Into the Black: Reclaiming Dystopian Fiction

There’s not doubt about it: Dystopian fiction is a hot literary commodity. In fact, dystopian literature seems to have supplanted paranormal romance as the new “It” genre—bookshelves, both virtual and brick-and-mortar, are awash with sexy heroines who, despite total societal collapse, still managed to apply makeup. Yet, in this rush to realize Hunger Games levels of fame and fortune, publishers and their media brethren have sanitized the genre, stripping away the grit and existential horror that defines classic dystopia.

For the past few years, the publishing world was obsessed with good-looking vampires and werewolves; now “dystopias” are the new publishing trend sweeping New York and making hardened Hollywood hearts pitter-patter. But these genres are all just interchangeable set pieces, shiny new ways to spin the same old story: girl meets boy, society gets in the way, girl and boy rebel. And rebellion sells—so long as it’s a safe, sanitized uprising.

This is not to say, of course, that there is no room in fiction for YA dystopia, or even that the genre is without merit. Rather, my concern with YA dystopia stems from the fact that, with very few exceptions, it’s a neutered version of real dystopian literature, de-fanged and repackaged to extend its commercial appeal to the Twilight kids (and adults). The dark soul of the dystopian novel has been compromised, and, as a result, something vital has been lost.


Classic dystopian fiction — 1984, Brave New World, Neuromancer, Children of Men, A Clockwork Orange, to mention but a few — is fiction written with a purpose: a desire to caution mankind about the dangers of systems of control (political or religious), and the de-humanizing consequences of our over-reliance on technology. These works are warnings; feverish missives churned out by half-mad prophets and visionaries whose message is uniform and clear: If we do not change our ways, these wastelands and teeming urban slums will be our future.

But in order to effect any such change, there has to be a spark—these writers have to force the reader to feel emotions powerful enough to disrupt our routines; to shatter thought patterns and leave us so shaken that we have no choice but to alter our lives.


None of this is to imply dystopian fiction can’t be, or isn’t, very, very cool. There is something irresistible about these bleak descriptions of the future, of the various brilliant backstories that imagine new and rather ingenious ways in which society might crumble. Plus, these futurelands come with their fair share of sex, drugs, and violence, the enjoyment of which tends to transcend traditional genre boundaries.

The trouble is that this new wave of dystopian fiction takes only the fun, sexy aspects of classic dystopia, and then either ignores, or pays simple lip service to, the genre’s core tenets. Consider recent comments from a prominent YA dystopian blogger:

You know, its fun to see so many books try to guess how the world will end. Super-volcano’s been very popular, virus is very popular, nuclear bomb is popular … but it is kind of fun to see writers trying to stretch and be like, what else could happen, what other terrible tragedy could occur?”

People are reading dystopian fiction for the cheap thrills—like an amusement park ride or a slasher flick; its fun to be scared but the ride stops or the movie ends and we can go back to our lives: nothing has changed. And that lessens the power of dystopian fiction.

George Orwell had it right: If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever. That might not be the recipe for a capturing the hearts of the YA reader, but there’s still plenty of glamorous shape-shifters and sexy vampires to go around; leave the future black.

Anderson O’Donnell lives in Connecticut with his wife and son. Kingdom is O’Donnell’s full-length debut, and the first installment of the Tiber City Trilogy. It is now available in paperback and eBook formats exclusively via Amazon. Exile, the second installment in the Tiber City Trilogy, is set for release in the summer of 2013.

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