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My Guilty Obsession

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Young Adult Dystopian Fiction

By Violet • May 20, 2020

Anyone can tell you: I live for the darker things in life. I love a good literary walk in the shoes of a serial killer or playing a creepy video game. But nothing titillates me quite like humanity's most horrific accomplishment: the creation and use of nuclear weapons. I even have a full sleeve tattoo of a nuclear bomb exploding over Gotham City (with a Little Sister from the Bioshock Games watching over the scene).

Somehow this strange love led me down the twisted road that dead-ended at my most secret guilty pleasure: Young Adult Dystopian novels.

This is my confession. I'm now ready to share my story and set myself free of guilt. Journey with me down that twisted road, and explore some of my favorite titles I found along the way.

Humanity's Darkest Hour

We thought of the legend of Prometheus, of that deep sense of guilt in man's new powers that reflects his recognition of evil, and his long knowledge of it. – J. Robert Oppenheimer

What greater horror is there than the creation and use of nuclear weapons? How did we think creating the atomic bomb, and later the thermonuclear bomb, was a good idea? Did we understand the power that would be unleashed? Some of the most memorable and meaningful works I've read to try to answer those questions include:

Where Do We Go from Here?

After exploring history of nuclear technology, I had to explore the true scale of its potential. I started imagining the future. And it was grim. So I turned to apocalyptic fiction, a slippery slope from nuclear war to EMPs, natural disasters, plagues, etc. Books and films explore this subject matter extensively, including the well-known The Road and On the Beach, but some of my other favorites include:

  • This Is the Way the World Ends: "The Gulliver's Travels of the nuclear age, the Alice in Wonderland of the arms race, this mordantly funny and visionary tale of the apocalypse was a Nebula finalist." Enough said.
  • Swan Song: From a blind nun with visions of the scattered survivors of a nuclear war to a young girl whose special powers can rebuild the earth, this story takes the genre to a whole new level.
  • One Second After: This is how I learned about the potential of an EMP used as a weapon, setting humanity back to the stone age instantly. What's not to love?

What Other Horrors Await?

Having explored the potential apocalypses, my mind started imagining more fun ways society could collapse, not from external events, but from our own twisted ideas of our role in the world. We all know about 1984 and Brave New World, but it turns out the human mind is capable of all sorts of creative ways to make life a living h---.

My hands-down favorite of the "adult" dystopias is Wool Omnibus/Silo series. Explore what happens when humanity is forced to live in an underground silo. This series is being adapted into a TV show for AMC, and the author blessed numerous fan fiction books that explore never-ending scenarios that could play out in a closed silo. I still haven't tracked down every Silo story, but I am determined to.

Jump into Abyss

The lines between hard core dystopian and Young Adult dystopian began to blur. Adding teen angst and romance to the collapse of society adds a certain flair, an extra creepy (and FUN!) way to up the stakes. Here's a short list of some of my favorites - all Book 1 of a larger series.

  • Red Rising: It's arguable whether this title belongs in YA or "adult" dystopias. The story begins with young adults fighting to the death ala The Hunger Games, but quickly takes a very adult, very serious, very brutal turn.
  • Red Queen: Society is divided into two classes: The Reds and the Silvers. The Silvers rule the world, treating the Reds as disposable slaves, until one Red discovers special abilities that can rival the Silvers.
  • Delirium: In this world, we've surgically "cured" the human population of love. Teens must navigate their high school loves with impending surgery at 18. What could go wrong?
  • Uglies: More surgical "cures" here, this time an attempt to make teenagers flawlessly beautiful. But maybe being perfect isn't really all that great.
  • Unwind: One more surgery. Abortion has been made illegal, but between the ages of 13 and 17, parents can have their unwanted children literally taken apart piece by piece to be donated to others. The best part? Unwinding requires the child be kept "alive," so the surgery must be performed with the child fully conscious. Cruel and gruesome, read at your own peril.

For a longer list of our recommendations in the YA dystopian genre, check out Women at the End of the World.

Read more by Violet

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