Like the flu virus, the genre of dystopic novels for young adults has many strains. The one featuring a teenage girl battling for her life got a massive boost in the fall of 2008, when the first volume of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy was published. Collins’s franchise has more than 23.5 million books in print and a movie adaptation due out next week, while new entries in the genre keep pouring forth, eagerly welcomed by fans and Hollywood.
Why have readers been so drawn to catastrophic futures when the present seems troubled enough? Why are young heroines thrust into ruined worlds and then routinely hunted, harassed, or beaten into unconsciousness? A New York Times forum on the grim dystopia boom featured one novelist in the genre asserting that teens in our mismanaged times are demanding to read “something that isn’t a lie.” Writing on the phenomenon in The New Yorker, critic Laura Miller wondered if the authoritarian societies that dominate the trend are analogues to the oppressive world of high-school students, who are constantly monitored and hassled and forced to compete.
Neither theory quite pins down the appeal of the new damsels in distress: They’re not waiting for someone else to save them or the world. In these post-collapse cultures, the climate has indeed changed (not for the better) and democracy is a long-ago fad. Some of the stories take the Mad Max anarchic path, where all wealth has disappeared from view. In authoritarian versions, resources have become even more concentrated at the top than they are today, and Big Brother can count on major military backup. To counter the doomsday scenarios, the main characters need humanity and nerve enough to act on their discontent and to fight, almost constantly and sometimes selflessly, for some measure of control.
In the land of Panem—North America after drought, storms, encroaching seas, and war—The Hunger Games’ narrator, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to replace her preteen sister, chosen by lottery to compete in the country’s televised youth-sacrifice extravaganza. Katniss, as one of two “tributes” from each of Panem’s geographically distinct areas, prepares to represent the coal-mining stronghold of District 12—“Where you can starve to death in safety.”
While The Hunger Games begins in Appalachia, three more recent dystopias, Marie Lu’s Legend, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and Moira Young’s Blood Red Road (all the first of trilogies, optioned by the likes of Ridley Scott and the producers of Twilight), rise up out of, respectively, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the American flatlands that have been reduced to a second Dust Bowl. In each case, the teenage-girl narrator has grown up sheltered in a zone of relative comfort. Her troubles multiply as society’s flaws are revealed to her and she must fight for survival and the safety of her family.
In Divergent, civil war has divided people into a ruling class (itself carved into five subgroups) and the dreaded sphere of “the factionless,” who suffer out of sight performing menial labors. In Legend, natural disasters have split the former U.S. in two—the Republic versus the Colonies—along a line running from the Dakotas to West Texas; masses in the Republic suffer poverty and plague, while an inoculated elite train for the military and government. In Blood Red Road, what led to the anarchic state of affairs isn’t well understood: “Could of bin plague or hunger or thirst or wars,” says the illiterate narrator. “Or maybe all of ’em at once. The Wreckers did it all.”
At the start of The Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss has no thoughts of future happiness or bringing children into this cruel world. But seeing her sense of injustice mirrored in Peeta, District 12’s boy tribute, strengthens her. While Capitol residents enjoy luxuries like a shower with a hundred options and delicacies such as goose liver on demand, the miserable majority has nothing. Why, Katniss wants to know, does society so oppress its starving citizens? Peeta is similarly incensed. He’s also devoted to her—and broad-shouldered and handsome—but all that is less important to Katniss than his principled actions.
Perhaps not coincidentally, an ideal young man shows up in other recent dystopias, so dependably that he may well need a defining term—Awesome Boyfriend, a kind of foil to Big Brother. He is strong, emotionally available, capable of altruism, and, yes, striking in appearance (Divergent’s fellow has eyes that are “dark blue, a dreaming, sleeping, waiting color”), and he treats the heroine of the story as his equal from the start. (The boys’ curious names—such as Divergent’s Four and Legend’s Day, a co-narrator—hardly matter.)
In this new formula, the blessings of Awesome Boyfriend must be balanced out, it’s true, with hand-to-hand combat, blinding pain, extensive bruising, and close calls with death. The heroine may begin by fighting for her life, but she eventually gets caught up alongside her thoughtful and defiant love interest in the plights of other groups of people, like enslaved workers or victims of government-sponsored mind control.
By the end of Divergent, Legend, and Blood Red Road, the three couples have become rebels against a despoiled state, sprung from locked-in systems into unfamiliar territory. The relationships will be stressed and tested in future books—as Katniss and Peeta’s was in battling not one but two regimes in the Hunger Games trilogy. But the young women and men will apparently go forward together, partners in crime and world salvation. In this recession-battered age, these four authors (including two in their mid-20s) present the wild possibility of love and social change amid the ruins. If there’s hope in dystopias, what’s impossible in our world?