The plethora of dystopian novels that involve putting teens into deadly trials has begun to disturb me. Starting with Hunger Games, which was similar to a YA version of the Running Man, the stories read like athletic competitions run amok. The teens are grouped into categories for what turns out to be a string of deadly competitions, often staged for the populace’s viewing pleasure. Dystopian literature is by no means new, and it has always been a bit disturbing but for different reasons. There are ancient texts that describe a future in which society is deeply flawed, and yet citizens continue to serve the powers that be, unaware of their enslavement. These works from past century works were warnings and not entertainment that resembled gladiator sports.
The Russian author Yevgenv Zamyatin created a future world of complete human conformity in his novel We. He often receives credit as the modern inventor of this type of literature; however, Jack London published Iron Heel over a decade earlier. London’s book is a combination of a science fiction and political novel that fits the idea of a dystopia perfectly, even if it is not as futuristic as Zamyatin’s work. In London’s novel the rise of popular support for a socialist government is squelched by a dictatorship backed by political conservatives. It describes the effect of unscrupulous big business that results in an economic dystopia.
Many dystopian novels are based on ideas that reflect Zamyatin’s novel. They almost always take place in a future society. People often follow skewed ideals, which masquerade as the path to utopia. Enforced conformity is often the result of humans reacting to a perceived threat. The environment is frequently artificial as well, especially so in Zamyatin’s novel. People live in an urban setting constructed basically of glass making surveillance easy. This fear of being observed is a pervasive theme as the main character, D-503, begins to break with the uniformity required by the One State.
For the protagonist there is no going back. Once enlightened, the only options are to escape the society or die. The dystopian societies do not easily crumble as they do in the modern teen versions of governments gone awry. The dystopian society in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is not brought down by those who wish to preserve books rather than destroying them. Instead these people flee the city that wishes to hunt them down before it goes up in the flames of war.
There are some dystopian novels aimed at YA which are not designed around war games. The desire to erase the memory of an unpleasant past is what leads to the twisting of a society into a dystopia that masquerades as a utopia in The Giver by Lois Lowry. There numerous incidents of planned euthanasia for the comfort of the society which refuses to allow pain. The Giver, a wise mentor and a young protagonist named Jonas, attempt to release the memories of pain back into society. This is foiled because Jonas has learned to love, so he must escape.
There is still hope for dystopias written with the courage to reveal what is wrong with our society by taking it to an extreme that still seems plausible. There are ones that are serious and not just combatant based. Of course anyone fond of getting adolescents together to fight only to have them turn against a corrupt regime should remember—none of these trials are as deadly as sending out eighteen-year-olds en masse to fight a war. We are still doing this in real life somewhere in the world within each generation.