Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Dystopias: Is the YA Craze Over?

I'm not going to lie, I have read a lot (and I do mean a lot) of dystopian fiction. In fact you can see how much here - link to my review blog's Sci-Fi & Dystopian Page.

Classic Dystopias

It started in school when my English Literature class studied 1984 for our A2 Level coursework, and we got to pick the book that went with it. That's when I read some of the more 'classic' dystopias, including Brave New World and A Handmaid's Tale, I even tried reading A Cloakwork Orange (but gave up, I had far too much other coursework to do to be able to spend the time trying to make sense of that book!). The other one I did finish reading was Never Let Me Go, which is one of the most upsetting books I've ever read (and I might add, one of the best film adaptations that I've seen.)

I ended up doing my coursework on the portrayal of women in 1984 and A Handmaid's Tale, which is an incredibly interesting contrast if you've ever considered it. Though on the outside, looking at the bare bones of the dystopia women couldn't be more differently treated (all citizens being the same in 1984 and women being inferior in A Handmaid's Tale) there were actually some striking similarities between them. Namely the way that these women rebel: they have sex. Or fall in love, but certainly at the beginning it is having sex.

Anyway I'm digressing, probably because I could talk about the subject of women in dystopias, and in fact I have previously written an essay on the subject, which can be found here (I also wrote a similar essay on love and sex as rebellion, which can be found here). I have read a fair few more dystopian books since then so it is more than likely due an update.

The Rise of the YA Dystopia 

The rise of YA dystopia...that moment where suddenly the genre became massively main stream. This was (probably) set in motion by The Hunger Games (which I didn't actually read until the film was nearly out). There was an explosion of new authors with books that all seemed to follow a similar pattern; young female protagonist, love triangle, accidentally leading a rebellion...and the fact that this seems to be a template now kind of makes me sad. Now I'm not saying that the books are bad, because they're not. I've read Delirium and its sequels and they were very enjoyable. Though I will confess to not having read the final Divergent book yet, partly because I haven't got round to it and partly because my friend told me how it ended by accident.

This formula for YA dystopias did put me off a bit, though there are some that I've particularly enjoyed that didn't fit the mould, and I think that it was partly because they didn't that I liked them. After the Fear was definitely a good read, and interestingly there was less of a focus on rebellion in that book than in most of the others that I've read. Another that I particularly enjoyed was The Program, though that was slightly less dystopian than most of the other books that I've read in this genre, though I thought that it tackled some issues that were particularly relevant and emotive, most notably depression and how other mental illnesses are treated and perceived. I have seen it done in other books, such as The Glimpse, but I ended up hating that dystopia extremely strongly.

The Switch to NA/Mature YA 

Maybe its just me that wasn't very aware of the New Adult (NA) genre, or maybe it really is a new thing, though actually I still think that most dystopias written now fall into the YA category, albeit a mature YA. Interestingly these are the ones that I prefer. Two great dystopian series that I've read that definitely count as mature YA if not NA are The Bionics and The Woodlands. Both of the series have something a little different about them that has set them apart in my mind, and The Bionics will be talked about in the next section anyway (as one of those reasons).

When you get towards this genre the characters are a bit more mature, they're not just in a love triangle, they're thinking about attraction and sex a bit more (though not having it on page in mature YA cases). It just gets a little more complicated. Though in Rosa and Joseph's case in The Woodlands that's complicated a little bit more than that! The Woodlands is one of my favourite dystopias because it doesn't conform to the normal structure in any way. Yes, Rosa (the narrator) is a strong female character...most of the time anyway...but she has things to deal with and she deals with them. She isn't the leader of the rebellion, in fact most of the time she's just plain unlucky. If there is a love triangle then I haven't noticed it, the main focus instead is on the relationship between Joseph and Rosa which has a lot of problems. All while living somewhere they don't want to. It just works, and their story has stuck with me better than most.

Science Fiction & Dystopias 

Most people would probably class dystopias as science fiction. I don't, I think they are two different things. Dystopia is talking about a controlled society whereas sci-fi is more futuristic and more likely to involve space. It is true that dystopian fiction involves elements of sci-fi, it has to, but that doesn't mean that they are the same thing.

Some of my favourite dystopias have elements of both science fiction and dystopian fiction, though of course the distinction is pretty much just in my head. The Bionics fits into this category for me because of the technological advancements that have occurred and caused the dystopia in the first place. Though in my opinion The Bionics does lean more towards the dystopian side of things. I also find that sometimes elements of dystopias find their way into science fiction, one example would be in the Sanctify series, which similarly to A Handmaid's Tale, has a controlling organisation based on religion, though there is more to it and that series would definitely be counted as sci-fi.

Breaking the Mould

So the YA formula that I mentioned above...personally I think it is getting a bit stale, and that is where books like The Woodlands are picking up the slack. They have something a little different about them that makes you want to read them and makes them stick with you. Another good one for breaking that mould would be Outside, a series that has a greater deal of complexity to it because the government isn't actually playing any part at all (also its set in the UK including the tiny city in which I was born, so that one was always going to stick in my head!). Or The Island books which are based on something from our popular culture that became a religion (Star Wars if you're interested, it is actually very well done). Another reason that The Island stuck in my head though was because of its more updated take on Lord of the Flies, which is one of the few books I've ever hated.

The Bionics also breaks the mould, not only is there not just one, but three, narrators (it switches for each book) but two of those narrators are male. Sounds really silly but such a small difference like that makes the books stick in your head more. Another series that breaks the mould is Anomaly, though this series has a strong focus on religion and I realise that not everyone would like that. Because of that focus though the more 'classic' signs of a dystopia (love triangle and female protagonist leading the rebellion), which are there, seem less stale.

So Has the YA Craze Ended? 

For me the Young Adult Dystopia craze definitely has. I haven't seen the Divergent film, and neither do I really plan on seeing it (I'm definitely more a book person anyway!). Not only that but the set up of young adult dystopias has just become a bit stale. There are still good dystopias out there, but the genre is definitely transitioning. I want something a little different, with more complex characters and situations, and not necessarily a character that leads the way (though that can still work, Blythe from The Bionics is definitely the right kind of character to be leading the way) but one that really thinks about things.

I think Young Adult Dystopias need to grow up. The craze has passed and now it's time for something different from the genre.


Books Mentioned: 
  • A Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazua Ishaguro
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • After the Fear by Rosanne Rivers
  • The Program by Suzanne Young
  • The Glimpse by Claire Merle
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Delirium by Lauren Oliver
The Bionics by Alicia Michaels
The Woodlands by Lauren Nicolle Taylor
Sanctify by Katee Robert 
The Island by Jen Minkman 
Outside by Shalini Boland