The June 14 issue of THE NEW YORKER had an interesting article by Laura Miller on the currently popular crop of YA SF novels. She points out that many of them, including the most popular, all take place in settings that torture young people, either psychically or physically. Suzanne Collins' HUNGER GAMES series puts kids into televised, to-the-death gladiatorial combat. Scott Westerfeld's UGLIES forces them to undergo cosmetic surgery. THE MAZE RUNNER, by James Dashner, puts teen-age boys into a walled compound surrounded by monsters. James Patterson's MAX series makes children the subjects of experiments in genetic engineering, carried out by sadistic scientists. And the list goes on.
Miller's point is that these are not realistic dystopias (she nicely deconstructs the non-logic behind THE HUNGER GAMES). Rather, they are fables or "psychomyths," mirroring how kids feel in adolescence -- particularly modern adolescence in huge high schools, too big for adults to effectively police them, and rife with extrme forms of bullying and ostracism of the unfavored. Such an environment, Miller argues, is a dystopia for most, and so adolescents feel beleaguered, outcast, manipulated, and in danger -- just as in the futures portrayed in these YA novels. For kid readers, she says, dystopia "isn't a future to be averted; it's a version of what's already happening in the world they inhabit."
Do I believe this? The truth is, I don't know enough about modern high schools to know what they feel like to their young inhabitants. But certainly one function of fantasy is to dramatize and give concrete shape to readers' inner lives. This is what Ursula LeGuin also argues in her new collection of essays, CHEEK BY JOWL: that fantasy is essential to understanding reality. She writes "And the stories that call most on the imagination work on a deep level of the mind, beneath reason (therefore incomprehensible to rationalists), using symbol as poetry does to express what can't be said directly, using imagery to express what can't be perceived directly -- using indirection to indicate the truthward direction."
If the inward truth of today's adolescents is best expressed by forced gladiatorial games, then America has a problem. But these books -- all of them cited above, and more -- are what kids choose to read, not what schools or parents choose for them. For that reason, Laura Miller's thesis deserves serious consideration.