Dystopia Is Everywhere
While the dystopian genre has been around for a long time, it has seen a surge in popularity over the past decade, which you’ve probably noticed. It would be hard to miss that bookshelves are filling up with dystopian literature and that almost every other movie or TV show on Netflix focuses on the end of the world as we know it. But why have we become so enamored with this genre?
The common belief is that dystopias play into cultural pessimism and our need to see a world that is A LOT worse than our current one. Seeing the world destroyed because of climate change, nuclear war, or an authoritarian regime allows us to imagine how some of our worst political or environmental fears would come to fruition from the safety of our own couch. What makes these stories even better is our love of the hero’s journey narrative. People love a good protagonist who faces all kinds of evil and difficult challenges that they must overcome to survive. As we read or watch, we imagine how we would fare in the Hunger Games, or if we would survive the zombie apocalypse.
So how long is this popularity going to last? That question is harder to answer. Surely, our cultural obsession with the dystopian genre will one day come to an end, but until then, enjoy the end of the world!
Essential Middle School Dystopian Classroom!
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From Utopian to Dystopian
How did the dystopian novel come to be?
Two books come to mind: Thomas More’s 1516 novel Utopia and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, published in 1888. Utopia is an island in the Americas where its people live in peace in a socialist environment: priests can marry; hospitals are free; there is religious freedom, shared property, and no war; and everyone eats in communal dining halls. The fascination with undiscovered lands and similar stories continued until Looking Backwards was published. The storyline was about a man who woke up in the year 2000 to discover that America had become a perfect utopia.
At some point, someone had the idea, “What if the future is the exact opposite: conformity, oppression, lack of freedom, corruption, and terror?” In the ’20s and ’30s, the dystopia genre took off. Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s controversial book We (1924) was condemned and didn’t become popular until Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) were written. All three texts were set in a time where world war loomed; people feared the instability of the government and lack of free will. They introduced the world to the dystopian genre.
Since then, the evolution of dystopian literature has been shaped by historical events and new discoveries, especially with technology. The ’50s and ’60s texts focused on technological advances, space exploration, war, and the fear of government regulation of the arts, as seen in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953). It was the rise of corporations and concern for the environment that characterized the ’70s through ’90s, as seen in books like John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up (1972) and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993) became the first dystopian book where the protagonist was a teenager. However, it wasn’t until The Hunger Games (2008) and the subsequent Maze Runner (2009) and Divergent (2011) that a real precedent was set for YA dystopian literature. Presently, the dystopian genre of YA literature is one of the most popular and continues to grow.
How Will YOU Survive the Apocalypse?!
How I Survived the Apocalypse Poster
Each novel features characters who are trying to survive in a society that is hostile and dangerous—especially for those who challenge the status quo. After reading the preview text from these 10 novels, your students will be dying to pick up the books and discover what happens next!
Writers and Curators of the Teacher’s Discovery ELA Digest:
Heather Bauer, former building principal, reading specialist, and classroom teacher
Sarah Smith, former world language and ESL teacher
Elizabeth M. Zupan, curriculum writer and former ELA teacher