A while back, I fell into conversation with another author, and we wondered about the trend in young adult literature toward the apocalypse: so many popular teen titles are post-apocalyptic or dystopic (Hunger Games, Divergent). On the one hand, there has been a fair amount of this in books for adults as well (see the success of the Wool series by Hugh Howey), on the other hand, when I was younger, I used to get together with my friends and run around in the woods pretending we were the last people on earth, making up wild scenarios in which I could fly a plane and fire a gun to escape from dangerous situations like mutant whales. So I have to say the post-apocalyptic phenomenon is not new.
As an adult reader, I have to say I’m not much attracted to books about the end of the world. The subject doesn’t engage me. But clearly, it grabs lots of teens, and, just as clearly, at one time, I was one of them–possibly under the influence of the Cold War nuclear brinksmanship still rippling through society. Why the attraction?
I think it exists on several levels. First, and this is where my author friend and I began, is the idea that, for teens, everything is hugely dramatic. Thirty years down the line, we know that first love is probably not the same as true love, and that bad grades, big storms and even car accidents are rarely the end of the world. We also know that, even though terrible things happen, often unexpectedly, and have a great impact on us and on our society, the world has managed–so far–to overcome them.
But teens don’t have that perspective yet. They are aware enough to know that things are happening in the rest of the world, yet they always relate it to themselves first. Everything is big, exciting, frightening because it’s all happening for the first time. It’s the first time (for them) that America is at war. The first time a disease in a foreign country made the news. The first time that violence and anger erupted over a political decision. It’s the first time that hottie in math class met their eye.
However, I think it goes further than that. Why would this series of firsts–of striking dramas, both personal and epic–trigger the desire to play-act being the last people on earth? Do they want everyone else to go away? Let’s look at this exodus from a slightly skewed perspective: why, in Disney films, fairy tales and fantasy novels, are the parents so often absent or deceased?
Because it is time to have an adventure. For the younger market of those works, the idea of losing their parents is both scary and exciting–the young protagonist must make the choices that would otherwise be done by mom or dad. And often, in the end, there is a reconciliation–the child can return home, rescue the parent or restore a younger sibling, and make the world right again.
For the teen, the end of the world is adulthood. It is the end of that idea that they can return home and settle back in to the routine of childhood where someone else makes the decisions and drives the narrative. They are on the cusp of not merely being free to have an adventure, as they might in a younger narrative form, but of being permanently responsible for, well, everything. Not only their own choices and actions in the world (as on the adventure) but being custodians of the world itself. Making the big decisions that will affect other survivors, becoming an actor on a bigger stage than their own home or town or school.
The world is coming to an end, and they must make their place in it. There will no longer be defined places for them (dutiful child, good student) to fit nor a comfortable place to return to, it will be on their shoulders to live or die, to create a better world, or buy into the ruined one, perhaps to stand atop the rubble of the past and feel stronger, perhaps because of some books that let them imagine all of this without actually leaving their comfort zone.