young adult

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The defining characteristic of a dystopian narrative is the roots of its society in a utopian ideal. We see the startling, disgusting logical end result of some well-intentioned vision. The sweet promise of industry eradicating labor turns putrid as the rain turns to acid, and crops and wildlife wither and rot. Man’s great dream of economic equality and political freedom warps into the nightmare of mass poverty and the police state. The wonder of instant, ubiquitous communication, heralded as the haven of democracy, enables the surveillance of every aspect of modern life.

Surveillance camera

Science fiction dystopias display an even more pervasive fear of technological and scientific progress. The limitations on how quickly and drastically human society, and humans themselves, can change are lifted. Science fiction makes tangible our darkest, most distant dreams and enables our wildest fancy. The revelatory draught resulting from the blending of science fiction and dystopia is uniquely dark and bitter. Dystopias in this sub-genre are able to focus all the more sharply for their enhanced capacity to warp the lens through which we view our own society.

Mars transformed

When we consider Young Adult dystopias, there is a necessary change in the tone of the genre. Whereas we chastise adults for their role in bringing about the current state of affairs, we are gentler with the youth, merely cautioning them against our mistakes. Too, our perspective shifts, highlighting the way society treats the young. We are treated to a look at the system of education, the parenting, or lack of it, a grand insight into what forces form a dystopian adult. There are definite advantages to reaching the hearts and minds of the youth, as any utopian designer will attest, so young adult dystopias may well be the most impactful tool of social change available to the modern author.

Dystopias, as a genre, contain a huge amount of content. They consider all that is in a society, and pushes them to the extreme. A dystopia represents a stratified socio-political state that exercises total (or near-total) control at the price of their subjects’ individual rights, and uses deceptive appeals in the form of slogans and propaganda to maintain order according to a corruptive governing doctrine.

(1) Organized Division

The atmosphere of a dystopian world is characterized by the presence of a caste or divisive mandate.  In the Divergent series, we see that to maintain order and control, hope is only placed on the “ones that know” and have a place in society. We witness a division of friends and even family members, based on character and individual qualities, into four groups that accentuate an individuals primary trait (knowledge, bravery, selflessness, honesty, kindness). This separating and hierarchical influence is also established in the in-class text The Hunger Games in which Panem is divided into 12 districts that have distinct cultures, customs, and commodities, while only interacting with one another through the televised bloodshed between their tributes.  Both texts show how divisive measures are placed on the populaces in efforts to maintain order, and, in other ways, limit communication.

The 12 Districts of Panem illustrating dystopian division. (

(2) Control

Dystopias are NOT societies run per the govern. These are communities that have essentially given up on human nature, and therefore do not trust the decisions made by their citizens. In dystopias, this control is presented as security and protection from the unpredictable flaws of human nature. This heavy hand has its grasp on every facet of an individual’s interactions. Individual rights do not exist in a dystopian society, and if they do, they are limited or an item of deception. Dystopian control also extends further to surveillance and forced uniformity. In dystopian text like  The Giver, everyone is denied knowledge, sexual relationship, and even to see visual color. This “sameness” illustrates the control that is relinquished by the individual to the “betterment” of a society.

Quote from The Giver on the topic of “sameness”. (

(3) Doctrines and Deception

Dystopias are also a socio-political entity, and are run by a governing doctrine. Looking through the eyes of a radical socialist, one would see many similarities. Dystopias often thrive on exaggeration. A slogan is often the core of the verbiage within these society doubling as the source of deception. These doctrines and mandate are usually contradictory to their method of execution. For example, in The Hunger Games, in efforts to maintain peace, the Capital established violent gladiatorial combat between teenagers while simultaneously pinning the 12 districts against one another. Even looking at a classic dystopian text like 1984, we are presented with a term called “double think” which is the act of holding two contradictory opinions at once and simultaneously believing in both of them, which is said to be a talent every Party member was required to possess.

1984 Party Slogan (

These are just three core principle that go into defining a dystopia, but there are many more. Dystopias are fluid concepts, and, depending on what is exaggerated, can appear in many different forms.


Work Cited (Books):

  • Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008. Print.
  • Lowry, Lois. The Giver.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1993.
  • Roth, Veronica. Divergent.HarperCollins, 2011.
  • Orwell, Georgia. 1984.Harvill Secker.1949


A setting of systematic disparities and restrictions; typically exists in the future or in fictional places.

It’s difficult to concretely categorize the settings of novels/movies as dystopias, because how each citizen of that society is affected by society as a whole is unique. Take the citizens of Panem (the fictional setting for The Hunger Games), for example. If you asked a Capitol resident whether or not they lived in a dystopian society, the answer would be “no”. Everyone they come into contact with seems to be well taken care of, and all seem to be living comfortable lives. However, if you ask a citizen of the districts, their answer would be much different. Because of this reason, I use the term “systematic disparity” to describe a dystopia – not everyone must be suffering in order for their society to be considered a dystopia. Another aspect that is often associated with a dystopia is the use of futuristic technology in order to reinforce the society’s status quo. It is because of this aspect that dystopias are often combined with the science fiction genre, creating dystopian science fiction. Dystopias often exist in the future, so it would make sense for new technology to have been developed in the time between now and the story’s time period.

To me, what differentiates between the genres of “dystopian literature” and “dystopian science fiction” is how prevalent that futuristic technology is in the story. Science fiction focuses on the technology and its use, while standard dystopian fiction may include it but not make it an important factor. Star Wars, for example, isn’t often touted as a dystopia, yet it shares many elements of a regular dystopia. This leads me to classify it as dystopian science fiction.

Replace these Storm Troopers with Peacekeepers and the Alliance’s logo with Panem’s and you could easily mistake this for a Hunger Games screencap

Combining dystopia with the YA genre results in more relatable storylines. The YA genre is so popular because it isn’t limited to one age group; people of all ages can relate and enjoy the stories told in an easy-to-read YA format. Everyone over the typical age cap of the YA genre can relate to these YA storylines because they were young adults at one point in their lives as well. By utilizing universal experiences and feelings (whether it’s a first love, sibling relations, or competitions with others), YA dystopias make their more outlandish settings and problems more common and relatable. Because of this, they can reach a larger audience and have a bigger impact on the world. Utopian literature/media is made better because of its close association to the YA genre.

Dystopian Literature is a relatively new and upcoming genre, so much so that its definition is still widely debated. Though the common factors that pertain to dystopias in most of their use throughout literature portray them as societies with overbearing and oppressive governments, that still doesn’t completely define a dystopia. A dystopian society can be described as one where conditions are incredibly bad and unpleasant for the inhabitants, whether due to an oppressive government, degrading environmental conditions, etc, but the type of dystopia portrayed can often be influence by the genre of the book. A sci-fi style dystopia be one where living condition on Earth are becoming less and less inhabitable due to some sort of environmental degradation, whereas a romantic style dystopia may put two lovers up against a powerful government type figure (such as in The Hunger Games). The concept of dystopia is constantly adapting, but as more dystopian literature emerges, the genre becomes more defined.

The genre as a whole has become increasingly popular among young adults, but why exactly is somewhat unclear. Dystopias tend to unveil or poke at some sort of pressing issue in a current society, making people see how pressing and important an issue really is. So is the reason for a rise in young adult dystopias meant to show young people (the future leaders of our world) the prominent issues at hand? Even if they don’t quite get it when they first read it, kids will subliminally absorb the meaning behind a dystopian style book. They will be able to see that this imagined place has problems and the problems with it are usually front and center through the duration of the story. After picking up on these issues, the only thing left for young adults to do is apply them. The story of a dystopia is just a façade covering the ever-present issues that impact a society and dystopias make these issues clear, such that when the readers of these novels grow up to be adults, they will ideally have at some point considered, “What needs to be done to remedy these problems.”

The term “dystopia” can be defined in 2 ways: as a genre and as a characterization of a fictional world. As a genre, dystopia is exploratory and speculative in nature. Hallmarks of dystopian fiction generally include the 2 R’s: Revelation and Revolt. As a characterization, dystopia has come to represent a purely imaginative world that is either 1) isolated from mainstream society, accessible by some form of travel, or 2) the actual society at large from which there is no escape.

In any literary work that has been labeled a dystopia, there are a few of the same defining qualities. The fictional world often operates under the guise of a high-functioning and orderly society. For example, in The Giver, written by Lois Lowry, there is the absence of argument, violence, conflict, and ultimately, individuality – the one characteristic that makes us inherently human. Such a society may appear to be ideal on the surface but eventually proves otherwise. Another trait of dystopian fiction is an overarching political system that exercises control and power over its inhabitants. This is especially evident in George Orwell’s 1984, which was written as a satire on the “colossal failures of totalitarian collectivism” (Claeys 108). Generally-speaking, I consider dystopian literature to be a critique on any such social, economic, or political injustice that, if not already true in some form, has the potential to become true.

As a genre, dystopia changes its meaning when combined with science fiction. Science fiction written with dystopian influences – or, another way of putting it, a dystopian novel written under the backdrop of science fiction – inherently becomes a brainchild of two genres, one that defies proper categorization. What utopia brings to science fiction is its “ability to reflect or express our hopes and fears” (Claeys 138). On a similar note, what science fiction lends to utopia “is an awareness of the effects and importance of science and technology” (Claeys 139). The two genres are not so similar as to be interchangeable, but they do share common elements, leading some books to be labeled as both.

The dystopian genre, when combined with Young Adult Literature, acquires themes familiar to a younger audience, such as love and identity. Y.A. dystopian fiction typically features adolescents navigating through the woes of growing up, while also coming to terms (or not) with the society in which they reside. Due to the harsh reality of the imperfect world they find themselves in, the characters in these novels are often exposed to violence and traumatic situations at an early age. Ultimately, a Y.A. dystopia is just as much an exploration of self as it is a critique of society – all through the lens of a coming-of-age individual.

Works Cited:

Claeys, Gregory. “The origins of dystopia: Wells, Huxley, and Orwell.” The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. Ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 107-131. Print.

Claeys, Gregory. “Utopia, dystopia and science fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. Ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 135-153. Print.

Image URL:,d.eWE&psig=AFQjCNFGPZEnxTOj3ihwOGNlhlvnqz9lJg&ust=1485310320534223

My definition of the word ‘dystopia’ is defined by the word’s history and roots. According to The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, the first use of the word, ‘dystopia’, dates back to the 1860s. It is in this era that ‘dystopia’ is distinguished as “the idea of utopia gone wrong” (Viera 16). The prefix “dys” derives from a Greek word dus, which “means bad, abnormal, diseased” and reverses the good nature in the meaning of the word, utopia (Viera 16).  In literature, dystopias and utopias are both imagined places, which are too evil or pure to exist. I believe that the difference between dystopia and utopia in literature thus lies in the underlying mood. Fátima Viera says, a dystopian literature “predicts that things will turn out badly; it is thus essentially pessimistic in its presentation of projective images,” in contrast, utopian literature follows a more optimistic point-of-view (Viera 17). Furthermore, I believe the core of dystopian literature lies in the imperfection nature of the environment. Therefore, the “moral, social and civic responsibility of the citizens” are imperfect elements (Viera 17). This idea is the reason why many scholars and I believe that a dystopia is an anti-utopia.

Through the introduction of sub-genres like science-fiction, romance or apocalypse, the definition of a dystopia doesn’t change drastically, rather the practice of dystopian literature changes from writer to writer. Each literary sub-genre when used in a dystopian novel strengthens a different core element of dystopian literature. For instance, Suzanne Collins utilizes romantic elements in her acclaimed dystopian novel, The Hunger Games. According to Fátima Viera, “…although the images of the future put forward in dystopias may lead the reader to despair, the main aim of this sub-genre is didactic and moralistic…” (Viera 17). The romantic elements of Collin’s book humanize the main character Katniss Everdeen and through this allows her to become a moral character and symbol. For instance, when Katniss falls in love with Peeta during the Games, she begins to protect, trust, and care for him. It’s through moments like this that Katniss becomes the symbol for morality because it so vastly contradicts the actions and emotions of the other members of the Games and the Capitol people.

When geared toward young adults, dystopian literature can hold a much more powerful message. Gregory Claeys says, “‘Dystopia’ is often used […] to describe a fictional portrayal of a society in which evil, or negative social and political developments, have the upper hand, or as a satire of utopian aspirations which attempts to show up their fallacies” (107). The youth of today hold the power to change the world tomorrow. Therefore, if literature geared toward them is social commentary on the world, it can be very impactful. As dystopias tend to point out the “fallacies” of the writer’s present, the literature is a call to action, a call for change (Claeys 107). By highlighting the wrongs of today in Young Adult literature, it can persuade a generation to change tomorrow.


Works Cited

Claeys, Gregory. ” The origins of dystopia: Wells, Huxley, and Orwell.” Ed. Gregory Claeys. The Cambridge Companion To Utopian Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2010. 107. Print.

Vieira, Fátima. “The concept of utopia.” Ed. Gregory Claeys. The Cambridge Companion To Utopian Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2010. 16-17. Print.


The term dystopia is a derivation neologism, meaning that it evolved as a variation of another word used to name a newly synthesized concept or idea (Claeys 23). Dystopias were originally created to contrast the pre-existing concept of utopia, a term coined by Thomas More that alluded to an imaginary paradise-like place that focused on non-existent social organization that is better than reality (Claeys 20). The concept of dystopia rejects that utopias can exist, discarding any possibility of mankind achieving perfect equality, stability, and peace. However, analyses of different dystopias result in various interpretations of what a dystopia can be. Many literary dystopias have very obvious negative connotations, but others may have only underlying implications of dystopian elements. Personally, I define dystopia as any place or state that reflects an unpleasant social, political, or economic tension in the way the society is structured. Dystopias may also critique contemporary societies by hiding underlying messages about current issues and events, possibly implying fault in how modern society is structured. Dystopias do not have to be a society that is completely overtaken by misery, oppression, totalitarianism, and dehumanization; they are often simply a society that highlights a few aspects of the common dystopian definition.

In addition, combining dystopia with other literary genres often opens up a new level of depth to interpretation and analysis. Dystopian scientific fiction, for example, exploits possible faults in technological advancement and scientific discovery. As a rapidly evolving civilization, innovative research is always encouraged, yet commonly feared. Dystopian sci-fi literature often embodies this fear, illustrating scientific discovery that goes wrong, with technology dehumanizing civilization. Therefore, dystopias don’t only critique current society, but they also predict future conflict between ethical morality and scientific discovery, altering the definition of dystopia itself.

The dystopian genre can also be changed when comparing adult dystopias and young adult dystopias. Young adult literature uses simpler diction and relatable examples, often alluding to parental restrictions, fleeting romances, teenage hardships, and developing a unique identity. Incorporating the concept of dystopia into a genre for teens alters the way the message is told. For example, in Brave New World, an adult dystopian novel, science molds a perfect society through a totalitarian societal structure and a caste system that eliminates class mobility. This is illustrated through the normalization of sex, the use of in vitro fertilization to control genetics, and psychological conditioning (Huxley, 1-18). On the other hand, in The Hunger Games, a young adult dystopian novel by Suzanne Collins, governmental and societal issues are portrayed through heartbreaking romance, clique-like friend groups, and young characters that are relatable to the audience, such as the teenage heroine, the heart-throb love interest, and the nostalgic friend back at home. Both of these novels exemplify dystopias and a critique of modern society, but in two completely different ways, leading to various interpretations and analyses of the intended message.


Claeys, Gregory. The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic, 2008.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. Chatto & Windus, 1932.

Just as the United States’ Constitution is referred to as a “living document”, I believe the English Dictionary can be placed in the same regard, since awareness of the meaning of a word can adapt and develop due to a plethora of factors, such as expansion of knowledge, historical events, technological advancement, etc. This is especially true when pertaining to the word “Utopia”. Originally, Thomas More constructed this neologism to represent a place that is no place, a desired end that is unattainable, a dream that cannot exist; however, this paradoxical, vague definition sparked contention and controversy over what constituted a utopia. Was it all up to the interpretation of the reader? Or are there certain elements required? Over time, literary philosophers, as they do, continued to throw in their perspective on the definition, developing more and more criteria and signs that indicated a utopia. These philosophers were aiming to construct boundaries for this term, but in my opinion, the opposite actually occurred. They facilitated the use of the word in a generic, household setting, as the criteria and signs applied to a multitude of works and societies. Today, as shown below, defines the word Utopia simply as “an ideal place or state”. Then, could simple daydreams and wandering imaginations be referred to as utopian thought?

In my opinion, Utopia is a term that cannot be strictly defined, rather it applies to any work of literature or thought provoking introspection in the reader or thinker. By that, I mean it initiates reflection of current societal practices and organizations as well as what could be improved or scrapped altogether in the future. Essentially, it is a process with an end goal of constructing a better world. However, it is important to note that this “better world” is highly subjective, depending on each individual’s mindset in regard to the world around them. For example, as portrayed by the Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, there are a plethora of works classified as utopias, regardless to the subject matter or particular aspect of society each are addressing. There may be “primitivist and nostalgic utopias, sentimental individualist utopias, voyage utopias, satires, anti-utopias”, and more, depending on the society that the author is a part of (Claeys 51). Due to this, Utopia is an extremely malleable, adaptable term, not limited by one definition or set of expectations, but able to be molded into the time and audience for which it is written. Then,Utopian literature will always present itself as relevant, as it is at it’s core a medium through which beliefs, hopes, dreams, and guidelines can be expressed and developed upon, independent of the factors influencing their creation.

In response to this versatility of the concept of Utopia, Utopian literature and thought is commonly mixed with other genres of literature, including sci-fi, romance, etc, as the author so desires. To me, this acts as a tactic to tailor their critiques and comments to particular audiences, ensuring that the point they are trying to instill resonates with their readers. Recently, Utopian literature has taken a turn towards the Young Adult genre, modifying itself to apply to this age group. Therefore, Utopia is still its own separate genre, but it does blend with other genres in order to solidify its commentary.

Works Cited

Claeys, Gregory. “The origins of dystopia: Wells, Huxley, and Orwell.” The Cambridge
          Companion to Utopian Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

“Utopia”. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 21 Jan. 2017.