Is hope out of fashion?

Dystopian fantasies are not a new genre in any way. We’ve had excellent authors churning them out ever since we’ve had books. But in the 21st century, the sheer output of dystopian novels has increased so much that it’s got to be indicative of what people like to read now. Your choice in literature says a lot about you as a person. Some people like to read inspirational, motivational material because it lifts them; other readtragedies because they can compare their own lives to the circumstances of protagonists, and feel better because things could always be worse. Romance novels are favoured by those who want personal happy endings.

So the rise in popularity of dystopian novels might be an indication of how we see the world around us. Everywhere you look, there’s violence, war, sadness, hopelessness, bigotry – we’ve managed to make the worst out of a wonderful world. Authors take their cues from what they see around them. Even if they dress up the themes, alter the circumstances and set their stories on other planets, the cores of the books are rooted in the world they live in.

But there’s also a reason why the bleakest of books don’t make it onto bestseller lists. We need hope and reassurance that no matter how hopeless things get, there is at least an option of resolution, if not a happy ending. This is the key to most dystopian novels of the 21st century: the worlds they are set in are usually more overtly horrifying than the one we live in, and still, a hero rises to give it, at the very least, the option of saving itself. Young adult dystopian novels, especially, are about that idea of hope, but it’s become a vague and nebulous idea, not a reality. They give young adults the hope that there might be a chance tofix the world because they have a fresh perspective of right and wrong, but they become enveloped in shades of grey.

Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy is the most popular of recently published young adult dystopias. Like many other such novels, the setting is a post-Apocalyptic world of sorts, which has been a recurring theme ever since nuclear war became a realistic prospect. The country in which it’s set, Panem, is divided into the Capitol and 12 districts. Every year, one male and one female champion are chosen from each district – everybody between 12 and 18 must enter – to be put in an arena to fight to the death. The televised event was seen as a celebration and source of entertainment within the Capitol, where life is rosy.

KatnissEverdeen, the protagonist of these novels, is not a cookie-cutter version of perfection.She is relatable in her selfishness; in her way of identifying with the personal rather than looking at any bigger picture; in her simple desire to do whatever it takes to protect the people she loves. Her rebellion and courage come about because there is no other choice. She rises because her only other choice is to die, or to watch the people she loves die.

Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” trilogy has so many similarities to “Hunger Games” that it doesn’t feel anywhere close to original. Here, too, we see how children have their choices taken away, how everybody is under constant surveillance, and there are strict roles to which everybody must conform. It’s also a world where death is an acceptable outcome if you don’t succeed, and violence is commonplace.
Beatrice Prior, the protagonist of this novel, is not as easily understood as KatnissEverdeen. There’s a strong moralistic streak to Beatrice, and a sanctimonious, self-righteous tone that makes you question why she believes she has the right answers. The idea of sacrifice is also a very big part of these books. The “Divergent” trilogy has done well internationally, but the author, who is only 26 now, has faced some backlash for the lack of originality and the flatness of her characters.

“The Maze Runner” series, too, follows a similar theme, but is much darker than either “Hunger Games” or “Divergent”. The plot is also a lot less straightforward, with agents, doubleagents, sleeperagents, double-crosses and triple-crosses. In this, too, young people are used as experiments, their behaviour controlled and monitored, though we only realise why when we get to the very end of the series. Each time the protagonist, Thomas, and the rest of the Gladers (as they are called) seem to escape, they only seem to have broken through to another level where there are other experiments and other lies.
The many levels they break through gives the illusion of free will, while every action they take is carefully orchestrated, even when it feels as if they have a chance to thwart the enemy – even if they cannot even know who the enemy is, or what they might want. There are lies within lies, erased memories, implanted chips, deadly infections and diseases with no cures, and other nightmares consistent with the most dystopian of futures. Unlike the other two series, there is no real ray of hope, or even a possibility of redemption. Even the idea of hope is a lie.

While these are probably the three most popular young adult dystopian novels around today, there are many others that follow a similar pattern. The “Legend” series by Marie Lu is one of those with a simpler, less convoluted set-up. The plot is tight,the characterisation has depth, and the pattern is very similar to young adult romance thrillers, except the concepts of childhood and its associated innocence have been wiped from the world where the novels are set. The theme is also very definitely adult, with roots in eugenics.

The number of dystopian young adult books still being churned out indicates that this is one trend that shows no signs of fading away anytime soon. The time for epic fantasies and dragons might be coming to an end, however much we might not want it to. Now, as we head into the years that science fiction and dystopian novels written in the 20th century speculated about, we seem to have lost a certain amount of faith in man’s ability to use science wisely. Hope is no longer a certainty. It’s about grimness, death and survival of the fittest, with no room for compassion for the innocence of youth. Happy endings seem to have become a thing of the past. In this ever-popular genre, when you get to the last page of a book, survival and closure form the best-case scenario.– Sarah