I know every second blog-fester here is going to think The Hunger Games, and to be honest, that was my first instinct too. But being a woman “of age” and from a time when the 21st Century villains of recent dark YA (intelligent computers, media bloodlust, social network bullies etc.) were barely imagined, and vampires and werewolves were laughable creatures from cheap movies, I thought I would hark back to the fears of my young adulthood.
I had a recurring nightmare as a teen in the early 80s. It was almost always the same. I would be somewhere, sometimes home, sometimes out with friends, in one I was at a summer camp in an idyllic valley not far from the city. We are hanging out, playing or gossiping; it is a peaceful relaxed scene. There is a flash of light sometimes, but sometimes not. Regardless at some point, our eyes are drawn to the horizon where we see one or more mushroom clouds. There’s been a nuclear strike and we know the world is ending.
I would wake up sweating, often with tears in my eyes.
I know a lot of recent dystopian fiction is post-apocalyptic. Sometimes, as in The Hunger Games, it is made clear there was a war. Sometimes it’s a virus or environmental disaster. The result is a society rebuilt with some horrific twist and such is also the case in my favorite dark YA, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids.
What frightened me most about this book, oddly enough, was not the violence (it is very violent), nor the religious fundamentalism (which frightens me to death in the real world), nor even the genetic cleansing premise that drives the plot. What frightened me was the description of the land beyond the badlands. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read this magnificent book, but at one point someone tells the protagonist of this book, David, about the world outside their small gathering of settlements.
When you read the book, if you’re smart, you realize it is set in Labrador, in North East Canada. When we finally learn what the world south east of there looks like, it is described as “sheets of black glass”. In other words, the entire USA has been burnt in nuclear fires so hot that the earth has melted into glass. Nothing remains.
The continent of North America is all but gone.
I was deeply moved by this when I was a teenager, and having read this book many times since then, I’m still moved by the scene when this is described. There is something so bleak and horrific about sheets of black glass hundreds, thousands of miles across – something so final and hopeless.
But the worst part about this, for me as a teen anyway, is that we lived with the fear that this would be made real, in our lifetime. At any moment, we believed, some zealot on either side of the Iron Curtain could give the command, turn a key, or press a big red button and the human race would be over, like a candle snuffing out. “Before we do that which can never be undone I beg of you,” Billy Bragg entreated, “Think, think again and again and again and again and again.”
Miraculously this threat, more or less, is now gone.
What do teens fear today? What future do they imagine? What haunts their nightmares? Global warming, terrorism, pandemics or just the slow decay of human dignity? Or all of the above?