New Dystopian Futures: Five YA Writers That Changed the Genre

Dystopian visions of the future are nothing new. From The Time Machine to Mad Max, authors and film makers have always taken a bleak look at the future, wary of the promises made by politicians. Instead of a golden age of technology and an assurance of being paid not to work, we have watched as jobs are lost to automation, and families find themselves struggling with debt, in line with their dire predictions.

But recently the focus has widened from the gap between rich and poor among older adults to encompass the gap between generations – one that once had it all and the one that must do without. The following books and their subsequent movies fall into the Young Adult category, expressing the fears and doubts their intended audience feels for the future.

Battle Royale: One of the first to focus on the growing disaffection between youth and age, Kushan Takami’s novel was rejected at first but after publication became a best seller in Japan in spite of its horrific content, Battle Royale took a brutal look at the generation gap, and the older generations’ attempts to control the young through their music and schooling. Instead of helping youth find meaningful lives, the Republic of Greater East Asia instituted Battle Experiment 68, more popularly known as Battle Royale. Every year, junior high students are drugged, kidnapped and taken to an island, where they must fight until only one is left standing. A teacher who was stabbed by a school boy is in charge of the latest batch, and he sets out grimly to seek revenge. The kids are issued with a kit of supplies and weapons – some useful, some laughable – and are set loose to take each other out. Most are terrified and don’t last long, some use their wits to survive and a couple positively relish the opportunity to kill. Battle Royale was released as a movie in 2000 by director Kinji Fukasaku, starring Japanese heart throb Tatsuya Fujiwara, and once again was a smash hit. The impact of the book’s horrors given visual form shocked audiences and it was banned by several countries. It remains a cult movie and a powerful, unsettling view of the war between generations.

The Hunger Games: Once regarded as a copy of Battle Royale, author Suzanne Collins created several differences between her books and Kushan Takami’s novel. Based on the practice in the ancient world of sending youthful tributes to take part in annual games which they often did not survive, The Hunger Games demands 12 tributes from 12 districts in Panem (a future USA), to fight to the death in a high tech arena. When her younger sister is chosen, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her place and becomes the heroine of three books and four movies. She learns how deep the divisions are between rich and poor in Panem when she travels to Capital City to take part in the games. Two participants – a boy and a girl – are chosen from each district. From the coal mining district 12, Katniss is partnered with Peeta, a baker. He is one of the obligatory suitors in YA fiction, the other being Gale, a hunter. Their survival depends on older, richer sponsors in the games, but Katniss falls foul of the ageing President Snow when she rebels against the games. Horrified by the brutality and the murder of a 12-year-old tribute called Rue, she eventually brings the corrupt regime crashing down. The following books and movies traced her rise from terrified tribute to the rebel leader called Mockingjay.

Divergent: In Veronica Roth’s dystopian future, people are born into one of five ‘factions’ – Erudite, Candor, Dauntless, Amity or Abegnation. Divergent, the first book, was published in 2011 and was a best seller. In Divergent, protagonist Beatrice Prior is born into the selfless Abegnation faction, but like everyone else, she has to choose her lifetime faction at 16. Surprisingly, for a quiet girl, she chooses Dauntless, the warrior faction, and changes her name to Tris. But Tris is actually a divergent, having the characteristic of other factions as well. If that sounds perfectly normal, it isn’t in future Chicago, where belonging to one faction or another is essential. The factionless are left to starve on the street and divergents are hunted and killed as a dangerous threat. Tris trains relentlessly to fit in with her chosen faction, where she is attracted to Four, a young older man. But she quickly falls under suspicion of being a divergent and attracts the attention of Erudite leader Jeanine. In succeeding books and films, Tris eventually discovers the truth. Her world is not what she thinks it is – Chicago has been sealed off from the rest of the post-apocalyptic world, an experiment to increase the number of divergents like her. Outside Chicago, divergents are regarded as the only genetically pure survivors of the apocalypse while those who had only a certain set of traits were genetically damaged. The Divergent series of books and movies is focused on a way of controlling the tendency to rebel, most evident in the young. But, completely against Chicago’s original purpose, it allowed powerful faction leaders to arise. The movies series was not as popular as its main rival Hunger Games but it did introduce a fresh new talent in Shailene Woodley, who played Tris, and attracted major stars like Kate Winslet (Jeanine) and Naomi Watts. For a YA tale, it has the most unexpected and shocking ending of them all.

Maze Runner: Like Battle Royale, James Dashner’s 2009 novel Maze Runner has a male protagonist, 16-year-old Thomas. In this dystopian future, another experiment is being conducted on young boys who are immune from a deadly virus called the Flare, named for a solar flare which devastated the earth. Thomas awakes in a place called the Glade, surrounded by high walls and next to a mysterious maze. The other boys have created their own society, growing vegetables and filling their days with self-appointed tasks. Thomas learns that a new boy arrives every month by elevator with no memory of life before the Glade. The Maze is a dangerous place, inhabited by semi-organic creatures with deadly stings called Grievers. Thomas becomes the first boy ever to survive a night in the Maze. Later the boys are joined by the first girl to come down the elevator, but that night grievers attack the Glade and kill many of the boys. As the story progresses through the book series and movie sequels Thomas and his friends escape the Maze and find themselves in the wasteland left by the solar flare. Life is no safer beyond the Maze as the survivors find more challenges such as a trek across the scorched landscape, encounters with zombies and a powerful group called WCKD. While the young are not the targets of this dystopian world, they have to fight for survival and take the lead.

Tomorrow When the War Began: An Australian entry into the dystopian chronicles, Tomorrow When the War Began, written by John Marsden, was a game changer for young adult literature when it was published in 1993. It showed a group of ordinary high school kids stepping up to arm themselves and take on an unknown enemy that has invaded their quiet Australian town. Who the invaders were was not actually established – they were a mobilization of small nations determined to take over the mostly empty country and show Australians what should be done with it. The seven teenagers – Ellie, Chris, Lee, Robyn, Corrie, Fiona and Homer have set off for a getaway in a remote hilly location to spend some time together before leaving school. They are awoken one night by planes flying overhead. Returning from their bush camp holiday, they discover the terrifying truth. Their town is under armed guard, and their families have been herded into a makeshift internment camp. Ellie and her friends have to learn to fight, use strategy and blow things up as they are the only ones not in captivity. It isn’t a merry Secret Seven adventure – it’s messy and scary, people get shot and die and these kids have to grow up fast. Which they do through seven books that are a part of the Australian psyche. Tomorrow was chosen for the high school reading list when it climbed into the best seller category. Two attempts have been made to bring this compulsive saga to the screen – the first was a big budget movie that couldn’t be carried on through the very expensive sequels, the second is a 2016 TV series that stands a better chance of going the distance.

These visions of the future have some obvious flaws. While the female characters are heroic and often take the lead, the relationships are invariably heterosexual, with little or no gender variation. So one big concern of today’s youth is never addressed. This is likely to change as dystopian and futuristic authors delve deeper into young adult hopes and fears for the world they will inherit. The fact that these authors are willing to envisage likely futures that make young adults the focus is an exciting trend that promises to shake up the dystopian genre.