How’s this for a scenario:
In the future, the USA has been divided into thirteen districts, and the most prosperous oppresses all the others. One form of oppression is the annual televised exhibition in which two teens from each district compete for fabulous prizes–the chief prize being life. Katniss, a 16-year-old poacher from impoverished District Twelve, volunteers to replace her younger sister who was chosen by lot to be one of the district competitors. Katniss and her fellow competitor Peeta are transported to the capital city, where they are plunged into a glitzy, media-frantic, widely-anticipated, hotly-contested, brutal and bloody fight to the death among twenty-six teenagers. (The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins)
Or how about this? In the future, civilization has backed away from “progress” and shrouded itself in medieval trappings cushioned by technological innovation. Undesirables live a dog-eat-dog existence in a prison the size of a small country, capped by a ceiling of embedded cameras. The place was originally conceived as an ideal society but has degenerated under centuries of neglect and (human) nature taking its course. There is no apparent connection between the two worlds until Finn, on the inside, establishes communication with Claudia, on the outside, by means of a crystal key. The two join forces for mutual escape, fraught with peril.
(Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher)
Or this: In the future, the earth has become so inhospitable to life that humans have begun colonizing space. On one of these planets civilization has made a start, except that all the male colonists have been infected with Noise, a continual “feed” that allows them to hear the thoughts of every other male in proximity, even the animals. Todd Hewett, age 14 or thereabouts, has grown up in a town without women, controlled by a mad preacher and a mayor who seems to be gathering a select group of men for some nefarious purpose. One day, Todd discovers a pocket of silence in the woods and traces it to . . . a girl.
(The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness)
Or finally, this: In the future, environmental degradation and war have so devastated the planet that nations have broken down and all order is imposed by corporations. Nailer, age 15, works a drudge job on the Gulf Coast salvaging usable metal from the rusting hulks of stranded oil tankers–also dodging the punches of his semi-savage, drug-addled father. After a hurricane, Nailer finds a wrecked “clipper” ship whose sole survivor is Nita, a swank (rich girl). In what passes for ethics at the time, he would have been justified in slitting her throat and selling her body for parts. But he decides to let her live, plunging himself into an odyssey of harrowing escapes and bloody confrontations.
(Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi)
The apprentice-magician fad has passed and the paranormal craze is passing; what we’re in now is the age of dystopian fantasy, the latest hot literary commodity. All the titles above (each the first in a proposed trilogy) were released within the last three years to swooning critical acclaim and respectable-to-phenomenal sales. Two of them are headed for the big screen. Dystopian stories have held a place in youth fiction at least since Lois Lowry’s The Giver won a Newbery award in 1994, but Suzanne Collins gave it a massive push with The Hunger Games (soon to be a major motion picture, along with Incarceron).
Dystopian fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction: the portrayal of a degenerate world recognizable as our own, populated with beings recognizable as us. According to this definition, Incarceron doesn’t strictly belong–it’s fantasy of the grimmer sort–but its society-in-distress theme definitely fits. It often takes the form of a cautionary tale: if present trends continue, something like this could happen. The two great classic examples of dystopian fiction, 1984 and Brave New World, are often required reading in high school. So it’s won a respectable place in the literary pantheon, especially for a form so relatively new.
There was a time when projections into the future reeked of optimism. Jules Verne looked forward to astonishing inventions and conveniences. Around the turn of the last century, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward was a literary sensation: a preachy novel about better living through socialism after wars and cultural upheavals have finally driven a stake through capitalism. But obviously something happened between now and then . . . maybe two world wars, numerous instances of genocide, countless petty dictatorships, weapons of mass destruction and mass weapons of destruction. Yep, all that might have had something to do with our outlook for the future being less than cheery. But the explosion of dystopian fiction in children’s literature–especially YA–is worth commenting on. What distinguishes youth dystopias from the adult variety? Why now? And what is the Christian response?