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Feed the Hunger

Young readers are devouring dystopian fiction—and that might be a good thing

By David Sobel

Published in the November/December 2012 issue of Orion magazine



MY DYSTOPIAN FUTURE would be rampant with ticks. Aggressive ticks. Not like the ones that cling to the top of slender grass stalks, waiting passively for your warm-blooded ankle to brush by. No, the ticks in my dystopian future would come searching for me—finding the tiny tears in the screen, that little sliver of space between the bottom of the door and the threshold, then up underneath the overhanging sheets and into my bed while I sleep. Yikes! Gives me the creeps. Ticks lurk in my dystopian future because they have become more and more omnipresent in southern New Hampshire in the past few years. My best friend had Lyme disease; neighbors have it; we even find ticks on us after gardening. They’ve crept into our landscape and our minds.

Environmental catastrophe has similarly crept into the minds of young readers across America and internationally. They’re not only faced with their own regional problems; through constant media exposure, they’re bombarded with environmental problems from around the world. Think of the challenges that face Katniss and the other “tributes” in the Hunger Games arena. In case you’ve missed the hype, The Hunger Games, a trilogy of young adult novels by author Suzanne Collins (and a recent movie), has rampaged through middle schools and teen culture, creating a new publishing enthusiasm for dystopian novels. Early in the story, the main character, sixteen-year-old Katniss, is selected to compete in a televised tournament in which twenty-four teenagers, two from each district of the totalitarian nation Panem, fight to the death for the entertainment of the masses. During the competitions, they’re faced with an array of environmental calamities. At first, I thought these calamities were excessive, but then I realized they were drawn from the everyday headlines of our news outlets. The excessive heat and humidity of the jungly second arena—we’ve had three of the hottest years on record in the past four years. A creeping bank of poison gas—the creeping toxic tide of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Tidal waves that engulf everything on the beach—the Pacific basin tragedy of 2007. Marauding wolves—predacious tigers that pick off fishermen at the edges of Indian villages. Forest fires—in the past few years, the worst fire seasons the western United States has ever seen. Suzanne Collins is simply plucking environmental tragedies from the headlines and sautéing them into a concentrated gumbo in the arena. It’s not surprising that The Hunger Games appeals to young readers; they’re besotted with ecological bad news, and they need some way to come to terms with it. (Hard to believe that, as I type this, a tick crawls out of my sleeve and onto my keyboard. Life imitates dystopian fiction!)

A middle school principal told me recently about asking some of his students what they thought they’d be doing in twenty years. “In twenty years, I’ll probably be dead,” one responded. “Global warming, poisons in our food, diseases. I don’t think we have much of a chance.” Many of the others agreed.

A rising tide of hopelessness, along with rising sea level, is lapping at the toes of our young adolescents. Thus, our young adult fiction is different from the young adult nature fiction of thirty years ago. In Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves, the main characters are lost in the wilderness and must use their ingenuity and resourcefulness to survive before returning to the safe, predictable, civilized world. But now, the civilized world is anything but safe and predictable. There’s a new environmental tragedy lurking in every newscast. Is it any surprise that young adults are attracted to dystopian visions of the future? It puts their worst fears right out there on the page, and that makes them somewhat more manageable, more quantifiable.

But perhaps the more compelling, and historically consistent, feature of dystopian fiction is the hero’s quest. Faced with an unimaginable tragedy, there is a character who rises to the challenge, faces unbeatable odds, and sometimes beats them, though often suffering grueling pain in the process. The young reader wants to be that hero, wants to rise out of the boring sameness of her everyday life and right the social order, vanquish the enemy. It’s just the enemy that has changed over the years.

Dystopian fiction, both for grown-ups and young adults, has been around for a while. Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, Lord of the Flies. There was a previous peak in dystopian fiction during the Cold War years, and in many cases, the enemy was the repressive social order, well symbolized by Big Brother in 1984. In The Hunger Games there’s a backdrop of environmental destruction and resource depletion, but the real enemies are the Capitol and the Peacekeepers. The repressed citizenry toils in poverty to support the idle consumptiveness of the Capitol’s residents. But in some other current dystopias the enemy is also the changing environment.

In Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer, an asteroid hits the moon, which is pushed closer to earth, which sets off a string of climatic changes. The increased gravitational field of the moon causes tidal waves, earthquakes, and volcanoes. All stores close and civic rule lapses. The clouds of ash cause a harsh early winter in rural Pennsylvania, and Miranda and her family hunker down, learn to cut wood and ration food, and close down rooms of their house one by one till they’re barely surviving in the one room with a wood stove. The enemy is the severely cold winter.

In Dark Life by Kat Falls and The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman, global climate change has caused vast sea-level rise. The Statue of Liberty is deep beneath hundreds of feet of ocean. In Dark Life, Ty and his family eke out a life as pioneers living in inflatable houses on the ocean bottom. They’ve adapted to life in a post-apocalyptic world, but still have to deal with violent pirate gangs and the lack of support from the Commonwealth. In The Other Side of the Island, Honor and her family live on a tropical island, barely beyond the reaches of the dangerous ocean. The enemy is both the violent storms that rake the island and the Corporation that rules their lives and eventually steals her mother into mindless servitude. The enemy has become both centralized political repression and an environment out of whack.

Nevertheless, the hero’s quest remains the consistent strand that flows through all these books, and this may explain their current popularity. The hero’s quest has its roots in the rite of passage, a constant feature of traditional hunter-gatherer cultures around the world. Rites of passage evolved to have similar forms in diverse cultures, which suggests some universal biological underpinnings to the necessity and value of these events in the evolution of the individual in society. In many cases, at puberty, the seeker or hero starts the ritual as a child, goes out into the wilderness on a vision quest, finds his or her identity, and then is reincorporated back into the social order as a contributing adult. The adolescent becomes a valued and respected adult with a role in maintaining the social order. (A modern vestige: once a boy is bar mitzvahed, he can be counted as one of the ten men necessary to constitute a minyan for a Jewish service.)

Most Western cultures have lost the rite-of-passage experience. Instead, we prolong childhood, imprison children in highly stratified and rule-bound schools, and prevent them from becoming contributing members to the social order until they graduate from college. Biologically, starting around thirteen or fourteen years old, they want to be challenged, want to go on the hero’s quest, want to right the social and environmental wrongs they see all around them, but we rarely provide those opportunities. Don’t get me wrong. Schools with a commitment to social justice and place-based education strive to make these challenges a part of the curriculum. Outward Bound and National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) courses make this possible for a small number of youth. But, for the most part, there is nothing heroic about life in schools, unless you have athletic prowess.

Enter the dystopian novel with its familiar, flawed but capable main character who is drawn into the hero’s quest. As schools become more test driven, more senseless, more cutthroat, the desire to break out, to escape under the fence, to do battle with the monster, increases.

Currently, many of these heroes are girls with nerve and verve. In three of the four books I’ve mentioned above, the main characters are young women who must use their pluck to survive against unimaginable odds, have the grit to protect their families, and in some cases change the social order. Katniss is particularly appealing because of her primitive-living skills. She has the ability to make fires, climb trees, find water, take down a squirrel with a bow and arrow. In an age of eight hours of screen time a day, she appeals to that thirst to be self-sufficient in the wilderness that lurks deep inside us. Miranda, in Life as We Knew It, similarly has to master hunger, wallow through snowdrifts, tend her sick family when a life-threatening flu decimates half of the community. These common girls rise to the challenge, becoming reluctant heroes when called upon. All girls—all of us—want the opportunity to rise to the challenge in the face of overwhelming odds. We succeed vicariously when these heroes succeed.

The most compelling moment in the Hunger Games movie—okay, one of the moments when I cried—happens after Katniss ceremonially covers slain Rue with flowers. Rue, brutally killed by another tribute, had been an ally of Katniss. Since the Capitol wants all tributes to treat each other as enemies, thus fostering hatred between all the districts, Katniss’s ritual can be interpreted as quietly rebellious. But then, to accentuate her disdain for authority, Katniss puts her three middle fingers to her lips and raises them up to the Panem-wide television audience. It’s a gesture of unity intended for the people of District 11, Rue’s home district, where they have just watched their tribute be murdered. This gesture provokes immediate riots in the streets against the Capitol and the Peacekeepers in District 11. It’s when Katniss becomes the symbol of insurrection.

Look at where we’ve been over the last decade: we’ve been engaged in long, senseless wars, the rich 1 percent are getting richer and the 99 percent are getting poorer, mass shootings have become common news stories, survivalists preach about and prepare for Armageddon, No Child Left Behind educational policies have driven schools to become bastions of tedium and repression. It’s no surprise that Katniss’s gesture and the hero’s quest appeal to young readers, readers hungry for images of resilience and hope. And resilience and hope is what so many of these plucky characters exemplify, even when faced with the worst odds. If we want to avoid the environmental catastrophes and repressive central governments pictured in current dystopian fiction, we’re going to need more adolescents willing to be heroic. We need heroic behavior not just in the arena, but in our everyday lives, at work and in school; we need students and community members who dare to change the social order. If Katniss and these other heroines compel us to be heroic, then perhaps these books are part of the solution.

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David Sobel teaches at Antioch University New England in Keene, New Hampshire. He is the author of Wild Play: Parenting Adventures in the Great Outdoors.

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