Why IS Dystopian Fiction So Great?

The estimable Jamey Stegmaier emailed me the other day after I posted my last book review and asked me a very interesting question. What is it, he asked, that you like so much about dystopian fiction? The question really got me thinking.  After all, I’m working on a book with strong dystopian elements, and I’ve read a whole load of dystopian books in the last year or so. After running a supremely successful Kickstarter campaign to launch Viticulture: The Strategic Art of Winemaking, Jamey, too, is working on a dystopian-themed project. The two of us had an engaging discussion about dystopias, their strengths and weaknesses, and why they are so popular right now. It’s a complicated question, so we decided to do a shared blog entry on the theme of WHY ARE DYSTOPIAS SO GREAT, in the hopes of getting an active discussion going about why these stories have captured such a broad modern audience.

But first of all, what even is a dystopia? According to Mirriam-Webster Online, a dystopia is: “a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.” This is a traditional definition, and classic literary examples are Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, or, from the film industry, The Matrix or Equilibrium. These are stories where the oppression is highly visible; the torment and devastation self-evident. In more and more modern dystopias, however, the problems with the society are less prominent, less visible. They have to be unearthed, slowly but surely, by protagonists dedicated to finding the truth and delivering justice. Dystopias can be more than just horrifically oppressive societies, then; they can also be complicated and labyrinthine places where the evil lies beneath the surface.

So why are dystopias so popular right now? Why are they so popular in general? After all, they’re purely hypothetical situations, set in the future, dedicated to showing how miserable society could or will be in the future. Depressing. So why so compelling?

Jamey and I set out to answer that question, and we each put together a list of three things that we love about dystopian fictions, and one thing we dislike about them.

The Three Things I Love About Dystopian Fiction Are:

1. Dystopias mirror reality. They present real-life problems in a way that makes them approachable because of their fantasy. They can highlight social or political issues in a way that’s just as poignant and less depressing than, say, a real-life documentary would on the same subject. For example, in the book Disconnect by Imran Siddiq, the author does a great job of showing what poverty and oppression would look like in a futuristic setting, and by doing so, shows us from a very personal perspective what poverty in contemporary society looks like. His dystopia forces us to take a harder look at the way we treat our own underprivileged citizens.

2. They set up the hero’s journey from both a personal and a societal perspective.  In a dystopian fiction, the protagonist must confront and struggle against evil in whatever face it takes, simultaneously overthrowing the established society and coming into maturity as a human and a hero.  The protagonist’s personal quest in terms of self-discovery and the coming-of-age story is deeply tied to his or her ability to change the outside world. It’s a journey we all must go on in our lives, and dystopias help to  present that archetype in a dramatic and personal light. This journey is perfectly exemplified in Katniss Everdeen’s struggle against the Capitol of Panem in the Hunger Games. Katniss is forced, against her will, to confront the evils of the government she lives under, and at the same time she grows from a reluctant hero into a strong fighter willing to sacrifice her own life to achieve justice. We as readers cannot help but grow alongside her as she walks the hero’s path.

3. Playing off of #1, dystopias also serve as a warning about the dangers of continuing as a society down our current path. Though fictional and in many cases fantastical, they contain hints of real things: Political disintegration. Anarchy. War. Oppression. Slavery. Environmental destruction. These are things that have the potential to exist in the future – in some cases, are coming into existence right now – and I think it’s both an interesting thought experiment to see how those things could play out by using fiction to explore them, and a real warning as to the dangers of continuing haphazardly down our current road. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a classic example of this. Written at the height of the paranoia about communism and fresh off of the horrors of WWII and Nazi totalitarianism, Orwell’s dystopia contained vivid warnings about what the future could hold in store. It was a masterful exploration of the powers of absolute totalitarianism, executed to perfection, and how deadly such oppression could be.

And here’s what I dislike about dystopias:

There are a lot of dystopias – particularly some of the more recent ones – that seem so completely contrived that they have no relevance to the world. They’re thought experiments, and outside of that there’s virtually no point to them. A perfect example of this is the Divergent series. Frankly, I cannot imagine a future in which society has divided itself up into groups based on dominant personality traits and assigned societal roles based on those traits. It’s as mundane as basing a society off of palm reading. The idea of characterizing and grouping people by one single personality trait seems so contrary to human nature – for all its intricate, complex, bizarre aspects – that I can’t see how anyone would ever think that would work. Of course, that’s half the point of Roth’s series – that most people, known as “Divergent,” are more complex than just one dominant personality trait. But if that’s the case, set up the society that way in the first place. If a dystopia is so contrived and arbitrary that it has no relevance to the real world, what is the point? Why would I want to read about a totally unreasonable or impossible society? Answer: I don’t.

But this is a problem with the setup of a dystopia; not with dystopias themselves. This is what happens when the fictional society is poorly thought-out or created without visualizing a progression from our current world into the next. The things that make dystopias powerful and compelling backdrops for stories still stand, and there are some magnificent examples out there with the power to delight and inspire.

Here is the link to Jamey’s post, and please check out his responses as well. We’re both very interested in what our readers can come up with!  What inspires you about dystopian fiction? What do you love – or hate – about it? What are your favorite dystopias, and why?