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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Adventures in Dystopia

By fortunate coincidence, just at the Hunger Games tsunami is hitting young people, my YA Materials class pulled in to Dystopia Station — Maze Runner; Ship Breaker; The Hunger Games; Feed. Rereading the four novels even as merchandizers hawk Hunger Games nail polish made me think about why dystopia is so popular — and how that relates to NF. I have three theories — tell me what you think.

The New: I grew up in the 1950s and 60s when the idea of the new was powerful and positive: Our Friend the Atom — soon the miracle of atomic power would bring cheap, clean energy to world; Civil Rights — we were changing the world; the Moon — we were launching into the great adenture of space travel; Woodstock/music/generation gap — though angry and fraught there was also a sense of rising power — we could sweep the old away and create the better, the new, the beautiful. In one sense the new is still with us: the lines around the block for the Ipad3; the demand that the iphone5 be so much more advanced than the 4e, etc. The scramble to get the latest and greatest — which indeed can do many more tricks than last year’s discarded model — is on. And yet there is no sense of a horizon after which the climate will settle, wars will end, the economy will boom, a next generation with right our wrongs. The new has changed from a dream to a product — a product who shelf life is only as long as the next production cycle.

The amusment park of the mind: Maze Runner and Ship Breaker, especially, strike me as action adventures more like amusement parks, video games, or movies than books. There are only barely and incidentaly about characters — the invention is nearly entirely in plot — just like an amusement park ride there are hairpin turns, swoops up and down, terrifying technicolor moments, screams, and chills, and so much rush you can’t wait to get back on again. In one way the line by line writing is frustratingly bad — almost amateur compared to, say, Feed. But in another there is this dynamic churn where book, film, game, broadcast swirl around us and sometimes, as in the Hunger Games, capture something in our moment, where American Idol crosses with footage from one war or another overseas. This brand of writing leaps from one form of media to another, carrying readers (viewers, players) along with it. Plot replaces character as the the vital, creative center of one brand of fiction.

Channels: ever since Harry Potter I have argued that the distribution channels for Megahit books are so well mapped that there will always be a next one — the system needs it.

Question: all of this leads to the question of why we need to locate our disquiet about the future, our need for thrills and chills, our craving for a Next Big Thing in fiction. In some way we are so disconnected from history that the action, however reflective of our present, must be cast ahead. We don’t expect the past to tell us anything. The real is the imagined — or so it seems to me.


  1. Intriguing questions. I wonder how much of this” locating our disquiet in the future” (wonderful phrase!) is a reflection of being in the midst of an information/hi-tech revolution. The world already looks very different than it did just 10 years ago (technology-wise). Did people in the midst of the Industrial Revolution also create dystopian stories as a way to manage their fears of an unfamiliar/uncertain future?

  2. Perhaps it’s because it gives teens the chance to be a hero. In the past and present, teens have been either burdened with the (often pedestrian) responsiblities of being an adult, or disenfranchised from both the children’s and the adult world. In dystopias, the slate is wiped clean for a new world order, in which young people are allowed to have power — and HAVE to be heroic to survive, not to mention save your loved ones. Also, it’s the sheer concept of the future taking a huge turn. Whether because of enviromental or deliberate disasters, the scenarios are both possible and compelling. Don’t forget that todays’ teens will have to survive in a world after we are gone.

  3. I just listened to The Time Traveler which seems very much to be H. G. Well’s dystopic response to the tail end of the Industrial Revolution.

  4. I meant The Time Machine. Main character is called The Time Traveler. Sorry.

  5. Very intriguing topic. As one who chooses to write about history, I want to believe that some people still believe we can learn from the past. I sympathize with young people who face a future laced with impending disaster. If we can fulfill our craving for the next big thing and constant thrills through books, perhaps we can find a way to live in the present.