Some of the most memorable books I read as a teen were dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories, what were categorized most often as adult science fiction back when I was reading them. I think most of my sixth grade class read EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart after my older brother gave it to me and I passed it along to friends when I finished. It’s still one of the books I remember most clearly.
Now that I write myself (not dystopians, at least not yet), I’ve been fascinated to see the rise in popularity of young adult dystopian fiction in recent years. I’ve discovered it is far harder for me as an adult to face these stories now. Yesterday, I checked out THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH by Carrie Ryan from the library. I started it when I got home and read until 2:00 AM because I just had to find out what happened. At times, I wanted to put the book down, because at my age I’ve experienced far too much real-life loss and grief and sadness and rage at things I can’t change to make it easy to read about those feelings in others. But I know I’m not the target audience for these stories.
My conflicted feelings about dystopians, and the change in how I read them made me wonder what exactly it is about them that pulls people in. Clearly, the intensity of the emotion is one reason, and as with so many good stories, the feeling of wondering how you, the reader, would feel and act if you were in those situations.
Dystopians are important beyond the story though, because outside of getting drawn into fascinating and unique situations, these types of books show that the world as we know it is not the only possibility. While life is not easy for everyone now, most of us in the more prosperous societies are far better off than at any other time in history. But life could have turned out differently for us, based not on our choices, but on the choices and events controlled by those in power in a past we didn’t experience.
These stories raise the questions of “What if?” What if a science experiment had gone wrong? What if a disease had developed that couldn’t be controlled? What if a crazy person had come to power and others had not tried to fight him? What if we let only a few dictate the rules of society?
While no one is purposefully reading YA dystopians for the lessons they can teach, they can make readers aware that paying attention to how society functions is important. They can show us we can’t assume the future will follow a perfect path, and we, in a small way or a major way, may be able to influence a part of it in what we choose to do with our lives, in how involved we get in the political process, in how we raise our children, or in what we study and pursue as a career. All in all, they expand the small bubble each of us lives in to see the greater world beyond us. And that’s a good thing. I want my own children to read these books.
If you are looking for some classic dystopian or apocalyptic books to read to see what came before the YA trend, here’s a list of a few possibilities.
THE TIME MACHINE by H.G. Wells
BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley
NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by George Orwell
FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury
THE CHRYSALIDS by John Wyndham
THE HANDMAID’S TALE by Margaret Atwood
ON THE BEACH by Nevil Shute
EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert A. Heinlein