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Books: Why are teenagers such avid readers of books about dystopias?

'If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever," George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It's sadly ironic that in the Arab Spring, when a defiant belief in their own destinies drove nations to prise themselves free of the tyrant's boot, almost one-third of young Scots feel they have no future, according to disturbing new research by The Prince's Trust and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Their peers across the UK are similarly downcas

Yet a new craze for apocalyptic and dystopian fiction is taking the Young Adult publishing world by storm - a tsunami of just about every world-gone-wrong scenario imaginable. Pick your disaster, dystopia or apocalypse. Asteroid hit? Moon crash? A world short of water? Flooded by rising seas? Running out of oil? Scarce on oxygen? Or live forever - but at what price?

Why would a generation short on hope, facing uncertain futures in an unpredictable world, have such an appetite for what one teen blogger among the galaxies of Young Adult book sites called "The New Dystopalypse"? Have teenagers, fed on an everyday diet of terror - war, recession, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, swine flu - become disaster junkies? When I travel the country, talking to teenagers from all kinds of backgrounds, I find that far from having no interest in the future, they want to debate it - whether it's uprisings against injustice or the various apocalyptic scenarios that may loom ahead, including the possibility of the Large Hadron Collider ending all our futures in a big black hole.

I'm one of the culprits adding to the literary craze. But when the first book of my Exodus Trilogy - an epic story of a flooded world set in the future - was published, expectations were low. Science fiction has long been a thriving adult genre, yet there was almost none being published for young readers. Post 9/11, publishers decided young readers had no stomach for it. So there had to be no hint of anything "sci-fi" on my book cover or blurb to put off readers and reviewers. I was puzzled. As a teenager (before YA publishing existed) my friends and I devoured the big, bold futuristic visions of Orwell, Huxley, Ursula Le Guin, HG Wells, John Wyndham, Scotland's Lewis Grassic Gibbon and many others - books that took me out of myself, set me asking questions.

And now, the Young Adult section of bookshops are crammed with an A to Z of future scenarios, from apocalypse to zombie wars. My trilogy, like many others, sells around the world.Is this new surge of doom-laden fiction inspired by hard times? But if this is a hopeless generation, as the Prince's Trust research claims, why would they want more gloom?

The phenomenal success of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, to be released as a major film next year, launched the current craze. Collins was channel-surfing between reality TV shows and footage of the Iraq War when "the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way". Her story takes reality television to its furthest extreme - a brutal survival contest between teenagers in a near-future where war and scarcity have collapsed the US. The massive appeal of Collins's trilogy suggests it has tapped into the fearful fantasies of a generation - and sent publishers scrambling to sign up dystopic visions to feed a young readership glutted on vampire romance.

Scott Westerfield, author of the hugely popular Uglies series (where social conformity means enforced plastic surgery at age 16) thinks their success is "partly thanks to high school being a dystopia". I'd go further. Bound by the rules of teachers, parents and society, with little power over your own existence, life as a teenager can feel like living in an authoritarian state. Add in the peer pressures of cliques and rival gangs and the school playground becomes a war zone. For girls, there's the straitjacket of looking physically "right". The choice is to smother your individuality and fit in - or be an outsider. For me, an added inspiration was an unforgettable front page I'd kept from The Scotsman, showing the mass exodus of Kosovan refugees

It's not so surprising, then, that teens are drawn to fictional creations of the ultimate outsiders - dangerous and sexy werewolves and vampires - but also to young characters they can identify with: the ones that don't or won't fit in; ordinary rebels against a world gone wrong.

Annihilation of the central character is the norm in adult dystopia; Orwell's boot in the face. It's the author's grim warning to the reader: avoid this path, it will destroy us. The crucial difference in young adult fiction is that the endings contain the seeds of new beginnings. The human spirit is stamped upon, but not stamped out. So while some critics debate whether it's all too much for young readers, others ask if it's a cop out, sci-fi-lite, worthless escapism with a happy-ever-after.

It's true that some of the current craze is little more than dark romance with an apocalyptic-dystopic backdrop, but others are prisms for the terrors of our times. I'd rather leave a young reader with a sense of possibility than despair.

Perhaps the craze for futuristic visions is a way for this generation to grapple with the world - fiction as a torch and compass as they become adults in complex, often dark, times.

• Aurora, the conclusion to Julie Bertagna's Exodus Trilogy, is published this week by Macmillan, priced 6.99.

 
 
 

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