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Don’t Diss Dystopia

For dystopian fiction, March 23rd, 2012 is shaping up to be what November 21st, 2008 was for paranormal romance; a global coming out party for a hot genre of young adult storytelling. The launch of ‘The Hunger Games’ film from Lionsgate will cement ‘dystopia’ as a legitimate, multi-media genre as it makes the leap from bookshop shelves to multiplex screens.

With my own novel recently referred to as ‘dystopian,’ I caught myself wondering the following: what does it say about our young people when tales of authoritarian, broken, or violent societies can knock gorgeous vampires off the best-sellers lists?

The world over, we live in troubling times.  As a teen reader facing a future of daunting tuition fees (astronomical in the U.S., climbing in the U.K.), a punishing job market for graduates, a nuclear stalemate with Iran, and an environmental trajectory that promises climate change and water scarcity, it’s no wonder these bleak futures hold such appeal.  They make the present look pretty peachy!

But beyond the futuristic settings and clever “what if” scenarios, there is something inspiring in this current wave of dystopian fiction.  As a teenager, I read Orwell and Huxley and found both 1984 and Brave New World to be gripping reads, but utterly depressing visions of the future.

The traction cities (Philip Reeve), Prentisstowns (Patrick Ness), and Capitols (Suzanne Collins) of today’s youth-flavoured dystopia are no less frightening than Orwell’s Oceania and Huxley’s World State, but the outlook is decidedly more optimistic and hopeful.

Whereas Winston Smith cracks under Big Brother’s torture and John ‘the Savage’ hangs himself, the heroes of this current wave of stark future fiction rise above their obstacles and present tales of human triumph over tyranny.  They are the Arab Spring of today’s literature.

Author Kate Messner’s recent TED talk explores the notion that young people can intellectually experiment with building a better world when faced with a broken one in fiction.

This certainly mirrors my own early experience.  My first encounter with dystopian fiction came at the age of 11 (sixth grade in Canada) when I read a riveting account of an accidental nuclear bombing of Los Angeles in Gloria D. Miklowitz’s ‘After the Bomb.’  The dystopian world of post-atomic Los Angeles was horrific and gave me nightmares for weeks; and I couldn’t get enough of it.  I can only imagine how I would have been even more captivated and engaged had today’s online and transmedia storytelling tools been available for that text.  The hero’s journey, though plagued with death and loss, was ultimately a hopeful one and left me wanting more.

I suspect I must have channeled that first, indelible experience when creating the world of my new novel, MetaWars.  It’s been called dystopian (a word I didn’t actually know when I started it) but at its heart it is a tale of one young man’s coming of age in an unforgiving, post peak-oil future where we all interface through a virtual world. I’m current working closely with the publisher, Orchard Books, to build an immersive transmedia experience, primarily web based, to draw readers into the world of the Guardians and the Millennials, and introduce them to the concepts and characters in the book.  It’s my hope that this content will start to feed the insatiable curiosity that young people have for the rules, constructs, and machinations of fictional universes.   In today’s multi-platform environment, I don’t want to disappoint a reader who wants to dig deeper into the world.

With dystopian fiction, giving readers more to digest might turn them into futurists; better understanding a vision of what might be so they can strive to shape a future that’s not so bleak.

The economic, geo-political, and environmental challenges of today, however terrifying, are eminently solvable and if the generation coming of age with today’s dystopian fiction is reading tall tales of human triumph over adversity, I have every reason to be optimistic.

Jeff Norton is the author of MetaWars: Fight for the Future, which publishes in August from Orchard Books. @thejeffnorton

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