Carrying the Light

coming of age in the dystopian future

Clare Hayes-Brady

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The histrionic and complicatedly polygamous love affair between contemporary society, consumer culture, politics, morality and youth rolls on, its squabbles providing the soundtrack to social evolution. The cultural and commercial fetishisation of youth that has endured for centuries shows no signs of abating. A symbolic shorthand for innocence, potential and redemptive possibility, childhood, youth and adolescence have fascinated writers and artists in every period, and the fevered pitch of contemporary cultural injunctions to stay young, to look young, to be and feel young exists in a state of uneasy relation to the rhetoric of purity that infuses discussions of childhood and nostalgic imaginings of youth. While bygone youth is mistily recalled, however, as an Edenic state, and the conceptual state of youth remains a site of inviolate symbolic purity, the present and future experiences of youth are increasingly represented as contested, complicated and fraught with danger. The phenomenal rise of dystopian fiction, particularly works aimed at young adults, has been widely charted in recent years, as critics like Gregory Claeys wonder “where did it all go wrong? When did the vision of heaven become an anticipation of hell?” Amid the wreckage of the optimistic imaginings of the future that emerged in the middle of the twentieth century, Adam Sternbergh muses that “given the dominance of dystopias, it’s possible to forget that Utopia ... came first”, and increasingly difficult to imagine a coherent, compelling Utopian landscape.

While Sternbergh, Miller and the many critics focusing on this trend may be right – we may indeed have reached “peak dystopia” – the dystopian narrative is hardly new. The term itself came into broad use in the twentieth century, although its referent has its roots in the admonitory eighteenth century satires of Swift and Voltaire. These largely comic satirical worlds gave way to the altogether more serious archetypes of what we now consider dystopian fiction, modelled most clearly in Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Conveniently, these two works function as two halves of the same arch-commercial, super-regulated dystopian coin. On the one hand they share the central features that would become familiar from later visions of dystopia: shadowy political (and increasingly technocratic) cabals of powerful decision-makers and puppet-string-pullers; conspicuous and rather joyless consumption; urbanisation; enforced ignorance and poor education; power centralisation, and the many post- and trans-humanist flourishes that give the particular flavour of manipulation, including robotics and computational governance, thought-policing and widespread medical, pharmacological or technological management of emotion. Most or all of these tropes are mirrored in later dystopian narratives like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Fahrenheit 451, Infinite Jest, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Gate to Woman’s Country. 1984 and Brave New World differ, though, in the mode of governmentality: 1984 imagines aggressive, muscular totalitarianism, while Brave New World – a much more frightening text, in my view – conjures a world of largely congenial, consensual docility. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest updates Huxley’s pharma-paradise of unreflective consumption, positioning power as commercial rather than governmental, and the recent Spike Jonze film Her offers a rather sentimental, uncritical updating of the same negative freedom. Orwell believed that Huxley’s world of ill-gotten ease was naive, and that the primary danger in the twentieth century was “the centralised slave-state”. With the advances in technology of the last few decades, Huxley’s hedonistic vision seems more probable than Orwell’s jack-booted brutality, but there is an arrogance in that assumption: a shift in geopolitics may return that spectre sooner than we would like to imagine.

Dystopian visions tend to be associated with problems of freedom and will: the Orwellian heritage, carried on by Fahrenheit 451 and the paranoid tradition of Pynchon and Heller, problematizes the imposition of external control and the absence of positive freedom; the Huxleyan tradition, continued by Wallace and Jonze, and, perhaps most successfully, by the captivating Wall-E, explores the (apparent) overabundance of negative freedom or what Infinite Jest refers to as “this appetite to choose death by pleasure if it is available to choose”. Commonly, the practicalities associated with dystopian governance tend to remain shrouded in convenient vagueness, the origins of the money at the centre of the system part of its sinister mystery. George Saunders is one of a small group of contemporary writers producing what might be called infrastructural or working-class dystopias, or , in which many of the central features outlined above are present, but complicated by the infrastructural problems of contemporary commerce: the theme park that has replaced any genuine sense of culture in Pastoralia, for example, is beset by problems of management, rusting equipment and mundane family troubles. Nick Harkaway’s The Gone Away World takes a comic approach to post-apocalyptic power sources, with pig-powered generators. Harkaway and Saunders offer a darkly comic challenge to the common trait in classic dystopian fiction to more or less ignore the economics of delivery and maintenance associated with thought-policing, android servants and book-burning brigades. Saunders’ hapless protagonists are constrained by discourses every bit as restrictive as Orwell’s, but those discourses are the familiar refrains of management, quality-control and coercive corporate jargon: this is a tedious dystopia, unimpressively despotic and unimaginatively hostile, and while Harkaway’s ragtag heroes are fighting the villainous corporatism that has caused the apocalypse, they are inescapably managed and circumscribed by the needs and desires of commercial self-preservation – country clubs and cocktail parties, promotions and office politics punctuate the narrative. This marks another common thread in classic dystopias: the functional absence of youth. Where children and adolescents exist, they exist as consumers or problems, peripheral and powerless. Orwell, Huxley and their successors wrote almost uniformly of adult cares, of stasis rather than catastrophe, oppression rather than challenge.

The third broad category of dystopia, of course, remedies that absence, positioning children and teens as dystopian protagonists. It is this type that Sternbergh and Miller are interested in, and that has come to dominate bestseller lists and box office charts in recent years. The differences between adult and young adult dystopias are numerous and decisive, with the most obvious distinction being, as Miller points out, that “the grownup ones are grimmer”. The famous ending of 1984 leaves no hope of change or redemption. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, much less dramatically, closes with Rick Deckard stuck in the urban wasteland with nothing to show for his trials but an ersatz toad and a melancholic wife. By contrast, young adult dystopia tends to offer at least the possibility of redemption, and it is these texts that have taken the reading public by storm of late, attracting readers within and far beyond their target demographic. The proliferation of essays and articles discussing the passion of teenagers and adults alike for tales of misery positions contemporary dystopias as the natural development of the fairytale, warning against the commencement or continuation of bad behaviour. Kay Sambell, writing in 2003, argued that the cleansing revolution at the heart of much young adult dystopia, the wiping clean and sweeping away, paints the apocalyptic turn of these narratives as (potentially at least) positive, or redemptive. The warning in young adult fiction, by this reckoning, is indeed more fairytale than forecast. While adult dystopia invokes the horrors of failure – the boot on the face – young adult versions conjure the possibility of success.

Suzanne Collins’ ubiquitous The Hunger Games is one such narrative, which situates youthful rebellion as the tipping point of a barbaric and capricious system. Miller argues that we should read The Hunger Games as a dramatic literalisation of the fundamentally dystopian landscape of high school specifically and adolescence generally, an opaque authoritarian system peopled by popular cliques and downtrodden outcasts. The frustrating powerlessness of adolescence, then, is at the heart of many of these narratives; the characteristic dystopian sense of being an outsider, subordinate to an unthinking and unquestioned regime speaks to the universal experience of adolescence. This may well account for the popularity of such narratives, in a period that fetishises the coming-of-age narrative and the liminal, evanescent beauty of youth, but there is more at play than mere dramatisation. While the relatability of teen angst might account for the genre’s many devoted younger readers, it has less to do with the extraordinary popularity of this phenomenon with adult readers. Young adult dystopian fiction dramatises the pain and confusion of adolescence, to be sure, but it also offers a vision of what growing up in the world of an adult dystopia might be like; imagine how 1984 might have looked with an adolescent protagonist experiencing the piquant traumas of growing up along with the plodding savagery of Big Brother. (Indeed, we may see this before long, with the promised – or threatened – film adaptation of the novel as Equals, a love story starring the adolescent idols Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult.) Adult existence in a dystopian regime is necessarily characterised by failure, suffering and stasis (else, as Sambell argues, what would be the point of the warning?) and the adult subject is corrupted by association. By contrast, the presence of youth suggests renovation, progress, change. It is narratively improbable, to say nothing of mildly uninspiring, that a jaded adult should lead the rebellion against a dystopian system, but youth in revolt has a complicated dynamic of marketability that is beautifully engaged in The Hunger Games: a child becoming an adult has always had a particular rhetorical power, regardless of genre.

In this respect, it is particularly interesting to note the aesthetic representations of youth and adolescence in dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives, both adult and young adult. Frequently, adult storylines take place in an archetypal cityscape, either ravaged or highly advanced: in the first case we might think of the ruins of San Francisco in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the empty streets of LA in I Am Legend, while the technocratic nightmares of Minority Report’s Washington DC, 1984’s London or the Russian city of glass in We swoosh and hum with sinister efficiency. In a trope that reaches back to Modernism and beyond, adulthood is typically visualised against either technology or wasteland, symbols that strongly figure impotence, stasis and dehumanisation. By contrast, childhood and youth in such novels is often represented in a setting of wild natural growth, sometimes bucolic, sometimes threatening. Infinite Jest’s central action takes place in the urban decay of Boston, against a world of careers, addictions and adultery, but in the grotesquely fertile wasteland of the Great Concavity/Convexity, a feral infant wanders untended, the literal incarnation of wilderness reasserting its power. Clarisse McClellan, the instigating nymph in Fahrenheit 451, is consistently associated with nature, particularly trees and forests, while Montag’s generation are aligned with machines, even the old rebels on the railroad track that links the city with the wilderness into which Clarisse has wandered.While these are examples of adult dystopias, the same broad binary appears in young adult texts: Lord of the Flies takes place on a threateningly fecund island, as does the cult favourite Battle Royale. More recently, in The Maze Runner, the adolescent protagonists escape from the lush valley of their imprisonment into an abandoned urban hellscape. Similarly, in The Hunger Games, the decisively adult Capitol is a richly imagined dream of consumerism and luxury, efficient and abundant but sinister and fraudulent. By contrast, the outer districts are agricultural, productive and gritty, their inhabitants connected to nature and growth. Because of the nature of the saga, most of the characters we meet hailing from the Districts are adolescents, Tributes and associates, rather than the vaguely drawn and largely useless rural adult population. Indeed, the District adults who figure prominently in the revolution are typically seen indoors and in the context of the post-apocalyptic wasteland of District 13. Once again, adulthood is contextually sterile and deadening, tied to the synthetic, while youth is aggressively fertile and associated with the natural.

What is particularly interesting about the world of Katniss Everdeen, though, is that it treads the line between adult and young adult concerns. By contrast with the adults of, say, The Maze Runner or the popular Divergent series, in which the thinking of the adult social order is arbitrary and mysterious, the power dynamics in The Hunger Games are part of the narrative itself, rather than an obstacle to be overcome. In this sense, the lavish, detailed descriptions of the Capitol, whose “loving detail” puzzle Miller, are accountable: the adult world is not a pure, volatile Other, as it is in The Maze Runner or Lord of the Flies, but a complex Huxleyan political system governed and controlled by hedonism and luxury; the detail of the luxuries is not incidental, but germane to the system Katniss ultimately challenges, and, specifically, germane in its very contrast to the simplicity of the rural way of life. The contrasting landscapes of youth and maturity meet in the arena in which the Games take place, a complex marriage of the two dominant forms of landscape. The arena is a simulacrum of the pure fertility of the rural, fraught with the pollution, poison and dangerous technology of urban adulthood. Katniss’ aborted self-sacrifice involves nightlock, a species of poisonous wild berry, firmly rooting her heroism and morality in the natural rather than the synthetic, tying her to the passion of youth rather than the pragmatism of maturity.

While the villains, messages and narrative trajectories of adult and young adult dystopias may be quite distinct, the persistent association of youth and redemption with natural fecundity is a common feature across the two branches. The image of a landscape left desolate because of the actions (or inactions) of man is not new, but the recent growth of climate change literature or cli-fi, as it is rather archly known, heightens the symbolic link of innocence with regrowth. The distinct landscapes of adult and child are particularly starkly drawn in The Road, in which the Man is largely associated with the synthetic and finite (sensibly, since objects like trolleys and blankets and houses and canned food are intimately tied up with their survival), while the Boy is more closely connected to nature, growth and the infinite. The Man’s yearning for the lost world of synthetic goods is concentrated in his discovery of a can of Coca Cola, which he presses upon the Boy with nostalgic urgency, but the Boy’s understanding of its significance is minimal, and he seems unperturbed by the prospect of its permanent removal. The contrast between natural and manmade associations is sharply highlighted when the Man explains to the Boy early in the novel that they must leave the waterfall and take the road. The Boy’s sense of place is intimately tied to the river, while the concept of roads crossing named boundaries and specific states is foreign to him. The closing pages of the novel, where the Boy finally leaves the man to his death as the old order changeth, are marked by a shift in landscape, from grim, colourless dereliction to the positively bucolic riverside haven in which the Boy finds himself. The unmistakable tone of redemption in this section is clearly tied to both the Boy’s youth and purity and to the regeneration of the blasted landscape. The possibilities for renewal, revolution and redemption in dystopian novels are commonly associated with both the passion and turbulence of adolescence and the reassertion of the primacy of the natural world over the synthetic.

Returning, then, to the question of the difference between adult and young adult dystopias, the juxtaposition of the coming of age narrative with the eco-gothic reestablishment of wilderness and uncontrolled growth offers a framework within which to read the different endings. While Sambell argues that children’s writers are reluctant to extinguish hope in the way that adult writers might, this seems a bit of a pander. In the end, the redemptive possibility that seems to distinguish young-adult narratives from adult ones is not so much a promise as a challenge. While classical dystopias like 1984 and Brave New World ends with protagonists resigned to their fate, or at least readers resigned to it for them, contemporary young adult fictions do not allow for resignation. Far from reassuring readers, as Sambell suggests, these endings rather demand that the adolescents of today should be prepared to repair the damage of their forebears, economic, social and ecological, and to restore balance to the world. From this perspective, coming of age in the dystopian future is marked not so much by  hope as by expectation, and the equivocal endings seem pleading rather than placatory, a cry from one generation to the next. The admonitory impulse of classical dystopia may not be enough to forestall disaster, and so the redemptive impulse of the next generation of dystopia primes its readers to step in when disaster, perhaps inevitably, strikes. When the boot strikes the face of the urban adult, the young rebels will be ready, these stories tell us, to sweep in from their pure rural existence and restore balance. The hope, then, at the end of the young-adult dystopia, is as much hope for adults as for children.