YA Dystopian Novels: Strange Tales of Youth

Of late I’ve entered the ranks of those who enjoy the YA Dystopian Novel. They offer strange new worlds for our dystopic reflections on love, politics, philosophy, society, media, etc. It seems that such fiction, written for teenagers, is becoming a wide-spread social phenomena and drifting into the academic world as well. Several years ago I began noticing works by writers such a Cory Doctorow whose fictions typify some of the best philosophical interplay of social criticism and dystopic reflection in the troposphere. His current novel, Homeland, features the ‘war of terror’ as permanent emergency:

A couple of years ago, it occurred to me that the emergency had become permanent. Declaring war on an abstract noun like “terror” meant that we would forever be on a war footing, where any dissent was characterized as treason, where justice was rough and unaccountable, where the relationship of the state to its citizens would grow ever more militarized.

Dystopia has become one of the most popular teenage genres. This sudden rise in YA Dystopian literature has gained as much criticism as praise. Reactionary conservatives within the neo-liberal world seen in these decadent fictions of dystopic mayhem a form of post-modern relativism and nihilism. While radical critics see the emancipatory visions of a post-capitalist vision of theory and praxis working its self out in the young minds of those who will inherit the wastelands of neoliberalist collapse. Young adults are the future leaders of the world and books that are written for them always have a specific purpose. YA Dystopian literature’s purpose is to teach teenagers about the real world by using young protagonists. These books are very didactic; their message depends on the real world truth that the author wants to teach. Because of this dependence on the author’s purpose, this genre changes a lot to keep up with the times. Yet, for all their didacticism what we discover in them is not a message to be learned so much as the possibility of a new mode of life, one beyond our present neo-liberal world of nightmare visions and re-visioning of collapse, waste, and dispersement into voidic voids economic slavery by a corporate socialism turned fascist. In these youthful expenditures of excess we learn how to transgress the frozen modes of this neo-liberal delusion and begin formulating other desires, other adjacent modes of life, a ‘vertigo of immanence’ that can at last give us hope of real change

This is a genre that might allow budding philosophers to be tempted into strange new speculative reasonings. The political and social scope of this genre is both timely and expansive. In a world in which the neoliberal order both acknowledges and dismisses the fact that the current trajectory of human existence is unsustainable dystopic reflections become the avenue not of escapism but of a deep and abiding wake-up call from the youthful odysseys of a handful of YA authors….

Down the pipe I’ll be adding to my growing reflections on utopic/distopic thought in philosophy and fiction. The U.S.A. has an interesting history of failure in regard to experiments in Utopic communities. And we are learning the dystopia is not a mirror image of this strange world of no-place, but is itself a line of flight through the limits of our own inability to live in such pure realms of beatitude. Maybe our flight from reality is truly just a step into its messiness of existence with all its irrational and unbounded, chaotic complexity. It is this strange resistance to our orderly logic and Platonizing hopes for a perfect world beyond that is the force of Life breaking free of those reasonable and mathematical forms that opens us to what is unique about existence: its ability to fail: “the imperfect is our paradise,” said that great poet, Wallace Stevens. In the end dystopia is not the truth of our world refracted through the prism of fiction, by is rather the affective nurturing of that strange transcendental field that Deleuze typified with the epithet of the ‘vertigo of immanence’. This is the non-place of the genealogies of alternate potentials for life and difference, rather than the endless repetitions of death and sameness.

Should we in our pursuit of dystopic reflectivity choose the path of Deleuze/Guattari in their approach to minor literature? Is the endless attempt by these authors of the dystopic another attempt to prevent the enemy, the master-trope: Signifier, from entering the burrow, the rhizome of our experimental envisionings? They told us that for Kafka writing was primary, and that it signified one thing, and one thing only:

“…not a form of literature alone, the enunciation forms a unity with desire, beyond laws, states, regimes. Yet, the enunciation is always historical, political, and social. A micropolitics, a politics of desire that questions all situations. … Everything leads to laughter.” (42, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature)

Is dystopic reflection a form that escapes the tyranny of the Signifier, that opens up the affective relations of enunciation that leads to laughter, a laughter that awakens us from our mindless habits, our machinic unconscious and into an anomalous life of freedom, of adjacency foretold by Deleuze? Is this the K-function? The condition of minor literature? One might even call this the dystopic machine, after those two pioneers and their K-machine:

A Kafka-machine is thus constituted by contents and expressions that have been formalized to diverse degrees by unformed materials that enter into it, and leave by passing through all possible states. To enter or leave the machine, to be in the machine, to walk around it, to approach it – these are all still components of the machine itself: these are states of desire, free of all interpretation. The line of escape is part of the machine. … The problem is not that of being free but of finding a way out, or even a way in, another side, a hallway, an adjacency.(ibid. 7-8)

Maybe this is just what these dystopian novels inhabit, the machine of desire, an adjacent region that lies not so much in some alternate reality, but rather forms the compositional fragments of our own reality seen through the undistorted reflections of  children. Like Alice Through the Looking Glass we have all entered the infernal machine by way of madness instead of reason: or, reason as a form of madness; yet, the truth of this machinic realm is that it is our own desires refracted through the lens of a rhizomatic prism: as infernal machines within machines. The only condition of escape from such an infernal realm is to burrow deeper into it, to work through the rhizomatic process of learning and awakening into this world as it is in all its messiness and incompleteness; its open-ended possibilities for change.

What seems apparent in this new trend in dystopian novels for young adults is an awakening to a polyphony of voices. Utopia is a dangerous impulse which under the worst of circumstances can lead to the tyranny of totalistic collectives; yet, if we see it as an unfinished, and never to be finished, open ended, project that enables further openings, further movement, so that its ‘mobilization of desires’ and needs for a better world will always exceed any utopian visions that arise from that very process, and see it not as a totalizing, universal, discourse of what might be, then the voices of activists, artists, and scholars – as well as everyday citizens – might begin to share in an apprehension of the limitations, both internal and external, of what a utopian alternative might offer us in the way of hope. But from any cursory reading of these scattered works one realizes that utopia is usually just another name for an imposed tyranny by some form of totalized vision of governance over the commons. For those that do not fit into this totalized vision there is either death or exclusion. Are humans condemned to live in their own prisons of hatred and fear? Will we always invent codes of discipline that excludes the other, the stranger, the one who does not fit into the vision of paradise we have invented? These are the questions that dystopian novels begin to ask, even if that never provide a complete solution. There has always been a fine line between creativity and enslavement, the one spawns new modes of being, the other constrains those modes into channels for the supposed greater good. But what is the greater good? And, who’s good is it anyway?

A selection of favorites include:

1.  Hunger Games Trilogy Suzanne Collins

Written in the voice of 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem, where the countries of North America once existed. The Capitol, a highly advanced metropolis, exercises political control over the rest of the nation. The Hunger Games are an annual event in which one boy and one girl aged 12–18 from each of the twelve districts surrounding the Capitol are selected by lottery to compete in a televised battle to the death.

2. Battle Royale Koushun Takami

Battle Royale is a high-octane  thriller about senseless youth violence, and one of Japan’s bestselling – and  most controversial – novels. As part of a ruthless program by the totalitarian  government, a group of high school students are taken to a small isolated island  with a map, food, and various weapons. Forced to wear special collars that explode when thy break a rule, they must fight each other for three days until
only one remains.

3. Little Brother Cory Doctorow

Little Brother is set five minutes into the future, when terrorists blow up San Francisco’s Bay Bridge and the BART tunnel. This brings about a huge crackdown, with tons of American citizens being rounded up and imprisoned in a secret prison on Treasure Island – or shipped off to foreign countries to be tortured.

4. Maze Runner James Dashner

Thomas, the main character in The Maze Runner wakes up in a metal box in the year 2024 with the memory of his past life wiped. He is welcomed into a large, concrete area called the Glade, populated by a group of sixty or so teenage boys called “Gladers”. The Glade is surrounded by massive concrete walls, beyond which lie an enormous maze. All Gladers have arrived the same way as Thomas: one every month, with concrete memories wiped.

5. Wither Lauren DeStefano

What if you knew exactly when you would die?  Thanks to modern science, every human being has become a ticking genetic time bomb – males only live to age twenty-five and females only live to age twenty. In this bleak landscape, young girls are kidnapped and forced into polygamous marriages to keep the population from dying out.

6. The Giver Lois Lowry

Jonas is selected to inherit the position of “Receiver of Memory,” the person who stores all the past memories of the time before Sameness, in case they are ever needed to aid in decisions that others lack the experience to make. When Jonas meets the previous receiver—The “Giver”—he is confused in many ways. Additionally, the Giver is able to break some rules, such as turning off the speaker and lying to people of the community. As Jonas receives the memories from the Giver, he discovers the power of knowledge.


Please feel free to let me know of your own favorite YA Dystopian Novels. I love this strange world of reflective possibilities.

Here is a list form Bart’s Bookshelf: 50+ YA Dystopian Novels

2 thoughts on “YA Dystopian Novels: Strange Tales of Youth

  1. Pingback: Impossible Object(s) & Other Speculations from Dark Ecologies | Senselogi©

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