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Are YA Dystopias Secretly Conservative?

By Alyssa Rosenberg  

"Are YA Dystopias Secretly Conservative?"

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I think this piece from Salon is quite intriguing, particularly in its focus on the ideological purity of country or encampment living, and in arguing that while most of these protagonists spend at least some time allied with revolutionary movements, series often up rejecting them as overly violent or just the same thing as a repressive regime all over again:

But they’re not quite noble savages, because they’re self-aware. In the wild, they find misfits who safeguard learning, hoarding the books and lore that the dystopias have repressed. The Occupy movement often casts itself in a similar light, as its members “rough it” in parks in the middle of cities as if keeping alive a more earthy, simple, honest way of living; their library tents symbolize their devotion to learning from the past as they forge a better way for the future. Indeed, the library is a synecdoche for the movement itself: in Toronto, protesters chained themselves to theirs as it was about to be removed as part of the camp’s eviction; at Occupy Wall Street, the demolishing of the library has been viewed as a repressive dystopian act.

In the wilderness, the dystopian protagonists also encounter rebels – and not necessarily the same people who read books. Unlike in escapist fantasies such as “Star Wars,” where the rebels unambiguously deserve our support as they fight an evil empire with the light side of the force, the rebels in YA dystopias can be as dangerous as those in power. Often the two are mirror images of one another, led by charismatic but delusional figures who seek to wrest power for themselves by violent means and view the teenage heroes as vehicles for them to do so. In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss becomes an icon for the rebels in the legendary District 13 but ultimately distrusts their humorless and pathologically driven leader, Alma Coin; in “Chaos Walking,” Viola (Todd’s girlfriend and female counterpart) falls in with The Answer, a group of terrorists who are healers by profession but are just as adept at setting off bombs, and wouldn’t blink at blowing her up if it achieved their own ends.

Now obviously, conservatives have their radicals, too. But I tend to think most of these setups tend to have the regime in power be a conservative analogue, whether it’s preserving extreme economic inequality as in The Hunger Games or priests entangled with the ruling hierarchy in The Knife of Never Letting Go. And so for the people who are fighting against those regimes to prove to be terrorists or authoritarians suggests an unfortunate equivalence between liberals and conservatives, from reformers and preservers of the status quo. And I think there’s something inherently conservative (and worrying, given the age of the target audience) about narratives that encourage people not to participate in the system or to believe that there’s nothing they can do to improve their lives and the structures that govern them. If you drop out, you may be able to live your life on your own terms. But at some point, you’ll probably need to be in contact with the outside world. And if you come up for air because you need an abortion, or because you’re being affected by environmental degradation, or the economy’s left you destitute and you haven’t done your part to make sure the rest of the world is responsive to your needs, you might be in for a nasty surprise.

Fortunately, there are alternatives like Tamora Pierce’s books, which read collectively and in chronological order tell the story of the abolition of slavery and the liberalization of society in her fictional kingdom of Tortall. It’s a story about reform, and as a result, it takes a long time: the arc spans more than a hundred years and twenty books. Not a lot of authors are going to commit to something that ambitious, nor should they have to. But opting out isn’t the only way you can make a story fit in two to four books. Sometimes, it’s a matter of a compromised outcome, or one reform at a time.

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