I’ve been reading dystopian YA for as long as I can remember…well, 2008. I used to find such pleasure in these types of books, but lately, I can barely make it through the first few chapters. The Hunger Games, of course, holds a special place in my heart, but I can’t shake the feeling that this niche has run its course.
A few weeks ago, I started The Selection by Kiera Cass. After all of the hype and best-of lists, I could barely contain my excitement when I opened to the first page…and then I began reading. It felt familiar. Too familiar. The book starts with an impoverished, female protagonist explaining the caste system in her world mid-manual labor. Her mother relies way too much on her, and a handsome, hardworking, family-oriented guy is in the picture. It’s at this point in the book that I decide to stop reading.
The next book I picked up is almost identical. Red Queen begins with a young, female protagonist pickpocketing for survival. Hot-guy-friend tension right out of the gate. World-building exposition.
While The Selection‘s cast system is defined by numbers (District 12 anyone?) and Red Queen by colors, it’s impossible to ignore the similarities. To be fair, I haven’t given either of these books a fair chance or read enough of either to know exactly how different they are – but I don’t really care.
The disappointing thing about this genre is how overtly formulaic it is now. In a sea of Twilight (2005), The Hunger Games‘ (2008) felt like a breath of fresh air. I remember thinking, “The writing isn’t all that great, but damn, I haven’t read anything like this before.” Yes, you can draw comparisons to Lord of the Flies, Battle Royal, and so on, but Suzanne Collins took the Twilight love triangle and smashed it to pieces.
Twilight was a particularly disturbing YA phase. While it isn’t a dystopian novel, it is a bleak look at the future of relationships. The female protagonist, Bella, is helpless, in an arguably-abusive relationship, and her biggest life decision is choosing between two guys.
Katniss, on the other hand, is completely self-sufficient, strategic, selfless, brave, and she doesn’t have the luxury of getting lost in her love triangle.
Pretty kick-ass protagonist, right? Not in 2017. Everything I once loved about The Hunger Games is what I now hate about the genre. There are a million Katniss Everdeens in unfair class systems with two hot guys, a crappy mom, and some kind of competition/game/selection to win.
All of this is a far cry from where dystopia started, which begs the question: at what point are these books making real, thoughtful commentary on society? Or are they merely capitalizing on the genre’s popularity and rendering dystopia meaningless?
Dystopia sort of makes sense for young adults. When you’re young, everything feels like the end of the world.
You may have noticed that in every YA novel the parents are either dead, abusive, absent, or flawed to the point that the protagonist must become self-sufficient, which is meant to reflect children’s disillusionment with their parents and the desire to grow up. And while the use of class as a conduit for teen angst is highly questionable, I can understand why teens connect so deeply with dystopia.
But can we please do something different?