Dystopian Young Adult Fiction and the Future of the Future


The latest film to feature teenagers in a dystopian future is Divergent, directed by Neil Burger and starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, and Kate Winslet, and based on the novel by Veronica Wroth. I haven’t yet seen the film, and the book struck me as a rather clumsy representation of the future, in which society has divided into factions based on allegorized personality types. Triss, our teenage girl hero, is Divergent, which means her abilities extend to more than one of the factions in this future society.
But I’m not interested in reviewing either the film or the book. I’m interested in what lies behind these dystopic renderings of the future featuring teenagers as their central characters. Commentator’s on young adult fiction and teen fantasy offer many reasons why the genre lends itself to depictions of the future, not the least of which is the nature of adolescence itself as a time of emotional upheaval and physical changes in the crossing of the threshold between childhood and adulthood.
Having said this, one of the major tropes that finds its way into teen fiction is that of the love triangle: a teenage girl, often the narrator, who sees herself as plain and sometimes bookish, and who finds herself suddenly in love with two boys, both of whom find her compelling and irresistible. Think of the Twilight books. I know you’ve read them too.
Two of the best examples of this type of teenage fantasy set in the future are the Matched series by Ally Condie and The Hunger Games books by Susanne Collins. While most books of this type have the girl hero caught between the love of two boys, The Hunger Games offers a more complex and compelling variant of the story.
My question is, has this particular story of teenage romance in a dystopic future burned itself out? Will we continue to get characters such as Triss, Cassia, and Katniss who have to negotiate their way between romance and the politics of the future? And why the wide appeal? These are, after all, books and films that focus on seventeen year-old girls. Is the popularity of such books and films fast becoming a teen fetish or a cultural obsession with adolescence?
I have love dystopian fiction since first reading H. G. Wells the Time Machine at age twelve. The teenage romance novel is one that seeks to find a home inside other genres, in particular the supernatural. Perhaps it will eventually tire of wearing dystopian clothes and move on to dominate some other genre.
By the way, if you want more dystopian fiction that isn’t really about teenage romance, read Lois Lowry’s Son, the conclusion to the series that began with the giver. Intensely frustrating books in their own way, but still good dystopian stuff.