One of the primary functions of science-fiction is to vaccinate us against the future. To prepare us to answer the moral and ethical challenges that will bloom from what we sow today.
The early 2000s saw America doing a lot of horrible stuff both abroad and at home and I can't help but feel that the dystopian fiction boom is reflective of that.
Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games,” review : The New Yorker
Dystopian novels for middle-grade and young-adult readers (M.G. and Y.A., respectively, in publishing-industry lingo) have been around for decades. Readers of a certain age may remember having their young minds blown by William Sleator’s “House of Stairs,” the story of five teen-agers imprisoned in a seemingly infinite M. C. Escher-style network of staircases that ultimately turns out to be a gigantic Skinner box designed to condition their behavior. John Christopher’s “The White Mountains,” in which alien overlords install mind-control caps on the heads of all those over the age of thirteen, tore through my own sixth-grade classroom like a wicked strain of the flu. Depending on the anxieties and preoccupations of its time, a dystopian Y.A. novel might speculate about the aftermath of nuclear war (Robert C. O’Brien’s “Z for Zachariah”) or the drawbacks of engineering a too harmonious social order (Lois Lowry’s “The Giver”) or the consequences of resource exhaustion (Saci Lloyd’s “The Carbon Diaries 2015”). And, of course, most American schoolchildren are at some point also assigned to read one of the twentieth century’s dystopian classics for adults, such as “Brave New World” or “1984.”
The youth-centered versions of dystopia part company with their adult predecessors in some important respects. For one thing, the grownup ones are grimmer. In an essay for the 2003 collection “Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults,” the British academic Kay Sambell argues that “the narrative closure of the protagonist’s final defeat and failure is absolutely crucial to the admonitory impulse of the classic adult dystopia.” The adult dystopia extrapolates from aspects of the present to show readers how terrible things will become if our deplorable behavior continues unchecked. The more utterly the protagonist is crushed, the more urgent and forceful the message. Because authors of children’s fiction are “reluctant to depict the extinction of hope within their stories,” Sambell writes, they equivocate when it comes to delivering a moral. Yes, our errors and delusions may lead to catastrophe, but if—as usually happens in dystopian novels for children—a new, better way of life can be assembled from the ruins would the apocalypse really be such a bad thing?
Sambell’s observation implies that dystopian stories for adults and children have essentially the same purpose—to warn us about the dangers of some current trend. That’s certainly true of books like “1984” and “Brave New World”; they detail the consequences of political authoritarianism and feckless hedonism. This is what will happen if we don’t turn back now, they scold, and scolding makes sense when your readers have a shot at getting their hands on the wheel.