Dystopia is huge right now, especially in YA. This is probably due to the fact that we live in one–or, more correctly, this is due to the fact that YA readers are finally paying close enough attention to realize that we live in one. The last time American teens were politically savvy enough to care about the condition of our country was in the 60s, with the Vietnam war, and I think that has a lot of parallels to today: regardless of how the war may actually be going (and you can find the full range of opinions on the net if you search for at least five minutes), I think we can all agree that the war in the Middle East has been very long, and with very little perceived progress. This kind of thing bothers people, and starts them thinking about other things, and what I find really interesting here is that most of our political and governmental complaints these days have very little to do with the war; I think you can point to the war as the source of our unease, but the target of that unease is almost entirely domestic.
We don’t like the government’s lax position on immigration–but we don’t like the strict immigrations laws they’re passing now, either. We hated our last president, and now we hate our current one for completely different reasons. Our economy sucks, and the methods our government is using to pull us out of recession tend to suck even more than the recession. We’re upset and angry and–this is the key here–we don’t trust our leaders. I think that, more than anything, is the reason I label this a dystopia. If you don’t trust the people who hold all the power, the entire system breaks.
A dystopia, for those who don’t know, is loosely defined as a “bad society.” The word technically translates as “terrible place,” and exists as an opposite of the word eutopia, or “wonderful place.” More specifically, eutopia is a common science fiction concept of a perfect place, where our dreams of the future have all come true, and thus a dystopia is considered to the opposite of perfect–a place, or a time, when our dreams have very distinctly failed to come true. We have arrived at the future, and it’s exactly what we didn’t want it to be.
Part of me, frankly, is kind of excited about this. You go back six or seven years and I would have said our biggest societal problem was apathy–we were a nation of heedless consumers, getting and spending our money as fast as we could on every stupid piece of junk they could throw at us. We didn’t care about what was happening in the world because the world was boring. I feel kind of indebted to people like George W. Bush and Barack Obama for forcing us to a crisis of political mistrust so great we can’t help but take notice. Our world is worse now, and scarier, but at least we’re aware of how scary it is. In the interest of full disclosure I should say that I voted for Obama, excited about all the changes he was going to make, but I’ve grown pretty disillusioned now that he’s made so few of them. A friend asked me recently if I was happy with my choice, and I am–I’m just not happy with any of his subsequent choices.
But I’m getting off topic, and way too political, and I know I’m going to get slammed in the comments, and on Facebook, and on Twitter, by people demanding that I explain/justify/change my political statements. Let me cut that all short by stating right now that my political beliefs, and yours for that matter, are beside the point of this discussion, which is that nobody, regardless of their political beliefs, is happy with our political situation. There is not a single person, anywhere in America, who can look out and say “yes, everything is as it should be.” None of our ideals are being met; all of our choices are impossible. We’ve hit a crux of our societal development, I think, and that’s a very hard, painful place to be. It’s got us thinking about our future, and our past, and why our present is exactly what we didn’t want. It’s the textbook definition of a dystopia.
Dystopia in fiction, of course, is usually more pronounced. We replace our current problems with wild exaggerations of them. Are you worried that the people you used to like and trust are getting brainwashed into mindless enemies–like, say, socialism or its enemy the Tea Party movement? Then our massive bounty of zombie fiction will resonate very strongly with you. Do you think that our mishandling of a seemingly unwinnable war will destroy our way of life? Then step right up to the post-apocalypse fiction shelf, more full now than it’s probably ever been. Do you think our growing preference for online connectivity over personal interaction will break our society in unpredictable and unrecoverable ways? Then lucky for you that cyberpunk is back. Everything we’re afraid of, everything we’re living through every day, is reflected in our literature. My only hope, at this point, is that these disillusioned YA readers will learn something from our fiction and do their best to make tomorrow better.