Monday, August 02, 2010

Dystopia...Now for Kids!

© 2008 Disney/Pixar, Film still from Wall-E 

I read a great article in The New Yorker a couple of months ago, written by Laura Miller, exploring the role and rise of dystopian fiction in children's and YA lit. The article describes the recent boom in the genre, focusing on Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy (the 3rd installment comes out in 22 days...and yes, I am counting), but also drawing parallels with a number of other titles that fit the description, including Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy and Patrick Ness' The Knife of Never Letting Go (also part of a trilogy...hmmm). While I don't agree with all of her conclusions (more on that below), what I like about Miller's exploration is its grounding in both a historical context (pointing out that dystopian themes have been a part of youth literature for a long, long time) and recent academic work on the function of the dystopian narrative within youth culture (and experience).

A key point here is that while there are of course continuities between youth and adult dystopian fiction, there are significant differences as well. And the elaboration of these differences might be what makes this recent incarnation of dystopian youth fiction unique and noteworthy. Miller writes:
"In an essay for the 2003 collection Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults, the British academic Kay Sambell argues that “the narrative closure of the protagonist’s final defeat and failure is absolutely crucial to the admonitory impulse of the classic adult dystopia.” The adult dystopia extrapolates from aspects of the present to show readers how terrible things will become if our deplorable behavior continues unchecked. The more utterly the protagonist is crushed, the more urgent and forceful the message.
Because authors of children’s fiction are “reluctant to depict the extinction of hope within their stories,” Sambell writes, they equivocate when it comes to delivering a moral. Yes, our errors and delusions may lead to catastrophe, but if—as usually happens in dystopian novels for children—a new, better way of life can be assembled from the ruins would the apocalypse really be such a bad thing?"
Miller reads Sambell's argument as basically saying that adult and youth dystopian fiction serve the same purpose. Miller summarizes this purpose as delivering a moral: "This is what will happen if we don’t turn back now, they scold, and scolding makes sense when your readers have a shot at getting their hands on the wheel." In response, Miller points out that "Children, however, don’t run the world, and teen-agers, especially, feel the sting of this." As a result, Miller suggests that dystopian narrative in youth fiction is actually both more pessimistic, and ultimately more personal...reflecting young people's feelings of disaffection and lack of agency in their everyday lives. She describes, for instance, that:
"The Hunger Games could be taken as an indictment of reality TV, but only someone insensitive to the emotional tenor of the story could regard social criticism as the real point of Collins’s novel. The Hunger Games is not an argument. It operates like a fable or a myth, a story in which outlandish and extravagant figures and events serve as conduits for universal experiences. Dystopian fiction may be the only genre written for children that’s routinely less didactic than its adult counterpart. It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader."
While I find many of Miller's arguments about the connections between youth experience and dystopian representations quite brilliant, I think that Miller has missed Sambell's point...Or at least missed a key component of dystopian youth fiction that runs counter to Miller's assessment. While it's true that children and teens don't rule the world, I think it's also true that the dystopian fiction written for them generally responds quite meaningfully to the particular lack of authority and power experienced by young people (as opposed to the lack of power to resist Big Brother, or the lack of authority to make decisions for oneself, found in adult-oriented dystopias). For instance, in The Hunger Games, the only real criterion for inclusion in the lottery is youth. The particular matrix of social, economic, political and legal relationships that are unique to the childhood & youth experiences are very much at the centre of the dystopia represented in this series, and I would suspect in many other examples of dystopian youth fiction as well.

The morality tales, the glimmers of hope at the end of the dark tunnel, contained within these stories are also reflective of this. As Sambell writes in another one of her articles, the point of these narratives is often to "critique and subvert the polluted adult world," whilst the optimistic glimmer of hope lies not so much in what might be accomplished in the present in order to avoid the downfall as it does in the unexpected opportunities for change that may yet emerge in a post-apocalyptic world.  So - not so much a warning of what might happen if "deplorable behavior" of adults "continues unchecked" - after all, the deplorable behaviors are those of adults, of the adult world over which children have little control (and which anyway seem to be spiraling so far beyond anyone's control that some sort of apex seems inevitable). But rather, there is an underlying message of encouragement and consolation: that even if all IS lost, there may yet be hope. Invariably, that hope is embodied in the children and youth at the centre of the narrative - in turn transferred onto the young readers themselves. This is what Sambell means, I think, when she talks about dystopian novels for children as different from those for adults, in that they are not warning the reader of an approaching societal collapse so much as suggesting that a better life/alternative way may nonetheless be assembled from the ruins. This is what Sambell is describing when she states that children’s authors (and, I would argue, other children's media producers) are “reluctant to depict the extinction of hope within their stories.”

And while I agree with Miller that dystopian youth titles (at least the ones that I've read so far) do indeed explore "what's happening, right this minute" in the lives and psyches of the young readers, I think it's misguided to limit that to immediate contexts such as home, school and peer groups. Young readers, from very young children to adolescents, also experience social change and global politics, grapple with the horrors of war and global warming - much more than they are given credit for. Dystopian fiction serves the same function for young people as it does for older people - as a forum for exploring worries and fears about the state of the world, as an exercise in imagining worst case scenarios, and a space for "testing" possible strategies and responses. These larger issues do, as Miller suggests, overlap and coincide with more immediate issues - but then again they do in adult dystopian fiction as well. The links between the future and the present, the fantastical and the tangible (or as Miller calls them "universal experiences"), are what enable us to understand dystopian fiction as stories about contemporary issues - and in a more quotidian way, what often enable us to understand our own relationships with more abstract, global and social phenomena in the first place.

© 2010 skellingt0n: Fan imagining of a
The Hunger Games movie poster (DeviantArt)

Anyway, the article is a thought provoking one that sent me hunting down articles and books on the subject, and potentially down an interesting path to add down the line to my research program. It also made me think about all of the other examples of dystopian fiction in children's lit and media - and the similarities with other genres that share an emphasis on the darker aspects of childhood (as found in Where the Wild Things Are, Mirror Mask, Coraline, which explore feelings of powerlessness, etc.). Certainly Wall-E popped into my mind immediately as a sort of "post-apocalypse" narrative that chooses not to present the "dystopia" as completely irreversible and totally impossible, and give the viewers that reassurance at the end that there may still be hope somewhere down the line. There's certainly a lot to explore here, and now that I've tracked down some of the literature, I plan on doing just that.


Lisa said...

Am I the only one that noticed that the Hunger Games is a re-working of the Minotaur myth? The flower of Athenian youth were rounded up (by the Athenians themselves) and sent as tributes to Minoa where they were sent into the Labyrinth to feed the Minotaur.

Sara M. Grimes said...

You're so right - the young tributes and the tricked out "arena" is in many ways much like the labyrinth of the Minotaur myth.