Living in Dystopia

Please welcome Eugene Myers as our guest blogger today! His debut, FAIR COIN, came out in March of this year, and the sequel, Quantum Coin, just came out this month.

I attended what was considered to be a “rough” high school, though it probably wasn’t any more dangerous than any of the other public schools in Yonkers. We had fewer knifings than some of the others, anyway. But the acts of violence got bad enough in my senior year that the school district could no longer ignore them, so they decided on “random” metal detector sweeps of classrooms to deter students from bringing weapons to school. One of the classes they selected was my AP American History class, which was basically filled with the top 30 ranking students; strangely enough, all the metal detector wands picked up were the 3.5” floppy discs most of us carried around to store their work, which were incidentally erased by the sweep.

That year, we had a new principal, who had either come from a notoriously troubled school, or had previously been a prison warden, depending on whom you asked. He implemented stricter rules as soon as he arrived, including mandatory student IDs. But many of the changes that were supposed to protect students only made our lives harder while enabling the administration to keep better tabs on us. Moreover, it seemed like a unilateral punishment of everyone for the actions of a few—making us all feel like criminals. The metal detector incident in particular gave me the impression that the school didn’t truly want to find any weapons, because that would require them to deal with the situation and the media attention that came with it.

It was unsettling, a warning sign of more changes to come, but despite some efforts to improve conditions through subversive articles in our independent (ie. rogue) high school newspaper, me and my friends let it go. We were going to escape soon, so it wasn’t worth fighting the system too much. And indeed, soon after graduation, metal detectors were installed at all the entrances, and the school more closely resembled a totalitarian police state.

I bring this up, even though it dates me and makes me feel old—all this went down circa 1995—to illustrate my theory that one of the reasons why dystopian YA is so popular is because many kids live in dystopias today. I’m probably not the first to draw this comparison; the closest I can find online right now are essays about high school in Buffy the Vampire Slayer being a literal hell, with graduation equating the Apocalypse.

But if this idea is new to you, think about it: In most cases, teens are forced (by their parents and city governments) to go to school every weekday, where they have no power and little independence. Their schedules are strictly regimented and school administrations make the rules, some of them entirely arbitrary, enforcing them by meting out punishments like detention, suspension, expulsion, black marks on school records, revoked privileges, and other “disciplinary actions.” Lately schools have even been implementing camera surveillance, RFID tracking of students’ whereabouts, and even monitoring of students’ activities through their laptops and tablets. Kids can be suspended just for drawing on their desks, and then there’s the rampant peer bullying that so often goes unchecked by the powers that be. For some kids, life at home may not be much better. No wonder that adults are so often regarded with distrust in fiction and in life.

Granted, this comparison paints a bleak picture of our adolescent years, and represents an oversimplification of the broad dystopian genre, but my point is that even kids at the best schools and the happiest homes can relate to many of the problems dystopian protagonists face—and share the same hopes and fears. There’s the anticipation of escape at the end of it all, that if you play by the rules you can lead a better life one day, as well as the fantasy of defying the rules and improving everyone’s lot. You hang on until graduation or until you’re eighteen, thinking that it will all get better once you’re out of your school, your parents’ house, your hometown, and on your own.

Though my YA books, Fair Coin and Quantum Coin, are science fiction, they are not dystopian. But the protagonists do visit some dystopian parallel universes, including an alternate contemporary world where the United States is at war with the U.S.S.R., China, and much of Europe. The biggest problems for teens living in this dark, but eerily familiar version of the U.S. are a mandatory curfew and the fact that all of them will be drafted into military service as soon as they graduate high school—which, by the way, is in session on Saturdays. In the midst of a war, the protagonists from our universe are most shocked to find that high school lasts all summer long. They don’t even get a senior prom. It’s more shocking still that the teens who occupy that universe simply accept all this as the norm; it’s the only life they know, and what choices do they have, anyway?

We all experience our own private dystopias every day, whether it’s a restrictive school, an oppressive work environment, or a bad relationship. By reading dystopian and young adult fiction, we can feel less alone and more hopeful; these stories offer not only a temporary escape from our problems, but they can help inspire and empower us to seek a permanent escape from the darkness in our lives.

What dystopian elements do you see around you?

E.C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised by a single mother and a public library in Yonkers, New York. He has published short fiction in a variety of print and online magazines and anthologies, and his young adult novels, Fair Coin and Quantum Coin, are available now from Pyr Books. He currently lives with his wife and a doofy cat in Philadelphia and shares way too much information about his personal life at and on Twitter @ecmyers.


Beth said...

I've said lots of times we're living in a dystopia. Well said.

Anita Saxena said...

I had never thought about things like this. YYou draw some very interesting parallels between dystopian fiction and real life. Great post.

Sheena-kay Graham said...

I'm a big fan of dystopia. You drew excellent comparisons and I enjoyed reading this post.