Sunday, June 15, 2014

Young Adult Dystopias and Other Adventures in the American Way

From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! - Karl Marx

This pithy line by Marx is a good reflection of his philosophy and ideals. At first it comes off as considerate idea about human fairness and having a level playing field in society. And like any maxim it can be easily distorted through misinterpretation or alternate goals.
So why is this relevant to young adult novels?

With 'The Giver' flick coming to theaters, my girlfriend decided to pick up the book for a re-read. In discussing it she pointed out how closely the values of the society within could be compared to failed autocratic societies.
As in most of my posts, I'm not saying anything new. The comparison has been made. Though this week, after I re-read a few sections myself, I understood the implications of fashioning every young adult novel in a society based on some failed form or fascism/communism/authoritarianism/whatever.
It helps indoctrinate us to a 50's style American way. Complete with ironically promoting individualism on national scale and stiff opposition to big government.

But first let me go through a brief time-line of the genre.

The average Anglophone may assume Aldous Huxley's Brave New World to be the first true dystopian novel, but they'd be wrong. Ironically or not, the first work about going against 'The Man' and seeking freedom from society, was written in Russia.

Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote about a city made of glass, where everyone's lives were public knowledge, and life was perfect and for its protagonist, D-503, unfufilling.
And with this prediction of state-control Zamyatin sets up the first staple tropes of the dystopian genre.

  • Powerful and controlling state/government
  • State-supportive propaganda often accompanied by pithy maxims and sayings
  • Extreme societal conformity
  • Unusual organization of citizenry
  • Advanced technology
  • Setting that's 20 minutes in the future
  • Restriction of factual information
  • Protagonist facing spiritual dissatisfaction
Eleven years later (1932) Huxley would publish Brave New World and really introduce the idea to the English-speaking world.
Orwell in 1949, would borrow extensively from Zamyatin  but through his own filter, giving them a distinctly Anglican feeling. So while Russian speculative fiction never really broke out in the West, Orwell and Huxley brought fictional societies to the literary foreground and popular consciousness. 

The idea would be then be copied by other writers and keep the same trend of tropes and formulaics and putting there on spin on it. All of these consistently reinforce the notion that big government is bad and can all too quickly transform society into something soulless and without beauty.

And really this continues on with.

Player Piano, 1953

Fahrenheit 451, 1953

Atlas Shrugged, 1957

A Clockwork Orange, 1962

The Handmaid's Tale, 1985

America and England fought authoritarian powers and 'won' but these fights left behind a ghost that refuses excision. In these novels we fight similar behemoths but the comparisons change. Yesteryear's Soviet Union is today's North Korea. And with various echoes, the call for a more libertarian protagonist emerges.

This is best represented in Ayn Rand's economic dystopia in Atlas Shrugged, but the sentiment stuck around and wiggled into young adult novels with The Giver. Both bare strikingly similar messages about the importance of personal freedom before society. 
And when I mean society, I mean all parts including family, safety, and duty.

I was really struck when The Giver's main character Jonas chose to run away from society rather than assist it despite his position of power. It echoes to every major character of Atlas Shrugged, who rather than help to solve the world cloister away from it. Depending on the reading this can come off as a selfish abdication of responsibility (all these characters are in some way skilled or respected) disguised as personal freedom.

The recent stream of YA dystopia's has re-rooted itself in anti-authoritarian and anti-organization ideals (The Uglies series, Divergent, Battle Royale) have taken to making their captor states much less benign. The author has returned the state as the brutal and heartless villain, but the extreme anti-system and anti-authority sentiments remain.


The Hunger Games is an interesting exception to the normal tropes young adult and dystopian novels like to work on. We see much of the same setting.
  • Brutal and soulless government
  • Oppressed Masses
  • Unusual organization of its people
  • State surveillance and control

But all of this evil is centered around the Capitol and for the first time in a long time shows a distinctly anti-capitalist bend. The Capitol feels like Marx explaining the decadence of the bourgeoisie while the districts provide a clear class of proletariat. Suzanne Collins added an extra element to her story that I think is worth noting. Katniss' struggle is not only for her personal freedom, its also about being treated fairly. To know that her work is a benefit to her people as a opposed to an overseer's.

Or perhaps, I've read too much into it.

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