I started out this year with a whole series of teenaged dystopic fiction. Mom’s English class has the task of focusing on alternative futures, and dystopic teenage literature is a genre which is flourishing. From the Mockingbird series, to Maze Runner and the Divergent series, teenage fiction seems to have a pronounced darkness hovering at its edges at the moment.
In the next few posts I will look at aspects of the narratives I have recently devoured and try to succinctly express which of the novels succeeded where others did not. For this exercise, I will look at Proxy (Alex London), Maze Runner, Divergent (Veronica Roth), Matched (Ally Connoly), and Little Brother (Cory Doctorow).
I think central to all of the stories and what targets the younger generation is an idea of rebellion and increased independence in the young protagonist. A sense of entrapment in popular teen fiction is often either literal or a result of social order and norms. Even if there is no physical barrier representing entrapment, the narrative often follows a physical journey through space and society. The central narrative follows one character in their development and their discovery of or resistance against the system, often assisted by a love interest and a few friends. In all cases, it is the adults that have some kind of control over the world and are either complicit or explicitly enacting their own plans and enforcing the status quo over the world.
The most obvious examples of entrapment in these novels are displayed in Maze Runner, Proxy, and Divergent. It is interesting here to note that for whatever reason, most of the books I have been working my way through are set in some kind of future version of the United States, a country torn apart by war or disease or environmental collapse, leading the characters to be confined in one city. Although all of the character are aware that a world exists beyond these boundaries, this external world is wild and unknown areas outside of these restricted by a wall, fence, or other physical and social barrier.
However, the compartmentalization and division of society goes far beyond the “inside and outside”, so clearly symbolized by walls and fences. Thus, in Proxy, author Alex London describes a society in which the haves and have-nots are separated by an electrically charged fence. All of these individuals, in turn are safely confined from the wilderness outside, where scavengers and barbarians live in lawlessness and the full scale of environmental destruction is on display as large parts of the earth have turned to desert. The narrative follows the “proxy” Syd on his journey of resistance, first starting in the lower slums, progressing to the wealthy world of his “Patron” Knox, symbolically taking him and fellow Patron Marie back into the slums of the Proxies, and then going out into the Wilderness in the search of “New Detroit”. This journey allows all of the characters to think about the system they play a role in, to question the morality of the divisions and their role in relation to the rest of society. By the end of the novel, Syd has finally had a chance to live and Knox, who has lived without a thought of the consequences of his actions, begins to learn to take responsibility.
Although Proxy plays out in a dystopic, desolate and largely demolished world, the focus is in fact on the progression of the two characters with parallel stories, on their uneasy relationship and their development once they break free of the restrictive rules of society. In its closing chapters, it does return to a central theme of the genre; the sometime conflictual relationship between the individual and society. This theme is far more pronounced in Divergent, where central character Tris faces a constant struggle to blend in, realizing that no matter where she is, she cannot act appropriately for her society and is seen as an inherent threat.
Like in Proxy, the society in Divergent is strongly divided and order is maintained through the separation of living quarters and roles of each “faction” in what used to be Chicago. At 16 each child choses which faction they would like to live in and therefore what role they would like to play in society. The factions, while dependent on each other, are shown in a constant push-and-pull of internal politics, each vying for more influence over other factions. Tris is quickly trapped between these as she chooses to abandon the faction in which she was born and struggles to make her way in a new sphere and culture, soon discovering that fitting in perfectly is simply impossible.
Again, the unknown threat outside features as a clear subtheme in the novel. The five factions are surrounded by a fence, which confines the members of society in the city. In the first books of the series, the outside world is not a large concern for the central characters, but the Divergent (Tris’ new faction of choice) are in charge of patrolling the border fence, and the lurking threat influences the tone. In the final part of the three-part series, the protagonists move beyond this wall to find a society beyond their own, and Veronica Roth artfully contrasts the divisions within and beyond the wall, highlighting the divisions which mar both societies. Thus, for the Divergent series and in Proxy, physical boundaries represent the end of knowledge, the control of the social system. As the characters begin to move across boundaries (physical and social), their conflict with the established order forms them into the resistance fighters they become.
Finally, the most blatant example of confinement is Maze Runner. It is clear from the title and the setting of the novel, that the characters must be confined and controlled by some external force. Characters are “sent into” the maze, food and supplies are delivered, and the constantly shifting maze must have been designed by someone. The central questions of the text are then ones of Matrix- like simplicity: what lies beyond? And is it better to know, or to die? Again, characters physically progress through different stages- the elevator, the inner circle, a walled fortress against protected against the robotic monsters outside, the maze itself, and the exit of the maze to find its makers, developing strength, conviction and relationships along the way.
What makes the Maze Runner unusual and in some ways, begs for a sequel, is that the characters are not traditionally rebelling as they escape from the maze-society imposed upon them. In fact, it is clear that the controlling forces want to push the children out of the maze and into real life. While the battle to survive and save as many fellow “lab rats” as possible is still one that questions the authority of the designers, the central characters are complicit in its design although they have forgotten this. This leaves them as traitors to their own compatriots, both insiders and outsiders in Maze society.
Borders are paradoxical in nature. Although created to control and confine, these very borders inspire rebellion and resistance. This is evident in all of the dystopian novels I have read in the past few months, as the teenaged protagonists begin to push against norms, constraints and expectations in their respective societies.