Pessimism: The Next Generation

In my opinion, some of the best science fiction published today is in the young adult section.  Uglies by Scott Westerfeld and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins are two of my favorites, and I just ordered a book called Matched by Allie Condie, which I’m eager to read.

All three books could be classified as a specific kind of sci-fi: dystopia.  They all present a future gone horribly wrong.  Uglies is about compulsory plastic surgery; in The Hunger Games, children fight to the death as a form of entertainment; Matched, according to its description on Amazon, is about a world where the state determines who you can marry.  It reminds me most of the original utopia, the perfect society advocated by Plato over 2000 years ago, which also included a government run breading program.

And these books are meant for kids, age 13 and up.

I grew up watching Star Trek, one of the most optimistic sci-fi series ever created.  It presents a future without poverty, racism, or war (except occasional wars against Klingons, Romulans, or the Dominion).  It shows technology making our lives better.  It shows a government that respects the rights of its citizens and noncitizens alike.  It boldly tells us that no matter how bad the world is today, there’s always hope for tomorrow.

Star Trek’s message shaped the person I am today.  Although I would never discourage children from reading books—any books—they’re interested in, I have to wonder what impact all these dystopias have on young minds.  Are we making a generation of pessimists?

* * *

It’s two weeks since I originally posted this, and I can safely say Matched by Allie Condie is an excellent book.  These are all excellent books.  My only concern is that a steady diet of dystopias might make kids afraid of the future… afraid that we can’t solve our problems without Big Brother style government.

With that said, dystopia for young adults is nowhere near as pessimistic as the classic dystopias, like Geroge Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  No matter how bad things get in Uglies, Hunger Games, or Matched, there is still hope for a better world.  Even hope for a real utopia.

5 Responses to Pessimism: The Next Generation

  1. Phil says:

    Dystopia in SF is nothing new (Blade Runner comes to mind instantly) but the fact that the concept has infiltrated YA literature is disturbing. The writers of such future noir might say that their stories are delivering a moral tale. I certainly won’t argue that.

    Perhaps they feel they’re pushing the envelope by presenting children with challenging material that will prepare them for the problems that exist in the real world as opposed to sheltering them behind such things as -gasp- optimism, tolerance, compassion, peace, camaraderie among people, and cooperation between nations.

    As a long time fan of Star Trek, I absolutely agree that the show managed to present moral tales effectively without presenting a bleak, hopeless future.

    Yet times change along with tastes and mentalities. Noir is fashionable right now as evidenced by such SF shows as Battlestar Galactica and it’s hybrid clone, Stargate: Universe. That may be why I don’t enjoy those shows as much as say… Eureka. Blade Runner failed in the early 80s against ET at the box office. Why? The 80s was not a decade of noir films. The time just wasn’t right.

    A healthy level of pessimism keeps one grounded but it seems our youth have become accustomed to a darker, dehumanizing side of life at a very early age.

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  2. jaxbee says:

    Great post! I’m not really a sci-fi expert but did absolutely LOVE Star Trek and all its off-shoots. I’d still watch it now, if I had half the chance , and you may be pleased to know that my 12 and 11 year old children are absolute addicts (particularly of Deep Space 9) having been introduced to Star Trek by their dad. Now all three of them watch them ‘taped’ on the hymax box (I think that’s what it’s called, I’m not really the telly person in our house).
    But yes, your more serious point. I do wonder about the information we’re feeding our children and their access to the adult world which comes much too soon nowadays in my opinion. I was mortified when my youngest asked me what rape was – when she didn’t even know about sex! I seriously got quite upset about a world where she hears more/first about the ugly side of something, rather than learning that it’s one of life’s simple pleasures, in the right hands, which is the message I wanted her to get.
    The only solace I would take in all this is that every generation has its difficulties and the teenagers in my life via my children and those in the village, seem pretty sorted and really, very, very nice! I live in hope that they’ll survive the sometime horrible world we’ve given them and emerge the stronger the other side.

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  3. mandyeward says:

    I agree with Jax – it’s a great post. I think rural kids tend to be more optimistic and happy than those brought up in cities. Parental Effort is more important than a lot of people seem to think and…

    ….my comment turned into a blog post! It’s here – http://kiramorganaofanglia.blogspot.com/2011/03/young-adult-science-fiction-literature.html

    – if you want to take a look. Thanks for making me think!

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