As a dystopia and speculative literature lover and critic I get asked a lot why kids like these kinds of incredibly bleak books (which I don’t really think are all that bleak, but that is not the general perception). Thinking about this month’s theme a potential reason (among so many) dawned on me… Perhaps dystopia, and in particular post-apocalyptic literature, is so popular amongst youth because there is no school. And even better, school and the entire education system is often totally destroyed. I mean what better wish fulfilment could a young person ask for? If kids aren’t flocking for a kind of education that is magical and mysterious as with the Harry Potter series (and the like) or hilarious schools full of more hijinx than actual education as with so many middle grade series (Pseudonym Bosch’s books, The Wayside School etc…)- then why shouldn’t they be addicted to books where the school system is totally crushed?
Last week I posted on Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now and commented on how Daisy, who had been planning to attend a new school in England, ends up learning more through her experiences in War than she ever could have in the education system – and indeed it is institutions like the education system and health system and military that do the most damage. This is, perhaps, often the case in post apocalyptic literature – indeed and argument could be made that this kind of literature is blatantly criticising the education system. The protagonists in post-apocalyptic stories have to learn, through experience or from mentors how to survive because they certainly don’t know how to do it to date.
Interestingly there has only been on post apocalyptic series (that I’ve read) that has attempted to hold on to education in the contemporary sense (that is teachers, textbooks and tests). That would be Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Last Survivors series, which is in many ways an incredibly disappointing series to read as the characters are often waiting around for their own demises, but it is also very interesting because it could really be a mirror into how many people (Westerners in particular) might actually deal with sudden global climate shift. The education system is actually what plays a part in the characters arrested states – in the first book we see Miranda slowly forsake her studies because what is the point if she’s going to die anyway? She has to learn to survive. Then in the second instalment The Dead and Gone we get Alex and his two sisters whose survival totally depends on the Catholic schools staying open (because they get free food and lunch from the school). So Alex goes to school every day, and therefore also stays in New York City where it steadily becomes colder and more difficult to leave… Education in this series is a kind of trap until the character realizes that school is not what is important any more, survival is.
Let’s shift now from the post-apocalypse, where there either is no school or the school that they do have is one of experience or one that is depicted as obsolete towards dystopia. In dystopia we get stories, books and series that harness the education system for the dystopian regime’s gains. Education, in books like The Giver and Legend indoctrinate their subjects with the teaching’s of the regime. Actually, if we see the United States as the dystopian regime in The Last Survivors series (as I do) then the series further critiques the contemporary education system as not only not teaching youth how to survive in the dystopian world (or perhaps metaphorically the real world) but also as an indoctrination tool. Education again is villified in these texts because what the protagonists have been taught is not the whole truth but only one version of it – but how far off is this serious critique of contemporary education? I won’t underestimate young readers here but instead will assume that they can comprehend the idea that what Jonas (Giver) and June (Legend) are being taught is not the big picture but rather a very structured education system meant to harness young minds for the doings of those in power.
Perhaps, as some folks argue, the post apocalypse or dystopian text that doesn’t contain any visible education system is actually a metaphor for the education system, and in particular for surviving in high school. It’s not incredibly far-fetched – high school presents a harsh landscape, a setting with very minimal privacy or incredibly loneliness, there are very few freedoms (as in, they can’t say or write whatever they like, the must ask before they go anywhere and their presence or absence must always be accounted for), and their clothing and even hair colours are often restricted. Indeed a teenagers life is so controlled by the adult world that their identities become shaped by the ways in which they confront, or are subjugated, by that adult authority. Reading dystopias like The Hunger Games where Katniss eventually overthrows the adult regime, or Feed where the teens are overcome by the adult regime doesn’t really seem like a far fetched metaphor at all. Saba, from Blood Red Road, for instance livesin a harsh landscape and, for all intents and purposes, is incredibly lonely and hateful. Through the coarse of the book she learns to cope with her surroundings and her inner demons and begins to develop a more socially acceptable outward character – sound like high school yet?
Let’s not discount that perhaps youth can simply see that our world is falling apart and these books validate what they witness every day. These books place their protagonists at the base of the triangle, if you will. Teens are the pediments that must uphold society once their older generations are long gone. The burden of contemporary society is quiet large and increasingly heavy with the looming threats of global climate change, the reign of capitalism and strained international relations. But the teens have all the power – they will get to choose, they will be the ones in charge of that renewal – and that is exciting.
So while on one hand these books are a fulfilment of one dream – no more learning, no more books, no more teachers dirty looks! They also critique the education system in ways that are, obviously, appreciated by youth. On one hand these kinds of stories are wonderful because they confirm that the adult world, and education, is intrinsically flawed and that whole civilizations witness death and rebirth. Indeed, thinking about how and why revolutions work, and what freedoms and tribulations rebelling against the powers that be might bring, and which parts of the culture and infrastructure might be kept and might be thrown away after such an apocalyptic event is surely a healthy occupation for the young.