Dystopian fiction, a genre established by literary legends such as George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Undoubtedly, great works like Animal Farm, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 exposed entire generations to more than just epic stories — they painted an all too vivid, prophetic portrait of what happens when the worst elements of human nature are allowed to reign supreme. In light of the genre’s dark, sobering nature, it may strike you as odd that it has witnessed a resurgence. In fact, dystopian fiction is even starting to outshine sparkling vampires on young adult bookshelves across the country.
Yet, upon further examination it all makes sense. Much like the early-to-mid 20th Century, society finds itself at a crucial turning point; one fueled by technological innovation and an increasingly tense political climate. In this piece, I will suggest 4 trilogies to get your students thinking about the complicated issues they will be forced to wrestle with going forward.
Summary: After a cataclysmic electromagnetic pulse explodes and sends mankind back to the dark ages, billions are left dead. Even more frightening, a large portion of the survivors have been irreversibly mutated, losing all sense of humanity and rendered the equivalent of hyper-aggressive zombies. As civilization is propelled into a downward spiral, young Alex finds herself at a crossroads.
Just moments before the disaster, she was already at the deepest depths of despair, mourning her dead parents and suffering from a terminal illness. Yet, as the world descends into chaos, Alex is left little time for self-pity. Overwhelmed by curiosity and feeling like she has nothing to lose, she sets off on an action-packed, heart-wrenching quest to make sense of the madness.
The Verdict: For most students, a world without selfies, social media and on-demand entertainment seems unimaginable. Certainly, they are reaping the rewards of an era bound to go down as one of the most transformational, prosperous periods of human history. Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget that the technology we’ve come to rely on is far from indestructible. With dependence comes vulnerability, and Author Lisa J. Brick masterfully illustrates the devastating effects of a forced, global digital detox.
Homework Suggestions: The Ashes trilogy envisions a world where technological advancement has proven to be a double-edged sword. Use this as an opportunity for students to imagine a life without digital devices. Then, instruct them to write a brief essay on what 21st Century perk they’d miss the most. Alternatively, you could divide the class into groups, challenging each one to create a survival kit that would still prove useful in a world completely void of modern conveniences.
Summary: In the world of Delirium, a futuristic United States has devolved into a totalitarian regime, one that’s isolated from the world and micromanaged with brutal efficiency. In fact, the very notion of “love” itself has been declared an enemy of the state. Love for pets, love for spouses, even showing too much affection towards your children are all crimes punishable by death. Until their 18th birthday, boys and girls are kept segregated and strictly forbidden from interacting with the opposite sex. Once they turn 18, they are given a “cure”, rendering them incapable of forming sentimental attachments. Afterwards, both their marriage partner and career are assigned by the state. For the most part, 17-year-old Lena Haloway is happy with the way things are. After all, she’s known nothing else. However, months before receiving a cure for Deliria (love), she meets Alex — a dark, rebellious young man that causes her worldview to come crashing down.
The Verdict: When it comes to psychopathic ideologies becoming official government policy, history is riddled with tragic examples. However, novels as well-written as the Delirium trilogy immerse young readers in a way that a WWII documentary never could. Certainly, author Lauren Oliver Harper breathes fresh air into a genre often criticized for repackaging the same old plot lines. When we really drill down into it, the series has more in common with Orwell’s 1984 than something like the Hunger Games. Students may not be able to understand every nuance of totalitarianism, but love is always sure to resonate. By outlawing such a fundamental human trait, readers are left with a clear understanding of why personal liberty must never be extinguished.
Homework Ideas: After reading the novel, assign a research project that challenges students to find real-life examples of governments trying to control human behavior (prohibition, racial segregation, eugenics, etc). What was the state trying to prevent? Have students explain why they either support or disagree with this stance.
Summary: Divergent follows Beatrice Prior, a 16-year-old girl growing up in the post-apocalyptic remains of Chicago. After a cataclysmic war leads to the collapse of civilization, surviving generations engineer an elaborate social reconstruction. Society is divided into five factions, with each one obsessively devoting itself to a distinct human virtue. “Dauntless” champions bravery, “Abnegation” embodies charity and self-sacrifice, “Amity” pursues peace by all means, “Erudite” is filled with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and “Candor” values truth above all else (even if it happens to be brutal).
At the age of 16, each individual is subjected to an exhaustive evaluation and then forced to make a decision — do they stay in the faction of their birth or do they join another that they feel resonates with them more? Either way, the choice is irreversible and an intense initiation process must be completed. At this point, Beatrice is confronted with a chilling reality — she’s divergent; which means, in essence, she can’t be placed neatly into one category. As far as the government is concerned, the only good divergent is a dead divergent. Thankfully, Beatrice manages to keep her fugitive status a secret. As a result, she’s allowed to join Dauntless. Of course, the threat of exposure is around every corner. Certainly, the events that follow her fateful decision are nothing short of page-turning brilliance.
The Verdict: In a world as polarized as ours, the importance of individuality and the development of independent thought can not be emphasized enough. For this reason, Veronica Roth’s Divergent is a timely and relevant read for young adults. Although set in a dystopian future and featuring a tough-as-nails female hero, it would be unwise to lump this series too closely with the Hunger Games. For starters, it isn’t nearly as bleak. Furthermore, technology appears to be less advanced and the issues explored are much more relevant to young adults — namely, the pressure they feel to conform and fit in.
Homework Suggestions: Considering Divergent is based around a crucial choice, have students provide an example of an important decision they were forced to make. How has it impacted their life? Alternatively, you could ask the class to write an essay on the importance of accepting and working with people of different beliefs and backgrounds.Along those same lines, you could also give students a list of 10 personality traits and have them rank each one in order of importance. Afterwards, surprise the class by assigning teams according to the trait students deemed most desirable. Then, issue a task/project and strictly limit communication to those within the same group. Once this is complete, have the class reflect on the experience
Did they work well with their like-minded teammates? Did they miss their friends in other groups? Did they have a hard time picking the most important trait? The point of the exercise is to demonstrate how bland our lives would be if we were limited to just one category.
Summary: In the totalitarian nation of Panem, every day is a classic tale of haves and have-nots. Twelve districts slave away in poverty, whereas the Capitol reaps all the rewards. As with any oppressive state, taming those who have nothing to lose is a top priority. Enter the Hunger Games, a grand spectacle designed to distract the masses while simultaneously demonstrating the foolishness of all those who oppose the government. When Katniss Everdeen’s little sister is chosen to become a lamb for the slaughter, she knows she’s left with no choice but to substitute herself. Little does anyone realize, however, that inside her beats the heart of a revolutionary — one capable of disemboweling President Snow’s soulless regime.
The Verdict: When the Hunger Games is mentioned, most people either respond with enthusiasm or snarky remarks and eye rolls. Even if you’ve had enough of the Hollywood hype machine, author Suzanne Collins’ ability to resonate with teens cannot be ignored. In an age where cable news is increasingly indistinguishable from reality television, it isn’t hard to draw parallels between the Hunger Games and contemporary reality. As a society, we’re pretty much hardwired to live vicariously through others. We long to indulge in scandals, savoring every juicy morsel of gossip. The danger lies in being so consumed by entertainment that unpleasant realities — the fact that what we’re seeing on the screen before us is, real, and that the “actors” human — are ignored completely. In something as fragile as a democracy, this has the potential to prove quite fatal. Also, let’s not forget another crucial element — Katniss Everdeen, without a doubt, provides a great example of a strong, independent young woman. That, in and of itself, is reason to look upon the series favorably.
Homework Ideas: The popularity of the Hunger Games ensures any lesson crafted around the world of Panem is sure to prove engaging. For example, you could have students write a letter to President Snow exposing the immorality of the games. Not only does this activity teach persuasive writing skills, but it also stresses the importance of speaking out in the face of injustice. Then again, you could also spark classroom creativity by assigning groups and having students create the kinds of ads they’d expect to see on the streets of the Capital City. What’s on sale — and, more interesting, what do the arguments that lie behind the advertising say about the society’s values?
For most of their lives so far, young adults have been told what to think, what to do and what to say. Although typically done with their best interest at heart, this strict control can trigger a sense of powerlessness, something the heroes and heroines of the above novels struggle to overcome. As they approach entry into an often intimidating adult world, dystopian fiction helps to deliver a mature understanding of fundamental political and ethical issues. For this reason, I sincerely hope the genre continues to thrive.