33 minutes ago
Monday, April 12, 2010
There has been some buzz recently about the rise in popularity of dystopian novels (PW Article, My blog). Some of my friends and I are among the people clamoring for more novels like Hunger Games and The Forest of Hands and Teeth. The other day, we discussed just why we enjoy dystopian (also referred to as Post-Apocalyptic) novels. After all, the subject matter is depressing. The future has descent into a chaotic, poverty-stricken world where most people die young. It doesn't matter if the cause is an evil government or zombies, the effect is that the characters' lives are far more difficult than our own.
That's exactly what I believe is the reason why we love these novels. It's man versus environment. The survivors are heroic because they haven't allowed their harsh world to defeat them. Katniss in Hunger Games has learned how to hunt for food for her family, and crosses into forbidden territory to do so. Mary in The Forest of Hands and Teeth takes many risks through a forest full of zombies to reach the ocean. I think this is clear to me, because it's the same reason that I love wagon trail stories.
Every novel based on wagon trails I've ever read has followed the same pattern. The protagonist has a desperate reason why they need to reach their destination. Once the train is off, they are challenged in every possible way. Not enough food was packed; unexpected weather conditions lengthen the journey; mules become lame; people become sick and die; a pregnant woman miscarries; and there is always one family who fails to listen to the wagon master and rides towards a mirage (which leads to their death). When the destination is reached, only a handful of people survived. The protagonist is forever changed by the experience.
Sounds kind of bleak, right? In my teenage years, I read a ton of western novels, and particularly the wagon train subgenre. I gravitated to these books because the characters were strong. They worked hard and they persevered. When the terrain was so rocky that the wagons broke down, these hardy people would carry the food and other necessities on their backs and travel onward. I didn't want to be them, but I respected them immensely.
I think teens today (and many adults) are reading post-apocalyptic novels for the same reasons. The protagonists are determined to survive, and we readers watch them pursue their dreams with something close to awe. It is never easy; and it is always costly. Yet, no matter how tough their lives are they never give up. Living in a world where every day brings hardship makes even the most ordinary person heroic. Whether the novel is set in a post-apocalyptic world or the old west, a writer doesn't need to give their protagonist an arch enemy to fight against. Every day, the protagonist must fight the environment they live in for their survival, and that's what makes them admirable.