Even the dystopias have gone bad.

That’s the conclusion from a much-shared piece by Ewan Morrison in The Guardian yesterday. Morrison surveyed the young adult fiction advocated by a left-leaning friend and did not much like what he saw:

“Books such as The Giver, Divergent and the Hunger Games trilogy are, whether intentionally or not, substantial attacks on many of the foundational projects and aims of the left: big government, the welfare state, progress, social planning and equality.”

Morrison compares such stuff unfavourably to the fiction of H.G. Wells and Philip K. Dick. It was those earlier books, he decides, that his buddy (“a ‘progressive parent’ friend of mine”) must have been contemplating when he declared “dystopian YA … a great left-wing educational tool”.

By contrast, in today’s bestsellers “the bad guys are not the corporations but the state and those well-meaning liberal leftists who want to make the world a better place”.

Let’s back up here.

Like all mass cultural products, the titles Morrison lists are thoroughly over-determined. We might equally declare The Hunger Games an allegory for Bush’s War on Terror, with young people from poor rural backgrounds forced to fight in meaningless struggles for the benefit of a pampered elite. But that too would be crass. We’re dealing with sprawling franchises accessed across an array of formats (books, films, games, fan sites, etc), and it’s simply not sensible to pin their meaning down so glibly. The Harry Potter empire might, as Morrison says, fill “children’s heads with right-wing dreams of public schools” — but that’s not all it does.

In any case, progressive dystopias warning about an all-powerful state run by those who say they want to better society are scarcely new (think of Orwell’s 1984).

It’s not the dystopias that have changed so much as the world — and the attitudes of so-called progressives.

A fortnight or so ago, the little American town of Ferguson was rocked by scenes that might have come straight from a dystopian movie, as Robocop paramilitaries dispersed demonstrators protesting against the killing of an unarmed teenager. In the context of Edward Snowden’s NSA surveillance revelations, it’s scarcely surprising that faith in big government and social planning has plummeted — black kids in America don’t need a book to mistrust the state.

“Will this text raise a new generation of Tea Partiers? Of course not! It’s not really aimed at the children at all so much as at their parents …”

Not coincidentally, there’s a distinctly Fabian tinge to Morrison’s argument, a sense of kids as empty vessels ready to be filled with wisdom by parents (or, indeed, by that benevolent state). Yet think of the examples he gives. Today, insofar as anyone reads H.G. Wells, they do so for a sense of adventure, not because of his political ideas. After all, Wells’ yearning for a big state governed by well-meaning experts resulted in a profound enthusiasm for Stalin — “I have never met a man more fair, candid, and honest” is how Wells reportedly described the Russian dictator. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine a less likely political guide than the wildly original but deeply paranoid books of Philip K. Dick.

Literature is imaginative, as kids realise from an early age. Reading isn’t passive — we absorb some parts of books, ignore others and recombine it all in our minds, in ways that are unexpected and ungovernable.

In a 1920 manual of the Young Communist International, comrades were advised to “go in a group to the places where children are … on the streets in the evening, in parks, public playgrounds or some outdoor celebration” and invite the young proletarians to join in a new song. “At first the little ones may be suspicious, then they will be shy, but eventually they will join in ‘The Red Flag’, ‘The Internationale’ or some other revolutionary song.”

If this grab-them-while-they’re-young-and-stuff-them-full-of-the-truth approach fails, it’s not such a bad thing.

Consider a kids’ book currently selling well on Amazon:

“Come join 13-year-old Brenna Strong along with her mom, Bea, and her dad, Richard, as they spend a typical Saturday running errands and having fun together. What’s not so typical is that Brenna’s parents lawfully open carry handguns for self-defense.”

That’s the blurb to Brian Jeffs’ and Nathan Nephew’s My Parents Open Carry, the cover of which shows young Brenna posed next to her tooled-up mother and father (you will not be surprised that Dick Strong bears a striking resemblance to Ned Flanders).

Will this text raise a new generation of Tea Partiers? Of course not! It’s not really aimed at the children at all so much as at their parents, designed as a culture-war troll at progressive educationalists. Brian Jeffs and Nathan Nephews can fantasise that they’re recruiting a youth army for the NRA. But young readers will continue to find their own meanings, in their own books.

Morrison can stop fretting. The kids, as they say, are all right.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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