Teens and Dystopias

Sorry I’ve been blogging less. Illness sucks. But please enjoy this essay that I wrote for the BookForum Dystopia issue back in summer 2010. A few things in it are a tad out of date, obviously, but the basic ideas still seem pretty sound to me.

Teens and Dystopias

Literary dystopias flourish at the extremes of social control: the tyranny of too much government, the chaos of too little. Every 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 is balanced by a Mad Max or A Clockwork Orange. Or to put it simply, dystopian literature is just like high school: an oscillation between extremes of restraint.

Teenagers, of course, read dystopian novels in vast numbers. (As I write, Suzanne Collins’ post apocalyptic dictatorship novel, Hunger Games, has entered its eighty-first week atop the NY Times Chapter Book list.) This should surprise no one. Within school walls, students have reduced expectations of privacy (New Kersey v. TLO, 1980), no freedom of the press (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, 1983), and their daily reality includes clothing restrictions, rising and sitting at the command of ringing bells, and an ever-increasing amount of electronic surveillance. But a few footsteps away from these 1984-like subjugations, the teenage world becomes Mad Max—warring tribes, dangerous driving, and unfortunate haircuts.

Teenagers’ lives are defined by rules, and in response they construct their identities through confrontations with authority, large and small. All this leaves teens highly interested in issues of control.

When I sat down to write the Uglies series in 2003, I didn’t intend to address these matters directly. I thought I was writing a somewhat nostalgic science fiction trilogy about body image and hoverboards. But a few million copies and roughly ten thousand pieces of fan mail later, I feel qualified to speak about teenagers and dystopias.

First a quick synopsis: Uglies is set three centuries after an “oil bug” has destroyed our present-day economy and all but erased our species. The descendants of the survivors live in isolated city states, ambiguous utopias whose citizens enjoy post-scarcity technologies and rigid government control. The title derives from this society’s coming-of-age tradition, in which teenage “uglies” undergo full-body plastic surgery to become “pretties,” simultaneously adult and beautiful. (And yes, there is a Twilight Zone episode along these lines, and about two dozen novels and short stories as well. As I said, this series was meant to be nostalgic.)

The protagonist of the trilogy, Tally Youngblood, is most notable for her shifting identities. By turns she takes the roles of vandal, government informer, outcast, runaway, prisoner, hedonist, enforcer, self-mutilator, and full-throated revolutionary. Her personality is reprogrammed several times, her memories frequently erased, her allegiances always suspect.

And yet the most common line in my fan mail is simply, “I am Tally.”

I think this is because teens recognize all the roles that Tally takes on. Schizophrenia, switching sides, and even betrayal (both of allies and of self) are natural responses to being bounced between extremes of control.

During my last book tour in the UK, the big tabloid story was a grandmother barred from a shopping arcade for wearing a hoodie. The management sheepishly explained that it was just a policy, and clearly not one aimed at grandmas. They didn’t have to say at whom it was aimed. After all, five little kids in a shop is cute. Five adults, good business. But when five teenagers gather, it’s time to make an arbitrary rule, or better yet to install a high-frequency sound device to drive them out.

Whatever teens embraceโ€”whether it’s black hoodies, rap, texting, file-sharing, hoverboards, or fictional vampire boyfriendsโ€”is soon decried as a threat to civilization. And trust me, teenagers notice this adult discourse going on around them. They know they live in occupied territory.

They also realize that these social panics and excesses of control do little to protect them from their real problems. Censoring the school paper (or internet feed) doesn’t protect anyone from bullying, or agonizing over every physical imperfection, or from sexual predators (who overwhelmingly come not from the internet but from within teens’ own families). Like Tally’s world, ours is primarily concerned with surfaces, using plastic surgeries for real diseases. Being relative newcomers, teenagers see through this chicanery better than their elders, but at the same time possess fewer skills and resources to escape its power.

So they wind up with the worst of both worldsโ€”too much government and not enough. Is it any wonder, then, that dystopian novels appeal to teens, as do vandalism, cutting, fast cars, shifting identities, unfortunate haircuts, and black hoodies? Next time you read a dystopia that strains belief, just think back to high school, and it won’t seem so far fetched.

Thus endeth the essay. Hope you enjoyed it.

And hey, do you want to help provide classroom copies of Uglies to a junior high school in the Bronx? Just click here to find out how. (Even if you’ve got no money, voting for and “liking” the project helps too!)

Oh, and Keith did an illustration for the essay as well. Check it out!

53 thoughts on “Teens and Dystopias

  1. Love the picture. Manual of Aeronomics on my birthday gifts list! Hope you feel better, Mr. Westerfeld. Sickness is a drag.

  2. Ugh I really don’t like that picture of Tally…I’m not saying it’s not well-done, but I really do not care for Keith’s style, personally.

  3. @4 personally, i love his gothic-ish style. And considering you are posting a comment on one of his commisioners sites, you should be more polite about it. Just leaving out the “Ugh” would’ve been fine. It was seriously unnecessary.

  4. How interesting. Thanks for the insight.

    Still haven’t actually gotten around to reading Uglies yet, but I think that’s a cool picture. (I kinda wish his pictures of Deryn were as feminine, although I realize that kind of defeats the point.)

  5. WOW! I haven’t been on the blog side of things in a while!!! This is the kind I thing I’ve missed!!! I have got to be honest and say I don’t look at the fan art or any of the pictures and stuff. Just doesn’t interest me.
    This on the other hand, so awesome! Dystopians have become very popular in the YA literature and it is facinating to hear scott’s take on why.
    I do love dystopians but as of late I have started to tire of them. Maybe that is because there are just too many of them out there or the most recent ones are just not that good. Now I’m wondering if it is because I am not really a teenager and have escaped the evil thing known as highschool and entered the wonderful world of university where there is more freedom: driving there, picking courses and my own schedual, having independence. Maybe getting out of highschool also comes with maturity….HAHAHAHAH! YEAH RIGHT! today we actually discussed playing hide and seek and we were completely serious. For all you highschool kids out there-the older you get…the younger you act. Why do you think young adults hang out and watch disney movies still? why have giant colouring books and crayons become popular? it’s not littlies buying those. trust me ๐Ÿ˜›

  6. Also, that is a really awesome picture but it is not at all how the Uglies world appears in my mind.
    Now, is this a picture of Tally as a special? it seems that way cause she looks totally badass

  7. I was very impressed with this essay and, in thinking the context of it, cannot agree more. The current crush of high school and growing up is nothing compared to how I went through it myself. My teen years were spent wishing for a car, a girl and a place to head for … in that order. I was not too concerned with popularity, only that I was not and the popular kids had everything. I walked to all of my public schools without fear of being kidnapped. We frequently left school in the middle of the day and were not monitored by cameras. Our clothing was not up for public discussion, although some of the male teachers did comment on some of the girls’ choices for short-shorts in summer.

    So I faced a similar dilemma writing my own book (which I’m not hocking here, so no title.) I wanted it to be nostalgic too. It takes place in the 1950s with big robots and mad scientists. But its also the story of a 15-year-old boy, hated and feared all because of his name, desperately crushing on a girl whom he has no idea how to talk to or relate to. So I had to think, again like I was that age, and discovered that life was just as uncertain, older people just as unreasonable, and the rules of society too unfair just as it is today. So great words, Scott. Thanks.

  8. Loved the essay! Very insightful! Man, Mr. Westerfeld I know what it’s like to be sick and I really hope you get better soon! ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Whoa that was amazing! WHen I’m at school I’m going to be thinking about this CONSTANTLY.
    I hope you get better!
    And the illustration is gorgeous, as always. ^^

  10. Loved this article//essay//whatever, Scott-la~! n_n
    Definitely explains why I’m so apparently frequently changing personalities//moods–maybe I’m not chemical imbalanced! I’m just victim of too much government control~! [Should I be happy I’m not naturally brain-broken or upset that this culture we live in has left me stuck on a slew of anti-psychotics?] Also goes to show why I have such a love for dystopian novels, or maybe that’s just because a certain author whose name backwards is Dlefretsew Ttocs wrote such amazing dystopian books, (though I would argue, utopia…). I really need to re-read the entire series again, it’s been over a year since I last did that and I need to experience the Uglies world again~!
    Beautiful artwork by the way Keith. <33

  11. Dear Salt,

    I’m sorry if I offended you. Art is just something that I have a very strong opinion on, and as an artist myself, I realize that it is meant to be criticized. (And anyone who has been to art school has heard a lot worse than what I said.) You said it exactly, the style is too gothic for me, and also, as a crazy Uglies fan, I have a very distinct picture of Tally and other Specials in my head, and this really doesn’t fit it (plus it excludes or contradicts a lot of written details about her). It just doesn’t look like Tally to me. Her face looks just like Alek, or Deryn, or Adela Rogers even. I think all of the characters’ faces look exactly the same (except Volger and Klopp)…but that’s just my critique. I obviously think that the shading, detail, etc. is very good.

    Fanna (because I have name other than “4,” you know. :))

  12. @FANNA-WA im fine with the critiquing, it was the rudeness i didnt like. And I understand your viewpoint. Thank you for appologizing even though it wasnt needed. You hadnt offended me.

  13. Holy cow, I love that picture! And the essay was completely interesting! As a teen myself, I’ve always seen the appeal to dystopian novels. They definitely create an escape for us from these actual problems you had mentioned, which I think is interesting; we escape into a fake world that reflects our own… I think it’s the characters overcoming that world that really makes the novel. That’s why so many people can relate to Tally. I have to admit, she was never my favorite character of the series (odd, I know) , but I can definitely see myself in her, or traits that I would want to have in her situation in her.
    Whew, that was a long comment!

  14. Hey guys! Oh my gosh! You will not believe this! I just got a SIGNED boxed set with Uglies, Pretties, and Specials!!!! I feel like the luckiest person in the world!!! Now I am going to read the SIGNED books ( I have already read the series twice). Thank you soooo much Scott-la, for these amazing books and all of the other ones!!!!!

  15. I am also a lover of dystopian works. I actually had a (one-sided) conversation regarding this subject when I tried to express my love for dystopian works. I came to the conclusion that these particular works stick out to me due of the scary similarities that can be found in today’s society. And Scott, I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head with what you wrote. My example I used was Elana Johnson’s Posession which I just completed earlier this week. The tagline is “control or be controlled.” I can relate to the novel because of the obvious parallel to our society. I, like the main character of Possession and many characters in dystopian novels, can eventually see the fine line that causes the stir: the necessity for control versus the lack of room for personal development. Which is better? Bliss? Reality? It’s hard to choose, really.

  16. Wow… I really, really liked your essay. It was great. And then Keith’s surprise at the end! Loved that part.
    But your essay was just…. like I said (or typed, whatever) before, wow. I don’t know why I feel like this, but your essay really… I don’t know, stirred something in my heart? Touched me somehow? No idea. But for some reason, I feel like I need to say thanks..

  17. great article! I missed it the first time around. I love your points about teens relating to oppression, I think that’s definitely why I loved dystopias (and still do).

  18. We really wanna translate Uglies series and publish it in Vietnamese. Could you tell us who should we contact to discuss about Translation Rights please? We tried to contact Simon Pulse’s Subsidiary Rights 2 months ago but we didn’t get any response.

  19. Fantastic essay!! Found the whole thing to be really true.
    And the picture is beautiful, by the way.

    You could probably be first every time if you tried!!! Haha!

  20. FINALLY Keith you are so awesome!!!!!!!!!!!! I just KNEW you would do some Uglies art sometime!!!!!!!!!! *squeeee*

  21. AWESOME! Keith is my favorite artist ever, and a drawing by him, in color, of Tally is pure awesomeness on so many levels! I hope you get better soon!

  22. @26 I joined a summer reading contest at my library. The prize was an author signed book and because it was a boxed set: 3 for 1!!! squeeee!!!!

  23. yay scott-la is still alive! that essay was very good, you should write one for me for english…everyone says i use too many tridecalogisms.

  24. We’re reading Uglies in my YA Lit class for our unit on dystopian literature. This blog post totally fits! I’m going to share it with my class. Hope it makes them bubbly!

    Love your books, Scott! And thank you!

  25. The illustration is a little too…. punkish, but it is one of the best drawings i’ve ever seen.
    And oh, when will the movie be released? I don’t live in the US.

  26. @46- I FREAKING LOVE STUDIO GHIBLI!! A Leviathan anime would make my dreams COME TRUE!!!
    Well, of course, there’s still the dream about dating Harry Styles..

  27. Came to this from your insightful NaNoWriMo pep talk about things, and hence the world, being not-simple. Some of the best advice ever.

    In almost everything I write, some character points out that young people in today’s (US, at least) society get a very raw deal. I was moved close to tears by some of the things you said, they are so much what I have been convinced of for years.

    And if it’s of interest, I am 72 years old, and didn’t get too much of a raw deal. I don’t know how I escaped.

    I respect and admire teens and incipient adults more than any other human beings.

Comments are closed.