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A Dirty Old Window: Four Works of YA Dystopian Fiction

From 1979 to 2011, the personal to the epic, the very real to the wildly improbable... a round-up of four young adult titles with a dystopian or apocalyptic element. The end is clearly nigh, and who are we to buck the trend?

Dark InsideJeyn Roberts' Dark Inside (2011) begins in a contemporary, ordinary American small town, but very quickly there's a point of apocalyptic divergence. Our four protagonists watch their ordinary lives spiral into madness as the trappings of civilisation fall apart around them. Dark Inside doesn't aspire to epic-ness. The story is told on a personal level - characters trying to survive the upheaval. With the structure of society gone, they are stuck with some pretty horrible decisions. What would you do - or not do - to survive? Ms. Roberts' characters aren't trying to save the world, they're facing real, empathetic choices with real, horrible consequences. Despite the (unexplained) supernatural premise, the author does her best to keep everything grounded and gritty.

Dark Inside does have a few cumbersome elements, including a handsome brooding dark stranger with a mysteeeeerious past. I'm embarrassed to say that I also found the other male characters interchangeable, not helped by their similar names. As a last, minor, note, Dark Inside is let down by a overly-melodramatic framing device that punctuates the book with angsty outbursts.

After the jump: E.L. Newman's 20 Years Later, Melvin Burgess' Bloodtide and Richard Cormier's After the First Death.

20 Years LaterIn E.J. Newman's 20 Years Later (2011), the author writes teenagers not wisely but too well. The setting isn't breaking new ground - London, one generation after some sort of mysterious apocalypse. Nor is the plot - a group of seemingly unrelated teens develop mysteeeeerious powers. However, Ms. Newman's characters are possibly the most teen of all the teenagers I've recently encountered. This is very much a mixed blessing. They're stubborn, annoying and thick - but they're also intuitive, passionate and brave. The result? Characters easy to appreciate but often hard to connect with (at least for this [ostensibly] adult reader).

On the subject of bravery, Ms. Newman adds her own gutsy twist to the genre by refusing to explain much at all about the world. Even the defining apocalypse stays a mystery until the final chapters. Like Dark Inside, the book has an unnecessary and cryptic framing device, but, for the bulk of the novel, the character-focused, day-to-day experience strikes the right balance between gritty realism and hyper-real parable. The characters start small, but grow into the epic in a jerky, but natural, progression. There are also some imaginative ideas about future London gangs. Ms. Newman's style isn't as relentlessly grim as Mr. Burgess' (below), but she does capture the futuristic danger of her ruined city.

Bloodtide From Doing It to Junk to Sara's Face, Melvin Burgess has written some of the darkest fiction ever intended for a teen audience. Bloodtide (2003) is no exception, and, with the except of Lady, it might be his single grimmest work. Based loosely on an old Icelandic saga, Mr. Burgess paints a ruined London that's home to warring gangs and half-animal warriors. The book opens with the marriage of teenage Signy to the leader of a rival gang. Treachery, torture and horror all ensue (with some surreal and extremely-un-YA sex as well). The book's strength in its unrelentingly depressing atmosphere. Nothing is good or simple in this world, and that which begins innocent is rapidly corrupted and brought to ruin. There are a few moments of hope, but even they are quickly dispelled. Never has the apocalypse seemed less appealing - this isn't a tinsel-tale of superheroism, rather a saga of realpolitik and sacrifice. 

The book's main problem is the uncharacteristically unsubtle inclusion of overtly mythological elements - Odin himself stalks the streets at several points in the story (mysteeeeeeeriously, of course). It doesn't seem to add anything to the story and, like Joss Whedon's ham-fisted opening theme to Firefly, sometimes the influences are best left behind the curtain.

After_The_First_Death Although the trend is certainly flowering, YA dystopia isn't new. Just like vampires existed before Twilight, troubled teens sulked around unhappy worlds long before The Hunger Games.

One outstanding vintage example is Richard Cormier's After the First Death, first published in 1979. A group of terrorists take a school bus hostage and the story focuses around three different teenage protagonists: the bus driver, one of the terrorists and the son of a US military commander. The three different points of view come out brilliantly. Mr. Cormier doesn't get bogged down in the objective "right" and "wrong", instead he patiently explains how and why the characters got there, and why they behave the way they do.

The conclusion is genuinely heart-breaking. No one makes it out intact - physically or emotionally. Although not overtly science-fictional, After the First Death contains many of the familiar tropes. One character, for example, is the son of a super-sekrit military general and his story arc is "learning the truth about his family". Although the book never tries to justifies terrorism, it does empathise with the terorrist - making it as provocative and as gutsy now as it was thirty years ago.