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?
Awesome post, Amira. Thank you for the discussion!
Thank YOU for getting the whole thing going! Great fun to write and think about. Your post was awesome!
A great post.
I’ve read many posts on Dystopia, but the content and context applied is brilliant. Some people have a pre-built view that all Dystopia is ‘just’ about the Rich vs the Poor, and fail to see the wider message within the novel.
Credit to you both for pulling this together, and thanks for the mention of Disconnect. I feel all happy now.
Thanks Imran! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Jamey and I had fun writing it. And I agree with your comment about rich versus poor – I think a lot of people focus to excess on either the social structure or the personal quest, to the neglect of the other.
Great post, the thing I love about dystopia is really just seeing other peoples visions of th future!
Thanks for commenting! I agree, and that’s a particularly good point because people’s views are so different. What’s YOUR vision for the future?
Hmmm… thats a toughie hahaha. I guess it’d be something like the main countries and continents going to war for basic needs. Something like that.
That does seem pretty realistic. I can definitely see that happening in the next century. Water rights, arable land, minerals … these things have the potential to become much, much more valuable in the coming decades.
This is interesting for me, especially since dystopian fiction isn’t my favourite genre. I devoured the Hunger Games books, but have a hard time getting into many others. I think part of it is what you mentioned: I find the stories much more compelling if the setting is at least plausible, if there’s some way I could see us getting from here to there. I haven’t read the Divergent series, but I can see it not working for me for the reasons you stated.
Also, I definitely prefer books where the focus is on the characters and their reactions to their surroundings rather than on the “OMG this is NUTS, yo!” focus on the world itself. I’d rather have an amazing story that happens to be “dystopian” than a great dystopia (you know what I mean) that overshadows the story.
Kate, thanks for so being so perfectly in agreement! (Is that a weird thing to say?) You hit the nail on the head. “I’d rather have an amazing story that happens to be ‘dystopian’ than a great dystopia that overshadows the story.” I wholeheartedly agree. That’s a fine line that a lot of writers walk – I’m struggling to walk it myself with my own MS. Are there any dystopias besides the Hunger Games that really caught your attention?
Not so far- you’ll have to give me some recommendations (unless you have a convenient list somewhere that I haven’t stumbled on yet? 🙂 )
I don’t, alas. I haven’t actually read that many YA dystopias. A few, but not a ton considering how many are on the market. I’m currently reading Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, which is mind-blowing, but I think that’s to be expected. And it’s hardly YA! But I’ll try to think of some good ones for you …
The Road is on my “to read” list, too- I’ve heard amazing things about it.
I have gotten so sick of dystopian novels. They all have practically the same plot. A young adult reaches an age when the society forces them to go somewhere or make a decision about there life. The said teen then realizes that the world they live in is evil and is in some way corrupted. They then work to destroy the society or make others realize the issue. Somewhere in the middle they meet one or two people that they fall madly in love with and often the subplot is them choosing which person is better for them. Basically if you know this then you can guess the plot to almost any dystopian novel.
Interesting! I guess I would say that that’s the basic plot of almost every novel, ever. That is, someone is forced into an unfamiliar or uncomfortable (and possibly deadly) situation and must make choices to decide how to escape and who he or she is. There is often a love story on the side. I don’t think your general plot outline is restricted to dystopian fiction, is my point. What do you think?
Great share… I still keep in mind “1984” by George Orwell. Very interesting post. Worth reading…
Cheers, Aquileana 🙂
Thank you for saying so! And yes, 1984 is a classic in the field. Hell of a book to try to live up to.
Yes you are right ..
By the way have you read “Never let me go” by Kazuo Ishiguro?
Outstanding distopian science fiction book… Just keep it in mind in case you are interested ,
Cheers, Aquileana 😉
I have not, but I will keep it in mind. I’ll add it to my goodreads shelf. I’m always looking for more interesting dystopias, so, thank you!