What if? Dystopian YA: A Guest Post by Heather Trese

Friday, March 5, 2010

What if women had no rights, and were assigned their roles in society?
What if all the adults in the world were dead?
What if everyone had a portal in their heads and constantly received information?

Questions like these absolutely fascinate me, and that’s why I have a great love for dystopian literature. What is dystopian literature? A dystopian novel is one that features a society characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government. It typically features repressive social control systems, a lack or total absence of individual freedoms, and a state of constant warfare or violence. Sometimes, as in The Giver, the reader might think the characters are in a utopia, or ideal society, when actually, as the layers are peeled away, you find that it’s really a dystopia.

Lately, dystopian novels have seen a huge upsurge in sales, particularly in the YA genre. Publisher’s Weekly posted a phenomenal article on the topic. I think teens relate well to dystopia simply because of the turmoil in their life. The teenage years are when most people realize for the first time that their parents and teachers might not be as all-knowing and powerful as they think, so they relate well to the rebellious characters which feature prominently in dystopian books. We’re also living in a society where war, poverty, and environmental disaster make headlines every day. Not to mention the supposed 2012 end-of-the-world, and the simple uncertainty of wondering what the future holds. For many readers of dystopian literature, it’s just interesting and a little fun to guess what the world will be like 400 years from now.

So what makes a great dystopian novel?

To successfully write dystopia, the concepts should be rooted in truth and based off of something we know today, just taken to the extreme. That’s what makes the ideas so haunting. The Hunger Games takes our obsession with reality TV and turns it on its head. Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series plays on ideals of beauty and the current environmental crisis the world is facing to make the future seem real. Fahrenheit 451 takes the censoring of books to the most extreme circumstance possible. All of these books are eerie and effective because the reader can actually see the world turning out that way.

If you want to tackle dystopian writing, the best way to get an idea is to look at something that we, as a society, consider commonplace, or a problem that is just emerging. Then take that to its extreme. An example would be, say, how America consistently falls behind other industrialized countries on school aptitude tests. What if that trend continues, and in 100 or 200 years America is no longer a world power, but one of the poorest countries in the world? Or consider genetically modified food – these are becoming more and more common, but the long-term effects aren’t known. What if eating GM fruits and veggies is fine…until 20 years later, when you grow carrot sticks for fingers and blueberries for eyes? The point is, there is no shortage of material if you want to try your hand at creating a dystopian world – just look at the world around you.

I’ve heard people saying that the dystopian trend in YA is similar to the vampire phenomenon, and that it will soon die out. But I don’t think that’s the case. Dystopian literature has been around for centuries, and although it’s never been as popular as it is right now, I think it will always have a place in the hearts and minds of those who want to wonder…what if?


Heather Trese is a magazine editor from Clearwater, FL. She is currently editing her first novel, a YA dystopian book that all sprang from a simple “What if?” Find her at her blog, http://seeheatherwrite.blogspot.com/, or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/HeatherTrese.

What do you think of the dystopian trend? What is your favourite dystopian novel?
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