At a recent New York panel on historical young adult fiction, a group of authors and moderators began by insisting that reports of the subgenre's death were greatly exaggerated. And yet, the truism that historical fiction is dead to teenagers is widespread in the industry.
Anyone who has walked into a bookshop lately knows that YA fiction set in the dystopian future is flying off the shelves, while stories set in the past are fading away. It's not just that dystopian fiction has caught the historical fiction's market share — dystopian fiction now fills the same niche for young readers that historical fiction once did.
Science fiction and historical fiction share quite a few similarities. Both genres focus more on world-building than contemporary novels. They spend a lot of time introducing readers to unfamiliar technology, strange people with jobs that nobody has in today's world, weird clothing, and complex nearly-unfathomable social systems. Words like "house" or "shirt" mean pretty much the same thing in all contemporary novels, while meaning any number of things in futuristic or historical fiction.
And the sub-genre of dystopian fiction is even more similar to historical fiction, in that almost all dystopian fiction takes place on Earth. It's just as easy to map Panem from The Hunger Games or Orlean II from Ship Breaker onto our existing world as it is to map ancient Kush or the Roman Empire. Earth-bound dystopian novels and historical novels are both time-shifted versions of our current world.
While these similarities exist for all dystopian and historical fiction, the genres share an even greater overlap in the world of YA. Both genres allow — and often expect — teenagers and children to shoulder greater responsibilities, independence and even jobs, than contemporary YA fiction.
Most contemporary YA novels focus on small scale concerns: domestic, athletic and scholastic dramas. By showing societies that depend on teenagers acting as adults, authors can put teenage protagonists into very high-stakes and dramatic situations, where the future of society is at stake. These situations are often similar across dystopian and historical genres. Questions of slavery /caste and humanity are common in both genres too (e.g., Tankborn and Chains).
These inherently more dramatic situations that span society-wide problems are also handled in similarly optimistic fashion. While optimistic endings are a hallmark of YA (so much so that I've heard editors propose that this is a defining criteria of YA fiction), historical and dystopian YA fiction deal with this optimism in a very particular way.
Adult historical fiction may be interested in exploring the commonalities between modern and historical time periods: governments are still corrupt in the same way, people still love in the same way, etc. Most YA historical fiction, however, takes as a priori that the past was screwed up in ways that hurt women, the working class, and racial, ethnic and religious minorities. Most of these books have, at heart, the idea that the present is better than the past, and that society was improved by individuals and groups who fought against that oppression. Because these societies gave teenagers adult-like freedoms, it's also more believable that the books' protagonists are right in the thick of that fight. Even books that seem to avoid such obvious political morals still operate in the paradigm that the present is better than the past. I have a collection of historical YA plague novels on my shelf, and someone manages to bemoan the lack of medical knowledge in every single one of them.
Since they're called dystopian, we know that the societies in these books are also inherently inferior to our modern world. For instance, you could argue that Hunger Games is really about how we were all better off, not just under democracy, but before the invention of reality television. Like historical YA fiction, the point is really about how an individual teenager alters that society. Contemporary, realistic YA fiction doesn't allow a single teenager to alter all of society, if for no other reason than it's not realistic. But both dystopian and historical fiction has them in spades (Johnny Tremain and The Hunger Games).
But exploring societies that have different social positions for teenagers, whether they're historical or futuristic societies is perhaps the biggest similarity between the genres.
But if these genres are so similar, why are teenagers picking one over the other?
The answer begins, like most answers do nowadays, with technology. Very few authors actually understand how technology fits into current teens' lives. For all the studies and panels on teen tech use, most authors write based on their own experiences and most people don't get published as teens. Many authors creating YA fiction grew up in the pre-cell / pre-Facebook era and often do what they can to subtract these "modern conveniences" from even ostensibly modern stories. This sometimes results in truly strange contrivances: Luddite parents, year-long grounding from the internet, ostensibly normal kids with nostalgia fetishes have all made it into the pages of YA novels, to avoid dealing with modern technology. And I'm not saying this in a castigating way: I had dial-up as a teen, and didn't have any of my friends' email addresses until going to college. There is a legitimate generational disruption, between the producers of books and the readers of them.
There's also the "those darn kids" phenomenon. It's not just that authors, editors and publishers aren't keeping up with modern technology, it's that kids don't seem to actually understand "old tech." If you've spent time around curious type kids you've probably been asked about linguistic fossils in our language. I've definitely explained "rewind" and the uses of "tape" and "film," as verbs rather than nouns, to kids. One child I know couldn't follow the story of Robin Hood, because he didn't understand that gold was the same as money. Admittedly, he was only six, but it made me sad to think he was missing out on the perfect age to enjoy Robin Hood. This lack of supposedly common or shared knowledge about the way the world works can make historical fiction incomprehensible, since the author believed the readers would understand these things automatically.
And a vast number of contemporary novels have been turned into historical novels by the invention of the cell phone. The whole basis of the The Babysitter's Club was that parents would be thrilled to make one phone call and reach six possible babysitters — and that one of the main characters had her own phone. With the ability to send out six emails or texts instantaneously, hundreds of books were relegated to the dustbin of history. Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies are contemporary novels that could no longer happen in the actual contemporary world. As more and more books become historical, there is less demand for historical novels that predate the 1980s.
Dystopian fiction, on the other hand, faces none of these complications. Readers don't have to be told why there aren't cell phones in The Hunger Games or why no one has Facebook in Uglies — or even worse, why someone has MySpace instead of facebook. Even in worlds where social media is part of the dystopian problem, like Feed or Scored, there's no reason for that technology to have anything to do with the technology teens know and use.
Technology, or the lack of it, is paramount in almost all dystopian books. These books grapple with the meaning and ethics of the technology. One of the things we do know from all the studies and panels about teen tech use is that teens aren't using tech in ways that adults expect. Teens texting drove the creation of keyboard phones, not the other way around. There is no generational wisdom to pass on about cell phone use; no equivalent to "don't let the fire go out." Just by interrogating what technology means, dystopian fiction must seem more realistic to teens who are making up their own technological rules as they go along.
Dystopian fiction gets to keep all the things teens love about historical fiction: larger-than-life struggles in flawed societies, vicarious teenage freedom and responsibility, and detailed world-building. But it avoids the technological irrelevancy of contemporary YA fiction that has created a glut of historical fiction. It also avoids the pitfalls of expecting teenagers to share cultural knowledge that may have become irrelevant in the modern world. And by considering the deeper meaning of technology it can have more to do with contemporary teens' lives than contemporary fiction that goes out of its way to avoid recent technology.
The only thing that's surprising about teens' love of dystopian YA fiction? Is the adults' surprise.