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What’s so hot about dystopia?

The Telegraph in London recently wrote about dystopian fiction: “Wizards and vampires are out. The market in teen fiction is dominated now by societies in breakdown.”

What’s so attractive about burned-out worlds and people scrabbling for food in hollow shells of cities?

A closer look shows dystopia has been around a long time. Panic about the cold war and the atomic age produced such classics as George Orwell’s 1984 and William Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, as well as movies like On The Beach, Dr. Strangelove and Planet of the Apes with Charlton Heston’s famous last line: “You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

Today’s cause of dystopia seems to be more varied. Environmental disasters replace war as the source of the apocalypse (the horrible remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still substitutes abuse of the planet for nuclear annihilation). Artificial intelligence goes wild (The Terminator). Social experimentation creates bizarre rules and mores (Divergent). Brutal dictatorships oppress the people for fun (The Hunger Games). A world is wasted without any explanation and people stagger around trying to survive (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). And then there’s that most insidious of dystopias, the one driven by good intentions, where those in power impose their ideology on the population.

Not a pretty picture. So why so popular, especially among young adults, those just coming to terms with a world that’s not quite dystopian but more awful than the innocent visions of their childhood?

The answer is what makes all great stories appealing.  An individual wanting more from life, discovering things are worse than they thought and finding the courage to confront a world gone awry.

So parents relax. Your children aren’t dwelling on burnt out worlds. They’re doing what children have done since time immemorial. Prodding the system to test its limits and discovering how to spread their wings and fly.

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