“Oh please recommend us some books to read!” a young avid reader and her mother fell over each other to ask me recently.
They sounded as desperate as if they had been living on a desert island in an information vacuum, instead of surrounded by the thousands of books being published and the millions of reviews and tweets and posts being published about them. Their problem was not with any shortage of books though. It was with the type of books.
“Something without the end of the world in it,” pleaded the mother. And “ANYTHING that isn’t a really, really depressing future dystopia,” begged the daughter.
I was delighted to oblige since there’s little I like better than recommending books. But their plea, especially from a bright and lovely fourteen-year-old with all her life ahead of her, made me wonder what the current vogue for YA ‘dyslit’ is doing for its intended readers.
When I was little older than her, 1984 made an unforgettable impact on me, as did the post-apocalypse novel Riddley Walker. These books made me think about what humans do to the world and to each other. They taught me about society, politics and the environment from a perspective I could relate to. 1984 depressed the hell out of me; Riddley Walker scared and inspired me; each of them offered a convincingly bleak and strange but recognisable version of the future.
But each was only one version. I spent a good part of my teenage years convinced we were all going to die in a nuclear holocaust. Yet looking back now, those years seem quite carefree. I didn’t have global warming hanging over me. I didn’t have economic meltdown and debt crisis and pandemics and increasing poverty and inequality looming from every side. Floods, refugees, disasters, gladiator games or zombie apocalypses didn’t feature in too many of the books I was reading; dystopia was not a recognised and highly fashionable YA genre.
The signs for the future are bad, if you believe the news and half the current novels and movies. I don’t envy today’s teenagers, growing up with it all. It’s a huge responsibility we have put on their shoulders and I sympathise with a girl who’s tired of reading stories about how bad things are going to get.
That’s not to say that there are not some wonderful, important, thought-provoking examples of dyslit being published now. The best offer not only ideas how to survive, but also ways to change things.
The future, after all, is what we make it. What happened to dystopia’s maligned and unfashionable other side, utopia?