How to make me believe in your young adult dystopia

In my quest to binge watch ALL THE SHOWS, I started watching The 100.

MV5BMTU5MTczNTkxNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTM5NDc1MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_This is (yet another) Young Adult Dystopia (actually, the ‘topia’ part of dystopia is questionable. There’s not really a good side to be found in their world. Nonetheless…) If you’re going to write a dystopia – young adult or otherwise – you have to be prepared to answer the question of why the population tolerates the situation. And you have to make sure that the consequences of disobedience are worse than the consequences of tolerating the situation.

I tend to read Young Adult only when convinced. I read Harry Potter because my son begged me to. I read The Hunger Games because my nieces enjoyed it and I thought it would be something we could talk about. A friend recommended the werewolf trilogy that begins with Shiver because she thought I’d like it. In all those cases, I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the stories and the writing.

The Hunger Games was the first of the modern YA Dystopias I read. And it was the first time I remember reading a story and thinking “Why would they tolerate that?”

For those unfamiliar (I’m sure there’s someone who just came out from under a rock to read this blog), the Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic future. Humans live in a place called Panem which consists of a wealthy and privileged Capital surrounded by thirteen hunger-games__120301153305districts of various levels of poverty and oppression. Once a year, two children – a boy and a girl – are selected from each district and put into the Hunger Games, a fight to the death from which only one winner emerges.

Why do the people tolerate this? It seems that having your children killed annually would be a prime reason to riot and rebel. And the answer is right there – remember when I said thirteen districts? Well, District 13 is a smoking pile of rubble. They did rebel and were utterly destroyed for it. So why do the people tolerate having their children killed year after year? They’ve been conclusively shown that they’ll be destroyed if they don’t. 

OK. I can accept that.

Then I read Divergent. I did not love Divergent. One of the main reasons is that the question “Why would they tolerate this?” was never adequately answered. In Divergent, people are divided into five groups depDivergent_(book)_by_Veronica_Roth_US_Hardcover_2011ending on their character traits, things like being selfless or brave or intellectual. Various aspects of life are controlled by each group which leads to resentment. At sixteen, a child can chose to stay with his family’s group or move to a different group. At which point, they are, for all practical purposes, dead to their family. Once again, it’s a case of families tolerating the loss of their children, though granted, not as totally as in The Hunger Games.

And “Why would they tolerate this?” Because the government says it’s better that way. It’s not an adequate explanation and it’s one of the main reasons I didn’t enjoy the book and why I didn’t bother reading the rest of the series.

Which brings me back to The 100. I’d heard lots of good reasons why I should watch this show. The women are not “strong female characters,” they are fully developed characters. The story and situation is rich and complex. The teenage characters are too busy trying to survive to get too very angsty. They actually look like they’re struggling to survive rather than that they have a hair stylist waiting for them back in their camp.

The 100 is set about a hundred years in the future. Earth was torn apart by nuclear war. The scant survivors wait out the radiation in The Ark – a space station floating above the earth. The ark is dying, so they decide to send a collection of juvenile delinquents to earth to see if it’s survivable. Not only are children being put in danger once again, but the Ark is a dangerous place. With resources so scarce, any crime is punishable by death, with apparently very little trial. You commit a crime, you’re put out an airlock – “floated.”

It seems an intolerable situation. Which brings up the “Why would they tolerate this?” At first, I was unimpressed with the answer. The leaders didn’t seem to have enough power to control the population. I kept watching mostly because I didn’t have anything else lined up I wanted to watch more. Then a few episodes in, I realized – Why would they tolerate this? The answer is, they don’t. Everyone is struggling to survive and not everyone is looking out for the greater good. Like the Hunger Games which answered the question, and unlike Divergent, which didn’t, I am continuing to enjoy The 100.

Dystopias are a great way to comment on humanity. The things a person will tolerate just to survive. The things they’ll allow someone else to suffer. How blindly they’ll follow just to maintain their own quality of life. But if you want it to be believable, you have got to answer that question: “Why would they tolerate this?”


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