There’s some evidence that the dystopia trend is starting to wane—simply because it’s becoming oversaturated. Post-apocalyptic stories in films and TV shows start to inundate the mainstream culture with more and more material so that most new stories are doomed to be unoriginal before they even start. And the books, often the trendsetters (or a few years behind) are moving towards contemporary realistic, at least in YA.
Now, trends are never rules. One need only look at the long history of the dystopia (1984, A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale) and even the YA dystopia (The Giver) to see that it’s been here for decades and no doubt will be here for decades more.
But why the sudden boom? It seems like The Hunger Games led the trend, along with a boom of zombies off the back of vampires in TV and film (zombies and dystopia or at least post-apocalypse tend to go side by side). But what makes a dystopia—often so negative—ripe for the trend in the first place?
I think the main reason is that dystopian or post-apocalyptic societies give anyone the chance (or the obligation) to take action. In YA, it’s far easier to believe that a teenager will be called upon to save the world when the world itself has changed, and teenagers are led into death matches or sold off at 18 or funneled into factions or any number of other experiences that our sheltered school-bound teenagers don’t share. And in post-apocalyptic scenarios, even ordinary adults must now be hunters and warriors and, in the case of zombies, prey.
This can be grim, of course, but it feels a little bit like agency and power. I think another reason specifically in dystopias (where there is still some form of government) is that it frames the rebels and the criminals as the good guys. Is it a coincidence that the dystopian trend came alongside the antihero trend in TV? Dystopias allow for “immoral” characters to suddenly be heroes in their own right. You can wallow in the guilty pleasure of crime and rebellion and even war while unashamedly rooting for a character to win.
From a writer’s perspective, dystopias do two things really well. The first is that it’s fun to imagine how the world might be radically different—but rather than have to invent a whole new society and world, you just have to extrapolate it from our world. Still human (in most cases), but restarted and reshaped however the author desires. Testing out radical what-if scenarios is a temptation for many writers, and dystopias give us the freedom to play with those scenarios while still tethered somewhat to reality.
The second is that it provides instantaneous conflict, the lifeblood of stories. With a dystopian government, you have an easy but powerful villain. Depending on how your dystopia is constructed, you may also have an instant theme to play into, whether prejudice or violence or tyranny. While you still have to do the work of crafting the story and the characters, the world itself provides tons of material for conflict to grow out of, even for just a scene or subplot. Easy plotting, in some cases, at least in the big picture sense.
So I don’t think the dystopia trend will go anywhere. I think it will subside back into a subgenre, still devoured by the devotees or the passersby, until some new work ignites the mainstream’s imagination again.
Because everybody thinks about the end of the world… and wants to save it.