Katniss, as we meet her in book 1, would thrive in a capitalist society because she has such skill in hunting. One of her problems is that her hunting is constrained by the laws the government has imposed.

    Rather than vilify capitalism and question its role in American society, Hunger Games and a lot of dystopian YA books I’ve read seem to uphold capitalism by portraying attempts at equitable distribution of resources as always being part of a corrupt society. Panem comes to exist because rising sea levels dramatically altered the geography of North America and destroyed preexisting industry and farms (I think. I read these books years ago.). Instead of people exploiting new regions in capitalistic ventures, didn’t the surviving people turn to a strong central government with vaguely communist goals of providing for everyone?

    It’s possible that communism=danger is just an artifact from the dystopian classics of the 1930s-1950s (as in, all readers can recognize a dystopia if it follows the form of older ones), but it’s far more likely that modern dystopian YA is showing that Americans are still extremely anxious about even whiffs of socialism. Now, the question raised by this becomes, to what extent is this anxiety uniquely American? If you look at post-apocalyptic manga, does it seem like Japan has the same tendency to portray socialist projects as being a sign of a sick nation?

    You summarized so many possibilities for interesting discussion, Lorraine, that I’m curious to see where the rest of your series will go, and whether you will answer the questions you raised about why all the dystopia we’re seeing is set in America. Technology, beauty culture, etc. seem global to me. Is the real societal problem American dystopian YA is revealing simply that Americans have no global awareness?

    • I swear I’m not always a dissenter! But without knowing Lorraine’s exact take on the issue, I just want to throw in and say that my interpretation of capitalism in THG is more closely related to vilifying capitalism when combined with politics.

      It’s explicitly stated in the book that the Hunger Games are literally a “punishment” for the twelve districts trying to rise and overthrow the Capitol. That itself made it very clear that there was no attempt by the government for “equitable distribution of resources.” The Capitol government essentially conquered the districts, stripped its peoples of their rights, freedoms, and even their culture, and took the districts’ resources – which the people are practically enslaved to obtain – and took the most and the best for itself while failing or refusing to ensure that the people of the districts were provided for.
      This is a familiar story, but not to many Americans.

      When I read The Hunger Games, the only thing I liked about it was the universe it was set in, because it’s a direct reflection of what irresponsible American capitalism and historic Western colonialism currently does or has done in the past to colonized, often minority, groups. There is literally a song that describes cultural colonialism perfectly from a musical group in the country my dad is from ( One part of the theory of colonialism is that the group doing the colonizing does it “for their own good,” because the colonized group is viewed as too unintelligent, inadequate, inept, etc. to take care of itself, despite evidence to the contrary.

      The Capitol’s continued hold and its intentional “punishment” of the colonized groups make it very clear, at least in my mind, that it’s not just about capitalism, but also about colonialism motivated by capitalism. Not to mention that Capitol itself – filled with flashy rich people with no idea about the rest of the world – is a perfect stand-in for America itself, which to any outside viewer is the same way.

      • readthiseatthat

        Excellent points, Feliza. I can’t believe I missed the colonialism in my gut reaction against the overtones of capitalism. It is absolutely exploitative colonialism.

        I like your point that the excesses of the capital are representation of how normative American society can be perceived by other nations (and by Americans who do not fit in the white middle class suburban stereotype).

        I think that I got hung up on the use of the word capitalism, and probably should have considered that capitalism can take forms other than laissez faire. I assumed that the strong economic power of the central government (with its control over agriculture and the media complete) meant that there was some level of distribution of goods in the same way that Orphan Master’s Son portrayed the wealth of people in North Korea. As in, the closer one is to the leader, the more the leader doles to you. To what extent anyone has any capitalistic ventures outside of the sphere of government projects, I would need to reread the long-winded third volume. I’m not convinced it’s there.

        But I’m totally on board with colonialism as the source of the evil in the world of Panem. (Even if I don’t subscribe to mercantilism being a form of capitalism.) Thanks for the clarification!

  • Joshua P. Smith

    Lorraine, thanks so much for this article! I find it fascinating that so much of literature and movies dealing with post-apocalyptic and dystopian societies do address issues of current day society. The question is why and what issues? I’m keeping that in mind as I prepare to write my next novel, which happens to be in this genre. Also, you pointed me to some excellent books to read in the genre, and reminded me of a few I had forgotten. Thank you!

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