Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, and Ben Lloyd-Hughes in Divergent.
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Laurie Penny on fiction: No wonder teens love stories about dystopias – they feel like they’re in one

Civilisation as we know it could collapse in 15 years, something which is reflected in the viewing habits of today’s kids.

Fifteen years. According to a Guardian report, “civilisation” as we know it could collapse in 15 years. In a Nasa-funded paper, accepted for publication in the journal Ecological Economics, resource depletion, climate change, escalating inequality and the unstoppable greed of the elite are all cited as reasons to imagine why democracy as we know it is time-limited. The study was initially reported uncritically; Nasa has since attempted to distance itself from the paper. Yet the countless young people who shared its conclusions on social media seemed to do so with a gloomy shrug, as if their suspicions were merely being confirmed. I was reminded of this while booking tickets for Divergent, the film version of a wildly popular dystopian young adult novel.

It is always worth paying attention to what the kids are reading. Sparkly chauvinist vampires are finally falling out of fashion, with “supernatural romance” giving way to “horrific post-apocalypse dictatorship” as the main refrain of young adult literature. The Hunger Games, thankfully, has killed Twilight. It elbowed aside wilting reactionary female leads literally dying to be abducted by floppy-haired, cold-blooded aristocrats in favour of badass heroines shooting arrows through the heart of post-capitalist patriarchy. What would Katniss Everdeen do with Edward Cullen? The creepy love interest of the Twilight novels would surely find himself staked out at the gates of Panem as a warning about what happens when entitled nobility oversteps itself.

The themes of Divergent, the debut novel of the 25-year-old American author Veronica Roth, are no less exciting for being familiar. A courageous but flawed young girl finds herself at odds with a repressive oligarchy established after an earlier collapse of civilisation. She must fight for her survival and that of her people. Along the way, there’s some smooching, moral turpitude and buckets and buckets of blood.

Today’s teens love stories about dystopia and they have plenty of appetite for more. Readers are already eagerly anticipating the next instalment of Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season, starring yet another complex, challenging female lead who is more afraid of her government than any monster. Shannon was a teenager when she began writing it. Veronica Roth was 22 when Divergent was released. That these books are febrile and replete with the rhetorical simplicity of a teenage manifesto only makes their message more compelling: Cinderella as rewritten by CrimethInc to a riot grrrl soundtrack.

Young adult books (and films) are part of a relatively new genre and they speak to the young adult inside us all, the part whose identity is yet unformed, full of rage and fear and longing. They’re not great literature, which is fine, because they’re not designed to be. The new teen dystopias are profoundly romantic, full of doomed crushes and broody heroes in tight athletic suits, but they resist portraying love as the answer to the heroine’s problems. Kissing is fantastic but what Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior and Paige Mahoney need is someone with pretty eyes to help them bring down the government. Don’t we all?

The stories begin with co-option – with the heroines being forced to compete in the system of violence of which they are unwillingly a part. Why do they do it? Why would any rebellious girl consent to play along, fighting her peers for the amusement of those with power? Because they’ve got her family, of course. A running theme in the new teen dystopias is profound anxiety for the protagonist’s siblings, parents and friends – an individual might be able to escape but they’ll have to leave their loved ones behind. This is an important break with the more conventional young adult device of killing off the family before the story starts. Today’s teen protagonists are worried about how the people they love will manage in the meathook future. They want to know if romance and adventure will still be possible. They want to know if they’ll have the strength to survive.

There are clear reasons why this sort of story is appealing. The complete collapse of the narrative of what a secure future looks like for today’s young people and the grim messages about what the teenagers who grew up with Occupy and austerity have to look forward to as the planet heats up, the job market stutters, pension provision is depleted and the police get meaner have fostered a generational anxiety about how to cope with overmighty state power. These stories function both as manifesto and pressure release valve. They are escapist only in that they allow for the possibility of resistance. The message of The Hunger Games, like the message of The Bone Season, could not be starker: however much they make you fight one another, you must always “remember who the real enemy is”.

The next generation don’t need a Nasa-funded study to predict that their adult lives will be harder than those of their parents. Slavoj Žižek, every hipster’s favourite communist philosopher, once opined: “It’s easy to imagine the end of the world . . . but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism.” I’m not sure that’s true any longer. I suspect that young people today are gradually beginning to imagine what the end of capitalism as we know it might look like – and while it might be exciting, it won’t be a lot of fun and might require some weapons training. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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In “Gary Numan: Android in La La Land”, the paranoid android visibly defrosts on screen

This documentary about the making of Gary Numan’s new album is full of the warmth and silliness of family life.

In a month that sees the release of two high-profile, music-oriented mockumentaries (David Brent: Life on the Road and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping), it’s strangely refreshing to see the real McCoy in all its tender, ingenuous glory. Gary Numan: Android in La La Land may be howlingly funny in places but it’s no joke. The film follows the British pioneer of vaguely menacing synth-pop (“Cars”, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”) as he uproots in 2013 from a farm in England to a castle-style mansion in Los Angeles while putting the finishing touches to his comeback album, Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind). With him are his highly animated wife, Gemma, and their three young daughters, none of whom shows any of their father’s shyness in front of the camera. Encouraging children to say funny things on camera may be a cheap way of earning a laugh, but that doesn’t make it any less pleasurable when one of Numan’s nippers gives him the once-over and announces: “You look old when you don’t have make-up on.”

Besides, Numan’s persona was always so calculatedly chilly that it is a joy to see it defrosted on screen by prolonged exposure to the warmth and silliness of family life. That impassive robotic face is now finally human: the skin is creased and crumpled, the gnashers uneven. Those of us who saw him on Top of the Pops in the late 1970s and early 1980s will have been both thrilled and chilled by his sneering poise: he looked like a forgotten member of Kraftwerk who was peeved that the rest of the group had gone off on tour without him. It’s delightful to contrast that memory with the scenes here of Numan grumbling about his wife’s navigational eccentricities as he sits at the wheel of a Winnebago, or confessing that he is creeped-out by his ornate new home with its trap-doors and its hidden passageways.

The property seems like an unforced metaphor for how other people might feel about his unfathomable mind, though the film also has a lot of fun showing the sorts of domestic woes that don’t go away just because you’re rich and famous. At one point, Gemma is on her hands and knees scrubbing cat pee out of the curtains in their new abode – cue a perfectly-timed shot of the guilty party peering disdainfully at the camera. In another scene, Gemma points at a dog turd in the garden. “There’s a whole Kit-Kat in his poo,” she says matter-of-factly as Numan looks on, entirely unperturbed.

At the start of the film, as he hauls bales of hay awkwardly around his farm, Numan comes across like one of the Replicants from Blade Runner – his mannerisms seem learned or programmed rather than felt. The magic of Steve Read and Rob Alexander’s documentary lies in its ability to coax the human being reluctantly out from behind the stiffness, the neuroses. The singer describes himself as “anti-social” and puts it down to “that Asperger’s thing”.

Indeed, it seems his condition accounted for much of the apparent remoteness that hardened into a persona in the early days of his career. It’s easy also to forget what a pup he was: just 21 when “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” reached number 1 in the charts in 1979. And fame terrified him. He talks movingly here of confining himself back then to a single room, converted into a self-contained bedsit, in his vast house, where he would retreat each night to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail while eating chips. In his front room was a blow-up dinghy. “It actually made a comfortable sofa,” he says.

The ostensible focus of the film is the making and release of the new album after six years in which Numan struggled with depression and emotional paralysis while his money ran out. And it’s true that the final 20 minutes or so plays like the sort of extended promo for new product that smacks of a DVD extra. But the picture has enough honesty in its portrait of Numan’s marriage to earn its documentary stripes. Gemma is not only the singer’s wife: she also happens to be his one-time superfan, prone to dashing into his garden to have her picture taken in front of his house. You can’t help thinking it was behaviour like that which sent him running for his bedsit. Asked about her ambitions by the school careers advisor, she replied that she didn’t need to get a job: she was going to marry Gary Numan. (At this point, the couple had never met.)

What’s touching is that she is still his superfan – her adoration has survived the years of stress and desperation, the numerous and traumatic failed pregnancies that preceded IVF treatment, not to mention the conversion of pop idolatry into the everyday, the humdrum. Gemma might come out with the sort of clangers that the makers of This Is Spinal Tap would have thrown out for implausible dumbness. (“There’s an ‘i’ in ‘team,’” she insists, before recalibrating: “In my team.”) But she’s no fool. When the hard drive containing crucial backing tracks for Numan’s new album is damaged in transit, it’s Gemma to the rescue with the soldering iron. “Now cool it down,” she says. “Really cool it down. Put it in the fridge.” Gary Numan taking advice on the art of refrigeration – how cool is that?

Gary Numan: Android in La La Land is on release from tomorrow

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.