Mockingjay: We’ve had enough! Bring on dystopian lit!

Posted August 18, 2010 by 11 Comments

We’re not gonna take it, no we ain’t gonna take it! We’re not gonna take it anymore!” 

So go the lyrics from a 1984 song by Twisted Sister (yeah, I know most of you weren’t even born yet). But that quote sums up the main idea behind dystopian literature — including The Hunger Games.

As a general rule, dystopian stories take place “in societies where the people live in constant fear and control of their governing body, live meaningless lives and have very little hope for any amount of change to take place.”

In many dystopian books and movies, things never get better — the protagonist never realizes the change he or she seeks. In YA lit, however — and especially The Hunger Games — the characters take action against their oppressors. (We won’t know how it ultimately turns out until Mockingjay is released Aug. 24.)

I recently had a micro-conversation about dystopian lit with Shiver author Maggie Stiefvater after she tweeted the following:

I asked if, perhaps, the authors didn’t ask the questions on purpose, so readers are forced to stretch a bit and think for themselves. She wasn’t optimistic:

Indeed, dytopian lit usually needs to have a purpose or serve as an allegory (see below). It’s the ones that don’t that bother Maggie:

For an EXCELLENT discussion of the recent boom in YA dystopian lit, I recommend reading an article called “Fresh Hell” by Laura Miller of The New Yorker. She mentions not only The Hunger Games, but also When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, Uglies by Scott Westerfield and The Maze Runner by James Dashner (among others).

In describing the point of the books, Miller writes:

If … you consider the [Hunger] games as a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience, they become perfectly intelligible. Adults dump teen-agers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it’s supposed to be. The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else. To survive you have to be totally fake.

Sounds like fun, right? Welcome to dystopian literature and may the odds be ever in your favor!

Below is a list of stand-outs in dystopian literature. For an extensive list of current YA dystopian lit, visit Bart’s Bookshelf.

Old-School(-ish) Classics

  • The Time Machine (1895) by H. G. Wells
  • Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley
  • Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell
  • Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury
  • Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding
  • Atlas Shrugged (1957) by Ayn Rand
  • A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess
  • The Running Man (1982) by Stephen King
  • The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood

Recent YA

  • Uglies (2005) by Scott Westerfeld
  • Chaos Walking trilogy (2008-2010) by Patrick Ness
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth (2009) and The Dead-Tossed Waves (2010) by Carrie Ryan
  • The Maze Runner (2009) by James Dashner
  • Incarceron (2010) by Catherine Fisher
  • Restoring Harmony (2010) by Joelle Anthony

For the comments: Why is dystopian lit on the rise? Have you read any of these? 1984 by Orwell is my personal favorite, but I didn’t really “get” it until I was a little older. Does YA dystopian lit help remedy that age gap in understanding?

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11 responses to “Mockingjay: We’ve had enough! Bring on dystopian lit!

  1. Until the last year or so, I didn’t even really realize that we had a name for this genre, but for some reason, I have always been attracted to it. On your top list I have read The Time Machine, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, 1984, and The Handmaid’s Tale. Of the YA list I have read all but two (Chaos Walking, which I will have to read in the next month for my committee deadline, and Restoring Harmony). I can’t exactly explain my attraction to the genre, except to say that I like seeing how the protagonists take a stand against incredible odds. Reading dystopian lit, is like always rooting for the underdog. It is also fascinating to speculate on what got us to this point in the first place–how did we screw up so badly that fundamental freedoms are lost. I think the new YA versions do help teens relate to the situations better. Look at Cory Doctorow’s book Little Brother, it would go hand in hand with 1984, and might be a little more approachable for teens. It is something they could understand and relate to and kind of answers that question as to how a society came to be that way. In the end though for me, it is is the thought that no matter how unrealistic, the little guy can come out on top and change the world for the better.

      • And thank you for such a thoughtful comment! I haven’t read a lot of the above books, but I do like the genre — I think it can be applied to so many situations and used as an allegory/warning for many of the things we see going on today.

  2. As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I think that dystopian lit is great fodder for thought/ discussion in schools (and in other forums) because it allows us to examine the ills that exist in our current society without feeling like we have to defend it. Because they take place in “other” worlds, be don’t need to feel like the parable is pointing the finger at specific people or specific countries. This distance makes it more interesting to think about solutions to social and environmental issues that exist in our current world.

    Interesting discussion. This is my favorite genre!!

    • YES. Well said. And I might add that it’s important (for me) that the author not be explicit about the “ill” they are examining because that tends to get political and preachy, which is a total turnoff for me. We’ve got some essay and project ideas coming up and there’s one about President Snow that addresses this in a roundabout way.

  3. mlaiuppa

    Don’t forget Neil Shusterman’s Unwind. Great for a discussion of some of the current political disagreements and how Unwind has resolved them. Or not.

  4. I would like to recommend a book with the same genre, ‘ Noli Me Tangere’ ( touch me not) written by Dr. Jose P. Rizal our Philippine national hero….Everything in this book was written in an allegory form, The protagonist name, Ibarra. The oppressors, Padre Damaso a friar and the spanish civil guards..this book is part of our secondary education curriculum here in the Philippines. This is one of my favourite books coz not everyone is able to comprehend and appreciate the symbols being used in this book..

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