Utopias and Dystopias in YA Literature

In the Gwinnett room of the Hilton in the difficult 10:00AM Monday timeslot, Scott Westerfeld and a group of librarians discussed books that tackle the topic of Utopias and Dystopias.

Many of the audience members were huge fans of Westerfeld’s Uglies, Pretties, and Specials books—a series set in a future where gasoline-powered engines all exploded decades before, and the new culture requires that teenagers be surgically altered at age sixteen to make them all “pretty.” So strong was one attendee’s love of the books that when Westerfeld warned of spoilers in the third book (which she hadn’t finished reading), she left the room until the discussion finished.

To define a utopia, the words good, bliss, freedom, and equality were batted around. But what turned a utopia into a dystopia was the idea of an authority that controls the masses and has exclusive access to the good life. YA novels are particularly prone to tackle the dystopia since teenagers, “haven’t accepted the world yet,” said Westerfeld. Real life teenagers want to change the world, and in literature, they can! Adults will often try to make changes, but by the time they are able to implement them, the world has already moved in another direction.

The two concepts of utopias and dystopias are intertwined. Utopias can turn into dystopias, as the ideas and rules that come into play to make things “better” end up turning the world darker. On the flip side, often apocalyptic dystopias can breed utopias as people post-trauma will wipe the slate clean, building up societies whose sole purpose is often to prevent the “bad” from recurring.

Westerfeld brought up the idea that the modern-day high school is a controlled environment with similar qualities to a dystopia. Students must pass through security to arrive, so that they’re “basically on an airplane eight hours a day.” Their movements are controlled by bells, their lives structured by rules, and their language unique to the microcosmic groups that develop within the larger body. This natural tendency makes YA a feeding ground for books that play on dystopic ideas.

As occurs with all good literature panels, many book titles were recommended, including: Thomas More’s Utopia, George Orwell’s 1984, Kevin J. Anderson’s Ill Wind, Sonia Levitin’s The Cure, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, and Kathleen Duey’s Skin Hunger.

Author of the article

Suzanne Church

When Suzanne Church isn't chasing characters through other realms, she's hanging with her two children. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, On Spec, and Cicada and in several anthologies including Urban Green Man and When the Hero Comes Home 2. Her collection Elements: A Collection of Speculative Fiction is due out in spring 2014 from EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing. She is a three time finalist and 2012 winner of the Prix Aurora Award in the Short Fiction category.

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