Many parents might feel worried on finding their teenage children addicted to grim visions of a future in which global warming has made the seas rise, the earth dry up, genetically engineered plants run riot and humans fight over the last available scraps of food. Yet with the arrival of the film of the first book of Suzanne Collins’s best-selling trilogy The Hunger Games this month, dystopia for teenagers has hit an all-time high in public consciousness. The hottest genre in publishing and film on both sides of the Atlantic, it has rendered wizards and vampires redundant. And teen fiction is now so popular that it has entered the shopping basket of goods by which we calculate inflation.
The Hunger Games, set in a future America, now called Panem, concerns the ultimate TV reality game show, in which there can be only one survivor. Fantastically violent, the novel has sold 10 million copies world-wide, and is likely to be the hit movie of 2012.
Nor is it alone in riding the dystopian wave. This year, Moira Young’s best-selling debut, Blood Red Road, a kind of Mad Max for girls, won the Costa Children’s Award, and has been bought by Ridley Scott for film; Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now is about to start shooting with Saoirse Ronan as the lead in a story of underage passion in a future England plunged into war. Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, set in a racist society that is a photographic negative of our world, has been successfully adapted by the RSC as a play and has been one of the nation’s favourite series for the past decade. Even Anthony Horowitz, the man who has done more to get boys reading than any other contemporary author, has just finished his own dystopian novel, Oblivion, which Walker will publish this autumn.
Teenagers on both sides of the Atlantic can’t get enough of this stuff. Why is dystopia so fashionable? Are they sunk in existential gloom caused by the recession, university fees and the prospect of never getting a mortgage?
Although it has always been a bridge between children’s fiction and adult novels (think of Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984 or John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids) dystopia used to be part of the SF genre – and, crucially, written by men. Girls and romance took second place to chaps saving humanity (or not), and perhaps it wasn’t surprising to find they were largely popular with boys. What makes the new dystopian novel part of the zeitgeist is that it appeals to teenage girls – and is predominantly written by women. Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies (2005) imagined a post-apocalyptic world in which every teenager is “ugly” until radical surgery at 16 – plus a kind of lobotomy – makes them into supermodel “pretties”. All good dystopian novels are driven by the will to resist conformity, but Uglies was a strikingly new, dark tale which girls took to their hearts in droves.
I remember my daughter and her friends passing copies around like samizdat literature, partly because it opened up issues such as the pressure they all felt about their looks. “It’s the only well-written book which talks about how crap we feel about our bodies and faces,” my daughter, then 12, told me earnestly. “I don’t know anyone who isn’t talking about wanting to have plastic surgery.” The futuristic setting (and the sinister consequences of the Uglies’ surgery) made it easier for them to discuss this.
The other new feature of Uglies which also made it attractive to this new female readership was romance between its heroine and two heroes. Less sexualised than Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the new wave of dystopian fiction gives the perfect excuse for why, despite being desperately in love, the protagonists can’t have sex: as Meg Rosoff says, “in a survivalist love affair, you don’t have to worry about having a boyfriend or what clothes you’re wearing, because you’re saving the world.” Meg Rosoff, whose own 14-year-old daughter Gloria is addicted to the genre, says that what teenagers respond to is “having big events happen in a world which is completely familiar. They see adulthood glimmering on the horizon and that’s as scary as the apocalypse.” Imagining that you’re living in a place in which millions have starved to death (The Hunger Games), been drowned by melting ice-caps (Julie Bertagna’s Exodus), been killed off as surplus because eternal youth has been discovered (Gemma Malley’s The Declaration) or been dried up due to climate change (Moira Young’s Blood Red Road) does tend to make fears about having spots and tests less terrifying.
But many of the talented writers producing these stories never set out to write in the genre. Moira Young, for instance, avoided reading any contemporary dystopian fiction when writing Blood Red Road, drawing her inspiration from Nevil Shute’s 1950s classic, On the Beach.
“I think it coincides with young people’s anxieties about the future, in that it’s about a heroic figure triumphing over the odds, but what drew me to write that kind of story was simply that it gave me a big canvas in which to explore love, betrayal and mistakes,” Young says. To adults, the violence of some of these stories can seem horrifying, and depressing to think about. It used once to be taboo for children to kill children in stories: now it’s de rigueur. When my daughter and son first became immersed in them, I worried that the fiction was amplifying their anxieties. Yet if the current vogue is a reaction to the recession, it’s the opposite of the adult one.
“All your generation want to do is go and see comedies like Noises Off,” my daughter says, a touch accusingly. “At least we’re thinking about politics, and the future.” Gemma Malley sees that dystopias not only magnify what teens go through in terms of bullying and the struggle to make their own decisions, but feed “their appetite for adrenaline. I’m very aware of my mortality, but a teenager doesn’t feel that,” she says. “These novels are like scary rides in the fairground.” What my own teenagers have responded to in the genre is not just the action-packed plots but the flawed, complex characters that inhabit them. Katniss in The Hunger Games has hunting skills and a fierce protectiveness towards her little sister that make her, like Meg Rosoff’s Daisy, and Moira Young’s Saba, the opposite to Stephenie Meyer’s passive, virtuous vampire-lover Bella Swann. Furthermore, Katniss pretends to be in love with her fellow contestant Peeta in order to manipulate the millions watching them on TV. She fights back against the expectations of Panem’s totalitarian regime by pretending to conform. Again, my daughter and her friends find this appealing in an age in which boys’ attitudes to them have been warped by internet pornography.
“Katniss is the kind of strong teenage heroine we were all waiting for,” one put it. “We had Hermione in Harry Potter and Lyra in His Dark Materials as children. If you’ve got a brain, vampires suck.” “Girls aren’t waiting to be saved any more,” Malley says. “They have strong moral compasses, and unlike male protagonists, they have insight into why they are as they are. If you go into schools now, you see teenage girls who are sparky and who think for themselves. Dystopia enables them to have big adventures but it’s also about creating strong characters whom readers care about.”
Saci Lloyd, who is also a teacher in a rough East End school and gets to see more of what teenagers are like than many parents, would agree. Her adrenalin-charged novels The Carbon Diaries (which Johnny Depp wanted to film but which are now being serialised for the BBC) and Momentum are inspired by the social consequences of oil running out. Kids of 14 and over love her thrillers partly because her heroes and heroines get to confront a police state and partly because she sees that, from the teenage point of view, the breakdown of society could be fun. The Carbon Diaries features an urban fox-hunt, and Momentum is as much about love and humour as politics or global warming.
“Though I’m interested in what happens to people when you squeeze them, I see my stories as optimistic,” she says. “Modern kids haven’t been through a war, rationing or carrying water from a well – but neither do they have somewhere to light a fire and blow things up as previous generations did. Dystopias look at our world from two degrees sideways. It’s not squids in outer space, as Margaret Atwood put it, but just slightly removed from today’s reality, so you look at it with fresh eyes.”