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.