Our teens are living in horrible oppressive conditions — in their imaginations, at least. Dystopian fiction, which has never been more than a minor sub-genre in the past, has become a runaway success in young-adult publishing.
And adults are reading teen books like the Hunger Games series in droves. So why aren't we seeing dystopian novels that are actually aimed at adult readers?
The boom in young-adult fiction began with straight-up escapism — you had your Twilights and your Harry Potters, stories in which nice people fought for goodness or fell in love, against a backdrop that loosely resembled our real world. Only more magical. These books certainly had plenty of "dark" storylines, but mostly existed in the romantic or heroic modes. To be sure, there have always been dystopian YA novels — here's a partial list of the classics.
But at some point, dystopias became the new hotness in young-adult publishing — a big enough trend that the New Yorker noticed it. And the thing that's striking about the dystopian boom is that the novels fueling it are surprisingly different from each other, if you think about it. What do Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and Catherine Fischer's Incarceron have in common, other than a certain bleak authoritarianism? Or Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games and Allie Condie's Matched?
Doctorow's novel takes place in a very near future, when young hackers using cracked game consoles face off against a government that's started suspending civil liberties and locking tons of people up. Books like Hunger Games and Incarceron, meanwhile, take place in a far future where a new, repressive regime has sprung up on the ruins of "our" world. Even if you view Doctorow's book as an outlier, there still seems to be a fairly broad range of types of dystopian YA novels — from the overtly fantastical to the gritty. This is a trend that's fairly broad as well as expansive. (Image via Eldritch Hobbit.)
So where are the dystopian novels for adults?
There are definitely some being published lately — some lists of dystopian fiction include Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake and its followup, The Year of the Flood. Googling "dystopian fiction," you'll find people talking about The Unincorporated Man by Dani and Eytan Kollin. Wikipedia lists Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and some other books in that category. And if you poke around, you can find some others that have come out in recent years.
Also, you could make an argument that any book about environmental catastrophe, or an apocalypse, is dystopian in some sense. But I'd prefer to define "dystopian" a bit more narrowly, as involving an actual government or governing social institution that's dysfunctional or horrible. Otherwise, any work that involves Things Falling Apart and the Center Not Holding would be classified as dystopian. I tend to think of dystopian regimes as stable systems, but of course your dystopian mileage may vary.
But in any case, you don't see anybody talking about a trend of dystopian adult novels, the way they talk about a dystopian YA trend. There doesn't seem to be a run of books for grown-ups about navigating a repressive or destructive society.
Some of the greatest classics of the twentieth century were dystopian, of course, including 1984 and Brave New World — and there was a definite dystopian strand in the New Wave books which came out in the 1960s and most of the 1970s. Authors like Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch and Ursula K. Le Guin, off the top of my head, seemed eager to explore authoritarian or extreme corporatist worlds that provided an opportunity to comment on our own reality.
So what happened? A lot of people credit Star Wars with destroying New Wave Science Fiction, which means you can add the lapse in dystopian stories to the list of things to blame George Lucas for. But whatever the reason, there was a lapse of interest in social commentary generally in the 1980s — and that definitely included dark stories of weird oppressive regimes and horrible social orders.
In any case, it's not as though "adult" fiction is too grown-up for dystopias — nobody would argue that Nineteen Eighty Four is an infantile novel. And a ton of adults have seized on Hunger Games and other dystopian teen books as must-reads. Plus it would definitely be hard to argue that a story about an authoritarian regime that crushes dissent, or pushes people into weird conformist directions, is inherently childish or adolescent.
And let's be honest — is something like Hunger Games or Little Brother less grown-up than yet another book about a sexy supernatural chick with a tramp stamp and a crossbow? Or yet another space-adventure novel in which "rock-ribbed Competent Men" (as Bruce Sterling calls them) solve problems with aplomb? For any type of book, you can find examples that are simplistic and silly, as well as ones which keep surprising you — and I haven't noticed that YA dystopias are more prone to superficiality than other broad categories of novels.
And because Sturgeon's Law does apply to any type of book — especially any type which the publishing industry is intent on cranking out — there are certainly some YA dystopias coming out which look less than thrilling. Scanning the lists of forthcoming novels, I sometimes scratch my head and wonder if the new "dystopian future where love is outlawed" book is the same one I read about last week, or another one with the same theme. As the trend matures among YA publishers, you're likely to see more weak sauce — but there'll also be some more gems. We hope.
The thing is, dystopian novels speak to teenagers for the exact same reasons they speak to adults. Teenagers start noticing that they're in a world which is hideously messed up in many ways, and they have no clue how to go about fixing it — which is why novels about a teenager who does face up to a more exaggerated version of our nightmare world are so appealing.
But people don't grow up and then stop feeling oppressed. Most of us still have the feeling that things are badly wrong with the world, and that powerful people are able to walk all over the rest of us. If you're a progressive, you probably blame big corporations. If you're a conservative, you probably blame big government. But the feeling is the same, pretty much. And it's not just the sense that there are powerful institutions hanging over your head like vultures, but also the certain knowledge that you're making worse and worse compromises all the time, just to fit in.
The difference — and what teenagers pick up on — is that most adults stop even fantasizing that they could overturn the inverted fishbowl. When we interviewed the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle a couple years back, he put it really well:
All teenagers know instinctively that there is something wrong with adults. That, somewhere along the way, the adults lost the plot. Maybe it's just that they got stressed out by having to pay bills, or maybe it's just the nature of aging, but from a teenager's perspective, it looks like aging just strips you of your ability to be reasonable, to be cool, to understand other people. So in that sense, teenagers are living as captives in some colony where the androids have all taken over, and where they've made it clear that they intend to turn their captives into androids, too.
But if it's true that adults are more co-opted than teenagers — and today, with teenagers able to get sucked into social media and corporate identity manipulation schemes more than ever, I'm not sure it's so true — then dystopian novels for adults have a huge advantage. A grown-up dystopia can show how adults become part of the system, and the ways in which well-meaning people are turned into cogs in the machine. And maybe, when we see the hero of an adult dystopia rebel against the system, it's that much more powerful because we've seen her or him living as part of it.
So let's hope we see the craze for teenage wastelands cross over to adults, so we can get some more complicated, dismal stories of adults struggling against social control. All it really takes is one book to cross over and do well — publishing has that lemming thing going on, so one bestseller in a category is enough to lead to tons more books in that idiom.
But also, let's hope that tons of young people reading these novels, and grow up wanting to overthrow the government — and believing that they can really do it. The world is going to need a slew of Katniss Everdeens in the next few years, if we're going to avoid the worst dystopian scenarios.