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Darker times

2011 Books Issue | Fantasy novels about bleak futures are the rage among teenage readers

Issue: "2011 Books of the Year," July 2, 2011

How's this for a scenario: In the future, the USA has been divided into 13 districts, and the strongest dominates all the others. One form of domination is the annual televised exhibition in which two teens from each district compete for the prize of being allowed to live. Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old poacher from District Twelve, volunteers to replace her younger sister who was chosen by lot to be one of the district competitors. Katniss and her fellow competitor Peeta are transported to the capital city, where they will compete to be the last teen standing in a glitzy, media-frantic, widely anticipated, hotly contested, brutal and bloody fight to the death (The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins).

Or this: In the future, the earth has become so inhospitable that humans are colonizing space. Civilization has carved a toe-hold on one planet, except that the male colonists have been infected with Noise, a continual "feed" that allows them to hear the thoughts of every other male in proximity, even the animals. Todd Hewett, age 14 or thereabouts, has grown up in a town without women, controlled by a mad preacher and a mayor who seems to be gathering a select entourage for some nefarious purpose. One day, Todd discovers a pocket of silence in the woods and traces it to . . . a girl. Soon, the two are running for their lives, on a journey that will lead to escalating violence and bloody confrontation (The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness).

Or this: In the future, environmental degradation and war have so devastated the planet that nations have broken down and order is imposed by corporations. Nailer, age 15, works as a drudge on the Gulf Coast salvaging metal from the rusting hulks of stranded oil tankers-also dodging the punches of his semi-savage, drug-addled father. After a hurricane, Nailer finds a wrecked "clipper" ship whose sole survivor is Nita, a swank (rich girl). In what passes for ethics at the time, he would have been justified in slitting her throat and selling her body for parts. But he decides to let her live, plunging both of them into an odyssey of harrowing escapes and bloody confrontations (Shipbreaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi).

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Or finally, this: In the future, humanity has devised a solution to perpetual warfare: the designation of Factions, in which every individual chooses to align with a group named for its most prominent virtue. Thus society is divided into Amity, Candor, Erudite, Dauntless, and Abnegation, all of whom are supposed to balance and contribute to each other. Beatrice Prior, 16, and her brother Caleb have grown up in Abnegation, but when assessment time comes, Beatrice's results are "inconclusive"-meaning she falls under the dreaded non-category of Divergent. Hoping to keep this designation secret, she joins the Dauntless faction while her brother goes with Erudite. But the sides are beginning to take sides and may be headed for (what else?) bloody confrontation (Divergent, by Veronica Roth).

Student magicians and vampire lovers have had their day; what rules the young-adult publishing world now is dystopian fantasy. Though classic examples like Brave New World have made the genre a respectable sub-category for years, The Hunger Games broke it wide open in 2008. Since then, knockoffs and fresh imaginings have stampeded out of every major publishing house. The buzz book this spring is Divergent, whose author is notable for two things: her youth (22) and her faith.

Veronica Roth, a professing Christian, sees her "faction" system as an imaginative twist on categorizing: "I think we all secretly love and hate categories-love to get a firm hold on our identity but hate to be confined-and I never loved or hated them more than when I was a teenager." Each faction in Divergent has its strength but also its fatal weakness, demonstrating "that we can make even something as well-intentioned as virtue into an idol, or an evil thing."

Whether the rage for dystopia is a novelty or an indicator of deep-seated pessimism among the young remains to be seen. Clearly, the grim choices and high stakes inherent in the genre resonate at a time of life when every slight can be a game-changer and self-knowledge is elusive. Young heroes like Katniss Everdeen and Beatrice Prior can no longer rely on parents or peers to tell them who they are: They have to figure it out for themselves. That's every teen's challenge, a challenge dystopian literature reflects in the starkest terms.

-Janie Cheaney blogs about children's literature at redeemedreader.com

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