Reason has a good think piece by Amy Sturgis on the political content of popular YA (Young Adult) dystopias, compared with the “sensawunda” (sense of wonder) of Golden Age science fiction with its technological optimism. “Not Your Parents’ Dystopias”:
Anyone who has wandered by a bookstore or a movie theater lately knows the kids these days love a nice dystopia. Their heroes are Katniss from Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, Tris from Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, Thomas from James Dashner’s Maze Runner novels. The number of English-language dystopian novels published from 2000 to 2009 quadrupled that of the previous decade, and not quite four years into the 2010s, we have already left that decade’s record in the dust….
Youth-oriented fiction about worlds gone awry is not new. The tradition stretches back generations and involves works now revered as classics. Some of the giants of what was then called juvenile science fiction — Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Poul Anderson — wrote what now would be classified as YA dystopias. But the exponential recent growth of the genre suggests something else at play: a generation’s lost wonder and mounting anxiety.
In the Golden Age of science fiction (which may be measured roughly from the time John W. Campbell Jr. came into his full powers as editor of Astounding Stories in 1938 until the time Michael Moorcock’s editorship of New Worlds in 1964 signaled the rise of the New Wave), worlds gone wrong often served as catalysts for young protagonists to pluck up their courage, exercise their agency, and affect change. The titular character in Heinlein’s Starman Jones (1953), Max Jones, inherits a bleak Earth depleted of natural resources. Hereditary guilds have the planet in a stranglehold, regulating information and determining what (if any) profession an individual may pursue. Young Max’s options are few, and his dream of being an “astrogator” in space seems completely out of reach. The risk-taking, indefatigable character pursues his goal anyway, ultimately finding himself in the right place and time to showcase his hard-won skill and — just as important — moral integrity.
Max’s scientific expertise and common sense save lives and win the day. When he finally confesses to lying his way past the rules that would have excluded him from gaining the position at which he excels, that only serves to illustrate how wrong-minded the laws are. The novel ends with Jones not only secure in his chosen calling but paving the way for changes to the oppressive guild system.
These early dystopias showed young men, and sometimes even young women, facing down dangers in their fallen worlds with determination and commitment. The novels suggested that the forward march of freedom and science may meet grave obstacles and even grind to a halt, but if young people rise to the occasion, the story doesn’t have to end there.
Heinlein gave his characters agency — that is, they were able to meaningfully effect outcomes not only for themselves, but for their larger society. Individual effort, knowledge, and pluck, usually with the help of wise older mentors, could triumph over injustice and restrictions on freedom. The Heinlein juveniles, written in simplified style and beginning with relatively unimaginative plots, became increasingly sophisticated until his publisher rejected Starship Troopers for outgrowing the intended youthful audience. The typical protagonist of a Heinlein juvenile is a bright but inexperienced young man from a disadvantaged background who has to learn the ropes and use his wits to make his way into a leadership role in his society–and his female characters also were portrayed as intelligent and strong, often helping the protagonist at a key point with superior knowledge of the social system. It’s interesting that Social Justice Warriors, in their attack on Heinlein and all Golden Age science fiction as essentially patriarchal and in need of political guidance, fail to notice how progressive Heinlein actually was for his era (the 1950s and 60s.) The juveniles are still empowering for both boys and girls, and a protagonist like Podkayne in Podkayne of Mars is a modern empowered girl, with some stereotypically feminine aspects but fully capable of agency in tough situations.
Those Golden Age dystopian visions were balanced by another subgenre of juvenile science fiction popular at the time: tales that portrayed the future as exciting new territory full of marvels and possibilities. Contemporary scholars classify these books as “sensawunda” works, because they conveyed a sense of wonder in contemplating tomorrow.
The poster child for this phenomenon is Tom Swift, the hero of more than 100 novels across five fiction series. In the 1950s, while Heinlein’s Max Jones was fighting for his life and struggling for his livelihood, young Tom was inventing new technologies in his basement (our modern word Taser is an acronym for “Tom A. Swift’s Electric Rifle”), journeying underwater and into space, thwarting baddies of all descriptions, and illustrating just how cool the future would be.
Tom Swift had a triphibian atomicar. Where have all the triphibian atomicars gone now? The millennials, it seems, don’t want a ride….
I’m not sure it is the lack of interest of millennials in technological optimism that has lead to this drought in technology-positive YA science fiction. It may be that very little is getting published because boy’s dreams of agency — the powerful dream of being effective and admired for skill and courage — are no longer seen as important by publishing gatekeepers, now mostly coming out of non-scientific academic literature backgrounds. The videogame industry is now the primary source of young male empowerment fantasies, and it, too, is under siege from the Social Justice Warriors who want its themes to support their political vision of social justice, meaning all visions of the future must be screened for heretical thought — note this month’s war over game politics and SJW influence: “The Gaming Community is not a Wretched Hive of Sexism and Misogyny.” I have personally had my book downgraded by a literary establishment sort for incorrect thoughts — my chapter on entitled Fairy Tale thinking (and the many young women who were brought up with unrealistic expectations of being Princesses catered to by fawning males) was flagged as misogynistic.
The legacy publishing industry has been hiring bright young grads from the academy for some time, and critical mass has been achieved: political screening is now a reality. That is why depressing and unimaginative tales with little commercial appeal (like Pills and Starships) get promoted and plugged on NPR and in the Washington Post and go on to fizzle, while optimistic and empowering science fiction is mostly being self-published. This is because few in publishing now have any education or respect for the sciences and technology:
Another difference between yesteryear’s dystopias and today’s: The older authors were usually either trained in the sciences (Heinlein was a naval engineer; Anderson earned a B.A. in physics) or sympathetic to them (Norton, a librarian, conducted her own research). Like the pioneering author/editor Hugo Gernsback, they believed that quality futuristic fiction could seduce readers into a love affair with science and show them the possibilities it held for a better tomorrow. Thus Anderson’s teenage hero Carl, in Vault of the Ages (1952), ends a future dark ages by unearthing and reintroducing advanced technology to the world. Progress and science walk hand in hand, these authors implied, and no one is in a better position to appreciate this fact than young people.
Today, science is often portrayed as the problem rather than the solution. Many current authors, children’s literature scholar Noga Applebaum notes in her outstanding 2009 study “Representations of Technology in Science Fiction for Young People,” are neither trained in nor sympathetic to the sciences. In fact, a majority of the many novels she analyzes vilify the over-polluted, over-complicated, and over-indulgent present while glorifying the past and the pastoral, a kind of mythical pre-industrial, pre-commercial, subsistence existence — in short, the kind of dark ages that Poul Anderson’s teen hero Carl brought to a welcome end in Vault of the Ages.
As active participants in the contemporary world, young readers are dished a heaping plate of guilt and self-loathing. Why is there global warming, or worldwide poverty, or runaway disease? The answer is as close as the millennials’ smartphones and tablets and gaming systems: Youth and innovation and modernity are to blame.
David Patneade’s Epitaph Road (2010) throws in everything but the kitchen sink when describing the sheer trial of being alive in the oh-so-terrible year of 2010: it was a “world of poverty and hunger and crime and disease and greed and dishonesty and prejudice and war and genocide and religious bigotry and runaway population growth and abuse of the environment and immigration strife and you-get-the-leftovers educational policies and a hundred other horrors.”
Saci Lloyd goes a step further in her award-winning The Carbon Diaries: 2015 (2008). Teen heroine Laura apparently is part of the problem by pursuing a music career with her band, gaining a following online, and benefitting from how easy it is to record and distribute music digitally. She only becomes part of the solution after abandoning her music to become a commune-dwelling, pig-raising, socially conscious activist-though not before performing the novel’s anthem, “Death to Capitalism….”
Are these works the literary equivalent of yelling at those darned kids to get off your lawn, oldsters scolding the youngsters for their perceived failings? Applebaum thinks so, arguing that the trend toward technophobia exposes “adults’ reluctance to embrace the changing face of childhood and the shift in the power dynamic which accompanies this change.” Viewed through its attitudes about technology, she writes, “literature aimed at young people is exposed afresh as problematic, a socialization agent serving adults’ agenda.” Certain adults’ agenda, to be sure.
The biggest exceptions to these trends can be found in the Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010), which celebrates self-reliance, individual choice, and markets (like The Hob), while warning readers against those who gravitate toward power. (Suzanne Collins also masterfully answers the classic question “Who was right, Aldous Huxley or George Orwell?” by agreeing with both.) But although the Hunger Games novels and their film adaptations are an undeniable sensation, they also represent something of an outlier in terms of theme.
Another exception — or partial exception — is the work of Cory Doctorow. Doctorow’s novels depict technology as the natural ally of youth. The millennials are at a tremendous advantage in the 21st-century landscape, he proposes, because unlike their elders they grew up with a high degree of comfort with both technology and its continual state of change. But even Doctorow’s novels tell a sobering story about the present.
Whether it’s the hackers of Little Brother (2008) and Homeland (2013) or the fan filmmakers of Pirate Cinema (2012), Doctorow’s teen protagonists are routinely forced to defend themselves from older interests who are supported by the government simply because they are more powerful and entrenched in the system. The mighty surveillance state will not disappear, readers realize time and again; the most that kids can hope for is to watch the watchers and let them know that the scrutiny goes both ways. Readers cheer on the gutsy young heroes fighting for their liberty, but we also mourn all the time and effort and creative energy they lose in the struggle simply to stay free and see another day. Their best-case scenario is to fight the powers-that-be to a stalemate.
More on the politics of YA dystopias:
More on the legacy publishing-indie battle: