If young adult novels, and their filmic progeny, had been resting on a pop-cult bubble in 2014, this is the year that bubble pops. Its residue will vanish in the summer haze faster than you can say Chick-Lit.
Though the box office success of Insurgent may still be blowing some overheated air into the bubble (or is the bubble really a dome? . . . and we’re all living under it, and . . . it will never pop because it’s made of a polymer only producible by the screams of fighting children and the sighs of star-crossed young lovers), it may be the last infusion of air the genre sees before it grows too taut and explodes.
As we veer headlong into the summer reading season, you may find yourself reaching for a book you’ve heard too much about but not read. This is because you have refused to. It’s one of those books your kids have read. They’ve seen the movies too. So have your adult friends. You’ve been left out of many a conversation yet felt smugly okay with that. You’ve been meaning to, just to see what the hubbub is about, reading with a superciliously arched brow like an aloof anthropologist. It’s one of those books that involves a love triangle among distressed and warring children—whether they be wielders of bows and arrows, or they run through mazes, or whatever happens in Divergent. But it’s been awhile now. Maybe it’s safe. You’ve thought maybe you were being elitist or nonconformist or just plain old contrarian. One of those. Basically, you’ve been a book snob. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
And now, just when you figure you’ll swallow your pride and run with the lemmings through the mazes and through the arena to the capital city, to give yourself a little guilty pleasure and to be somewhat in the know, somewhat conversant, you find yourself alone. It’s over. It’s gone. Pop.
You knew you should have trusted your gut. You’re a little angry with yourself for capitulating. Look where it got you.
Why has the young adult dystopian genre in books and films gone—or about to go—pop? Fickleness, the far future fanciful thing grown stale? Cultural saturation point? Shark jumped? It could be those things. It likely is those things, but it’s something else too. The real culprit is that there are more exciting stories in the news these days. We don’t need to make up fanciful dystopic stories taking place in an improbable far seeming time. We’ve got real dystopic problems brewing right here, right now. It’s not the far future we need to worry about. It’s the near future.
Our military uses drones in faraway wars. But the FBI uses them in domestic surveillance too. That Pandora’s Box is way open, and isn’t likely to close.
The National Security Agency has cast a dragnet over all communications coming and going. Each email you send overseas, the NSA makes a copy and sniffs it for malfeasance. It doesn’t matter to whom your email is sent. If the NSA finds your email at all germane to national security, it may keep it for years.
In other areas of society, the future is starting to look a lot like the past. Clearly, we don’t live in a post-racial world. We live in hyper-racial times.* Seven years into the Obama administration and the violence and societal Sturm und Drang over race is arguably more pervasive and intense than it has been in this country since the 1970s—race riots in the heartland of Ferguson, Missouri; serious racial tension in wake of the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Let’s not forget the Trayvon Martin case which culminated just the summer before last. Still buzzing in our heads are the catchphrases: “Hands up, don’t shoot”, “I can’t breathe”, and Hoodie.
Wall Street is no longer occupied by anyone other than the power-suited usual suspects. Whether you agreed with the voices of the Occupy movement or not, those voices were tolerated for only so long before being summarily quashed. Those voices are now distant echoes, if that.
Resurgent insurgents and terrorists are cutting off heads on YouTube and kidnapping school girls while rattling their sabers on Twitter. And now we are all Charlie.
School shootings are so prevalent that it feels like background noise. Unless it directly affects us, we tend to just glance up at the cable news crawler and collectively shrug.
This is to name but a few items from the headlines that make fanciful far future dystopias seem not so gripping. What grips us are the near-future ones. The closer, truer ones. The ones reflecting that general societal unease and disquiet. You can just feel it, right? The economy is on the mend and employment numbers have clawed their way back to an acceptable range. We haven’t shocked and awed anyone lately (well, ask a victim of a drone attack), and there have been no major terrorist attacks on our soil in quite some time. And yet, and yet . . .
Of course, one could argue that these books and films are merely entertainments. Divergent is a mere diversion, nothing more. These sorts of fictions hardly fall under the rubric of important Art, possessing as it does, that mirror that reflects society back at itself. And, yes, one can surely argue that what we are experiencing now is nothing compared to the sentiments of the 1850s and 1860s, nothing compared to the Sixties.
But, dystopian stories are different, aren’t they? They have always existed to point the finger at things that may go terribly wrong, or they are allegories attempting to name truths about a present full of lies. The problem is, things are wrong right now. It’s really a matter of measuring how worse will it get if we aren’t able to shuck off our complacency, isn’t it? It’s all percolating under the surface like that caldera we call Yellowstone. Pretty, awe-inspiring on the outside with its vistas, waterfalls, all that destiny manifested. But deathly just below.
Sorry, Katniss. It’s been fun. But we’ve got too much to worry about right now. By the glowering, withering look you’re giving me, I’m sure you’re okay with that. Truth really is stranger than fiction. You just can’t make this stuff up.
-- Mark Falkin is the author of the forthcoming novel, Contract City
* As of this writing, which was late March 2015, the church massacre in South Carolina, the DuBose shooting in Cincinnati, and the arrest and death of Sandra Bland had yet to occur.