January 9, 2011

A Slice of PIE: ANOTHER Take On the Popularity of Young Adult/Teen Dystopian Novels

As a former employee at my local Barnes & Noble, I have watched the swelling number of dark, grim and sometimes horrific YA/teen novels spill off the shelves. No, I’m not talking about the vampire books and their gradually more gruesome clones that seem to be trying to outdo one another with bodily fluid spatter. I’m talking about science fiction and speculative fiction stories that have as their focus some level of planetary apocalypse. Last summer I thought I’d write a PIE on why I think YA/T dystopian novels are popular. Instead, I wrote a novel in which Humanity has a FUTURE. After reading the following articles, I am no longer surprised that it hasn’t sold.

Recently, an internet friend of mine blogged “YA Fiction: The Upside of the Dark Side” (http://mikeduran.com/?p=11099). I regularly read Mike Duran and apparently he has found that this trend is a “Big Deal” and is generating lots of talk. His column was prompted by “The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction” (http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/12/26/the-dark-side-of-young-adult-fiction).

What I find strange, is that I was going to write the PIE after reading this Lois Tilton article in Locus, “2010 Short Fiction Reviews in Review” (15Dec2010 -- http://www.locusmag.com/Reviews/2010/12/lois-tiltons-2010-short-fiction-reviews-in-review/). In it, she says, “Interzone remains just about my favorite source of SF. I often wish some of the older, more tired printzines could get an infusion of its energy with its strangely imagined, often dark futures….[in] Strange Horizons…my picks are the dystopian…”

I suppose I find this strange because after reading Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD and George Orwell’s 1984 as a kid, I turned to science fiction that heralded a hope-filled future. I feasted on the juveniles by Heinlein, Norton, Nourse and Bova and fell in love with STAR TREK. There was a profound hope for the future, and while there were warnings, the sense was that the future was something to which we could look forward.

Then all these people grew up and they didn’t get their flying cars and Lunar Colonies and Voyages to Arcturus…

All of the people talking about dystopias and dystopian literature for young adults and teens (at the risk of offending the already injured party, I’m gonna call them “kids” from here on (I know, kids are young goats; in this case, think of those goats as the "scape-" variety...)) are ADULTS. Possibly disgruntled, hurt and deeply disappointed adults.

As they pontificate (and political speechify) about how much these kids need to be realistic about the future, they seem to be missing a few important points: it ain’t the kids who are writing books set in dystopian futures in which everyone is forced to look beautiful, the Moon has been struck by an asteroid and is too close, or overpopulation and dictatorship has forced a Roman Circus on America. It is adults that are writing dystopian novels for this age group. It ain’t the KIDS who buy manuscripts, publish them, create advertising campaigns for, review, order, ship and display these grim, hopeless novels on bookstore floors.

WHO is it who’s fascinated with dystopia and laying their pain and disappointment with technology, politics and science? Sorry folks, it ain’t the kids.

Who can offer HOPE? It ain’t the kids.

Kids have enough problems without adding global apocalypse to the mix. I know – I’ve been a classroom teacher and counselor since 1981. I may not have heard it all, but I’ve heard a lot of it. Enough to wonder why adults are surprised that suicide and homicide are the second and third most common cause of death in 15-24 year olds. (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001915.htm)) Though I am appalled by adults who aren’t surprised that so many kids commit suicide, I am convinced that youth are supposed to be hopeful and full of bright dreams.

My OPINION is that WE have the problem. It seems to me that many adults have chosen to abdicate our responsibility AS adults – one of those responsibilities being to create and offer HOPE – in favor of pissing and moaning over the messes we’ve made in the past (there are probably only a couple of teenagers on the BP Board of Directors, the Federal Trade Commision, the Government of India or in charge of waste treatment in China). Those same adults then assume that kids will make the same mistakes their elders made. Even Mike Duran appears to feel fine about communicating a subtext of “Why bother? Come on and join your elders and wisers in pissing and moaning about the future.”

Am I angry? Yer dern tootin’ I am! ‘cause as a high school and middle school teacher, I’ve had a ringside seat to the deepening sense of gloom and doom WE have loaded onto our kids. I have/had two of them in my own home. I can say unequivocally that if it weren’t for a certain faith perspective they would constantly feel the crushing weight of that presumably “adult” dystopian view rather than only intermittently feeling it.

Kids also know very well that the adults who are supposed to be responsible for them are walking around with doom and gloom and sighing.

There is very little “out there” that gives them cause to hope. Us included. Maybe it’s time WE picked up our responsibility again and GIVE them some.

BTW – why do we seem to believe that Heinlein, Norton and all the others who wrote hopeful juvenile fiction felt any better about their future than we do? After the first explosion of the atomic bomb in 1945, did the future look real bright and rosy? Hiding under desks to escape a nuclear explosion or (and I REMEMBER these) “Fallout Drills” where we headed to the locker rooms under the school to escape radioactive fallout following a nuclear attack seemed decidedly scary and unhopeful. But the ADULTS I read gave cause for hope. Not the kind of pie-in-the-sky, namby pamby, wishy washy hope that Mike Duran, a couple of the editorialists and more than a few commenters feel we’ll be pedaling to our kids if we aren’t brutally honest about the grimness of the future! Of COURSE kids know when we’re pandering! They’re young, not stupid! But how about we DON’T pander and just grant that there is hope for the future – and that maybe that hope lies with THEM!

Mike Duran concludes: “The upside of dystopian YA novels is that they accurately reflect our grim future. The downside is that conventional wisdom has no way to stop that future from happening.

Why do we think that we’ve cornered the wholesale market on “grim future”?

While I agree with his conclusion wholeheartedly, I disagree as well. The evangelical church as a whole is convinced that these are THE End Times. That this is IT. That WE are the last generation. Jesus will OBVIOUSLY come back Some Time Real Soon!

May I point out that the Church has been feeling that way for the past 2010 years? Every time has its pundits who are positive that theirs is the “last” generation. Every decade is certain that Things Can’t Get Any Worse and what’s the matter with kids today?. And while conventional wisdom cannot stop the future from happening, it may not happen for ANOTHER 2010 years. What do we do in the meantime: prepare our kids to be “realistic” about the world and accept that things are gonna go to hellinahandbasket Some Time Real Soon and not to bother to try to do anything better, (Besides, we already tried THAT and it didn’t work)?

Or do we set them up for the possibility that they will have to build a future on what they have now – and like every generation has done before them, work to make it better than the past?

In order to build they need HOPE.

And it had better start coming from US – atheists, agnostics, angry or born-again, baptized in the Spirit Christians. It had BETTER start coming from us.

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