I started reading the first book in the Hunger Games series. And I can see why it's so popular with today's teen set. The book reads like a dark-hearted SF thriller, but it paints a frightening picture of the world our children are set to inherit.
Here is a society built on the ruins of the one we live in now. It's seen the return of scarcity. It's seen the divide between first and third world conditions move within the borders of our own country. It's seen martial law in the wake of collapse, with capital punishment for theft imprisonment for hunting and gathering your own food. It’s seen a new world order with poor outlying districts feeding into the wealth of one centralized, prosperous capitol. Meanwhile, for entertainment, the "reality show" is carried to it's logical conclusion: children are forced to fight to the death on television for the public amusement, with a supporting staff of stylists, producers, "game designers," and sponsors to make it all profitable.
Granted, the Japanese got to the conceit of kids fighting to the death on a reality show first, with Battle Royale. But their take on it was campy and cartoonish, their explanation for why it was happening was felt like an attempt to make light of problems in their public schools. But Hunger Games is deadly earnest, building on chilling economic and environmental trends. We've sown conflict around the globe; it seems inevitable that it's going to swing back and hit us at home, sooner or later.
This is the world our children see coming: constant war, rising food prices, ceaseless advertising, the cheapening of human life in pursuit of grander virtual and vicarious thrills, the abandonment of basic rights and dignity for the poor, while the rich extract human blood in the form of tribute paid in human offspring.
You think this sounds hyperbolic? Try starting your adult life under the burden of a student loan you can never hope to repay, from which not even bankruptcy is an escape. Kids today are slaves from the minute they graduate college. (It's a funny twist of fate that today, it's the smartest kids who don't go to school.) Already, teens face an adulthood without dignity. It's not that far-fetched to see their lives as cheap enough to throw away in televised games.
Our kids are facing the collapse of the public safety net as it's raided by the disinterested greed of their boomer grandparents, while they struggle in the moral wasteland provided by the "it's all good" parenting of their Generation X and Y parents. Reality shows show them that success lies at the end of a path of opportunism, brutality, and luck, while advertisements bombard them with tawdry and unattainable examples of what that success would be.
The result is that life is worthless unless you're at the top. So, why not gamble it all for a shot at the prize? (Bankruptcy might not be an option any more, but kids might fight to the death if the reward were forgiveness of their student loans.)
Science fiction used to give us tales of exploration, invention, colonization and prosperity. I'm not sure what happened in the last 30 years, but SF has become something that feels chilling and malicious, more akin to horror.
It also feels a hell of a lot more real.