For years, I’ve been wondering why dystopian and post-apocalyptic books are so popular, especially with teens. Personally, I love reading these books. I also enjoy writing them. Now, I’m generally a very optimistic person who believes we can create a good future. So what is it about corpse-ridden zombie-sucking industrial wastelands that appeals so much to readers and writers?
Here are just a few of the recent books I’m talking about:
The Hunger Games Series (obviously)
Ship Breaker, by Paolo Baggicslouldsliy (actually, his name is Bacigalupi, but I struggle with dyslexia)
Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld (and Pretties, and Specials — awesome series, taking place with the remains of our civilization in the background)
Wool (I’m reading this one right now, actually)
Glow (a thrilling book by my good friend, Amy Kathleen Ryan, about people leaving a dying earth)
Feed, by M.T. Anderson (one of my all-time favorite books — not such much post-apocalyptic as the whimpering way the world ends)
Rot and Ruin (great zombie book)
Armageddon Children (proving that giant centipedes are very creepy)
Shades Children (by Garth Nix, who told me that if he could be Garth, I could be Todd. BTW, this is the most page-turniest book I’ve ever read).
And so on… (Unwind, Divergent, Matched, Maze Runner, The Stand, World War Z, The Postman, etc…). I’m sure there are several others I’m forgetting, but these are just some of the ones I’ve read in the past couple of years. (And don’t even get me started on the movies, like the Terminator series, or Blade Runner, Mad Max, The Matrix…).
It’s not just freaks like me who love a good post-apocalyptic romp, either. When I talk with teens, I often ask them what books they’ve read recently that I should check out. About half the time the book they recommend is dystopian or set in a post-apocalyptic world.
Now, people often talk about fantasy books as being an escape. But why would people want to escape into zombie infested ghost-world hell holes? What is it about these books that appeals to us (especially teens)?
Here’s my theory: Post-apocalyptic books offer us an escape from denial.
Let me explain. Often, books (and movies) become popular when they respond to a deep-seated social need or anxiety. I think this is especially true of fantasy and sci-fi books which act as the dreams of our collective unconscious. And right now, we know on some deeply unconscious (or maybe even conscious) level that we’re screwing things up. We know that all our pollution and over-consumption is driving the planet to ruin. We might not accept the science of climate change, but we can’t ignore all the droughts, floods, super storms, forest fires, heat waves and other signs of a world spinning out of balance. Nor can we ignore the many signs of social inequality leading to civil unrest.
I think teens are particularly aware of this, perhaps because they’re not so invested in the status quo. Or perhaps because this is the world they’re inheriting, and they’re pissed that we’re trashing it. So there’s a thread of anxiety running through our culture. But here’s the tricky thing: on the surface things are pretty good right now. Many of us are living in a golden age. The amount of wealth and luxury people have, when compared to other times in human history, is staggering.
So there’s this very perplexing dissonance: on the surface, things are good, but deep down, we know there are problems. And all this dissonance is uncomfortable. It feels contradictory, so it sends us into denial. Either we deny that things are good, or we deny that there are underlying problems with our society and the contradiction goes away.
Trouble is, denial takes a lot of energy. It’s exhausting. You have to keep pushing away the facts and ignoring your experiences. Take children of alcoholics, for instance. When you grow up in an alcoholic family, everyone knows there’s a problem, but everyone also knows that you can’t talk about it (because nothing sets the alcholic off or upsets the peace more than mentioning the problem). So children in alcoholic families learn at a young age to pretend that there isn’t a problem and act like everything is fine. And the easiest way to do this is to deny your own experiences and emotions.
But, as many children of alcoholics know, this takes a toll. And inevitably, no matter how hard everyone tries not to rock the boat, crap is going to hit the fan (sorry for the mixed metaphor there — picture a ceiling fan on a boat). That’s what happens with alcoholics. Things spin out of control, and when they do, even though it’s bad, it can also be a relief. Because when the crap flies, at least the problem is out there. It’s obvious. And you can finally face it and deal with it.
I don’t think we’re often aware of how much energy denial takes. Or how much stress and anxiety it creates to ignore underlying problems (because we’re so afraid that they’ll rise to the surface). So it’s a relief to escape from all that societal denial in fiction. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic books offer us a vision of the world gone wrong (sometimes in a hyperbolic way) so that the problems that must not be mentioned in our real lives can finally be confronted.
In some ways this is similar to the Greek notion of catharsis, but it’s not quite the same thing. Where catharsis offers an audience a way to release emotion (and blow off some steam), dystopian and post-apocalyptic books offer us a way to escape the constant cultural need to deny the underlying problems of our society. (Quick aside — I’ve been learning to speak out on some of these big issues that are easier to deny, and it’s been a hugely rewarding experience. Check it out, if you want to book me for a free, and optimistic, climate talk).
Granted, a post-apocalyptic world makes for some great fiction, since there are plenty of ways to amp up the conflict and put pressure on characters. But this alone doesn’t explain why post-apocalyptic and dystopian settings are so appealing, especially for teen audiences. One thing teens are great at, though, is detecting bullshit. As any teacher will tell you, most teens have an uncanny ability to sense when someone is being insincere (or phony, or fake, or a poseur…). Likewise, I believe teens can sense when our society is being insincere. Post-apocalyptic and dystopian books are a way of calling us out on this.
Or maybe not. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this. If you enjoy post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, why? What is it about them that makes them appealing to you?