Diving into Dystopia: How YA Fiction Reflects Current Social Issue | Rock & Art

Diving into Dystopia: How YA Fiction Reflects Current Social Issue

Dystopian novels are a popular YA fiction in the genre because of their common themes such as coming of age and a new journey, with a twist of reflecting current societies and their specific stressors. Dystopian novels reflect real-world issues and take those to the extreme to serve as a cautionary tale to the reader, there are Utopia words and dystopian worlds.

Utopia comes from the Greek roots  “OU” (no) and “TOPOS” (place). A Dystopia is a glimpse and realistic version of a society that turned for the worst, characterised by a collection of conformity, governmental control over all aspects of life, dehumanisation, a world that is not natural or wouldn’t be considered normal with such things like constant surveillance and lack of community. The word dystopia is also a Greek-rooted word with “DYS” (bad, undesirable) and “TOPOS”. Notable dystopian entries are 1984 by George Orwell, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and The Maze Runner by James Dashner, each novel provides a great example of an exaggerated dystopian society.

The start of the “modern-day” dystopian novel was in 1872, Samuel Butler’s novel Erewhon, a social commentary on the potential dangers of technology and societal conformity. A few decades later, World Wars changed dystopian literature by showing the terrors of man, on another man, and the reality of governmental control and sovereignty for a country. These events shaped dystopian classics such as We by Yevgeny Zamyatin 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

Much of this literature is defined by governmental control over the conformity of people or ‘masses’, fears that arose from the control of Germany, Italy, and most notably Russia during WWll. Dystopian literature would not be so defined if it wasn’t for the scarcity that Yevgeny Zamyatin, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley brought to the table. The surrealism, casualties, and uncertainty of war shaped these novels and their scary but realistic worlds and built a foundation for all future dystopian novels.

The rise in popularity of these novels with young adults comes from an interest in fantasy/contemporary realistic fiction, non-conformity, rebellious nature (often shown by the main character that a young adult can relate to), different perspectives of personal struggles, societal interest or concern, and escapism.

Especially in modern dystopian literature that relates to current social issues, often issues that young adults face or may fear for their future are represented and explored through, commonly a first-person perspective making it easier for the reader to relate to the character. Also relatable to the main character is their interests in their future and what they can do about it, relying on a message of independence and control in one’s life.

Messages such as justice and an alternate reality young adults can envision and escape from their own are what young adults can relate to the most. Dystopian novels provide not only a warning but awareness to society and an understanding of what a collective group of people can accomplish or in contrast, become too used to in their everyday lives.

YA Dystopia’s Themes and Tropes 

The Hero’s Journey and Personal Growth — Character Development and its Significance

With the use of the story structure of “The hero’s journey” many young adult dystopian novels can use this device to showcase common young adult struggles such as personal development. The main character faces new challenges and dangers that can lead them to think differently about the environment they are used to and question more around them, with the end of the tale being the main character has changed and grown immensely since before the journey.

An example of this in dystopian literature is Katniss Everdeen’s struggle of “crossing the barrier”, when she enters the capitol and is changed to fit into the media lens, this mirrors celebrities’ struggle with self-image and their media image that is edited or manipulated to fit their brand or what they promote. 

Dystopian vs Utopian Societies — Contrasting Worlds 

A Utopian world is an ideal perfected world, characterised by peaceful government, citizens are equal, citizens are free in their daily life and societal impact, and a safe environment & community. Both a utopian and dystopian have underlying tones and meanings, and novel about a utopian society could be a commentary on reality being too good to be true and a lack of desire to rebel or find yourself through circumstances, while a dystopian tale can provide a sense of finding independence and overcoming much wider challenges like conformity.

Utopia and dystopia have likewise contrasting worlds that have underlying themes and are equally flawed, often told through a perspective of working through the obstacles of each worlds individual issues.

Technology is as modern as it is today as it was 100 years ago with new technological advancements made constantly, with more resources and understanding of current technology than ever. Technology is how we understand the world outside of ours and the smallest compounds of atoms that surround us. Naturally technological advancements are a common interest in society and how it will play a role in our future and livelihood.

Questions about whether furthering technology, such as AI, is beneficial and the goals of those who make such technology are. Important questions that carry genuine concern come from the advancement of AI. Dystopian literature that explores the dark future of Artificial intelligence overtakes these worries to their extreme but are relevant to today’s youths’ concerns. An example of AI control in dystopian literature is relevant in Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Portraying a world of advanced AI controlling and creating “new people” that are genetically more powerful, creating a separate world between people and humans.

Genetic engineering is real in today’s world and The Windup Girl is a reflection of society’s concern with the continuing advancement of AI. Because of dystopian literature having a broad young adult audience, it is easy to find a young adult and teen audience online that are openly against AI advancements in places such as work and art like movies and even scripts.

Diving into Dystopia: How YA Fiction Reflects Current Social Issue | Rock & Art

While being against technological advancements isn’t a bad perspective for society to have, especially the future society (current youth), however dystopian novels are more of a warning than a prediction and should be taken with a grain of salt as AI advancements are made for much more intrigue struggles such as those how lack senses such as eyesight or body parts.

YA Distopia’s Key Social Issues and Themes

The Hunger Games — Exploration of Media Influence and Authoritarianism  — Government Control and Rebellion

The Hunger Games portrays authoritarian and governmental control in multiple ways, such as repression, surveillance, and oppression. Media influence and authoritarian power show how much society can be controlled and manipulated. Media influence is explored with the television of The Hunger Games and what the contestants have to endure. Katniss Everdeen’s journey through the Hunger Games explores her experience with keeping a media image and how that is perceived.

The reflection of society in The Hunger Games is the forced fake portrayal of an individual’s image and governmental control, instilling fear into the viewer and portraying their power. “The Hunger Games aren’t a sport, they’re a public execution, and the whole country’s invited to watch” (Collins), is an example of the government showing their control and surveillance. 

Diving into Dystopia: How YA Fiction Reflects Current Social Issue | Rock & Art

Legend features dystopian themes of propaganda, societal control, military draft and rebellion. Set in a dystopian future of Los Angeles, the main characters are under submission to the government; The Republic of America, a totalitarian regime that uses surveillance and suppression of freedom to control its society. Text from the novel “In the republic, we were taught that the government was like the sun. It was in the sky, always watching, always there. It was impossible to imagine living without it.”, demonstrates the extent of the capitols control over civilians and how they view their government. 

Divergent uniquely explores the absence of independence and oneself by placing each personality type separated from the other. The goal is to eliminate growth at mass due to the separate factions striving to reach one common admirable trait.

This grouping destroys any idea of individuality and accomplishes polarising the factions by all of the admirable traits competing with each other. “I feel like someone breathed new air into my lungs, I am not Abnegation. I am not dauntless, I am divergent.” (Roth). The text is an example of the character’s exploration of finding herself and resistance from the government. Reflecting a rejection towards societal labels and expressing individuality.

Diving into Dystopia: How YA Fiction Reflects Current Social Issue | Rock & Art

Brave New World explores a loss of identity in a futuristic society where individuals are genetically engineered and pursue roles in life based on their birth assignment. Personal identity is suppressed by the importance of conformity with punishment following disobeying an individual’s roles. “One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.” (Hexley), Brave New World is a commentary on separation from society and societal standards to encourage individuality.  

Political oppression is shown in dystopian YA fiction novels through a lack of freedom of speech, governmental control, and surveillance, told through the perspective of a relatable character, reflecting common societal concerns about privacy and separation from government. 

Dystopian novels represent inequality and injustice, representation of societal and class struggles by exaggerating our current social disparities, and mirroring our world. Separating society, critique of social norms, rebellion, and, marginalised communities are all relevant modern dystopian themes that are reflected in today’s society and individual struggles 

Environmental Degradation — How YA Dystopian Fiction Addresses Climate Change and Ecological Collapse 

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, where climate change and environmental disaster has changed the world for the worse leaving it in a state of despair and leaving humanity to fight for their survival. “Survival is not about the fittest. It is about the one who doesn’t mind playing dirty.” (Bacigalupi). The Water Knife is a commentary on survival and adapting to changes, these themes come from societal anxiety about climate change, pollution and the consequences of overbuilding infrastructure. 

The role of dystopian fiction in social commentary 

Reflecting Contemporary Issues — How YA Dystopia Mirrors Current Events and Societal Concerns 

Dystopian novels hyperbolise societies’ fears to show how societal issues such as climate change could change our lives when taken to the extreme. Their themes spread awareness and act as cautionary tales, showing what may happen to society should we allow these issues to spiral out of control. It is important not to take dystopian literature too seriously. It is ultimately still fiction, though its topics should be relevant enough to provide the reader with an understanding of their societal structure.

Encouraging Critical Thinking – The Impact of YA Dystopian Fiction on Young Readers

Dystopian literature allows for critical thinking with its common attributes of a unique realistic imaginary world that is easy for a young adult reader to submersive themselves into. Dystopia as a genre is a creative world that explores multiple fields of societal and worldly interest. (how does the alternate reality from YA Dystopia provide a different perspective from which our society can be analysed?) .

Inspiring Social Change — Case Studies of Activism and Awareness Sparked by YA Dystopian Novels 

Active social change that took place and had inspiration from a dystopian tale is the Handmaid’s Tale protest in Israel, on march 2023 an eruption of women gathered to protest Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming strict policies in fear it will bring a “dark future” with women most likely to be the first to suffer. This protest brought awareness to the societal struggles of the women in Israel and their fear of a dystopian ‘like’ future. 

YA Dystopia Recommendations

Core YA Dystopian Novels

To begin with, to set up a base of understanding most to all dystopian stories are We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1984 & Animal farm by George Orwell, Brave New world by Aldous Huxley, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and The Giver by Louis Lowry, The Maze Runner by James Dashner, The Water Knife and, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

How to Effectively Engage with the Genre 

Before you dive into anything, Research! Researching the topic of dystopian novels and understanding their common themes will help you know if the genre is right for you. Starting with the classics will provide a good outlook for modern dystopian literature, engaging with themes and keeping an open mind about the creativity and nuanced ideas of a dystopian world are key to immersing yourself in the story.

Dystopian literature has come a long way since Gulliver’s Travels by Johnathan Swift, only recently becoming a genre popular with younger readers. It is a recyclable premise that can be adapted to any given society’s current fears. The future will always be uncertain, providing a fertile seedbed from which dystopian stories will always grow. While dystopian literature is regarded as uncomfortable and unsettling it provides an insight into how extreme anxieties can be and how they are realistic and unrealistic at the same time.

Dystopian literature should be seen as a warning not as a “this will happen if something doesn’t change” tale. If what’s in the media today interests you then modern dystopian literature, and older like 1984 and We, is up your alley. Because dystopian literature has so many different worlds and perspectives on various social issues, there are many to look into and find your favourite type of dystopian story.