Often the first question people ask me when I say I'm a writer is, "What do you write?" The second question tends to be, "What the hell is a dystopian?" I think that sometimes even those who do feel familiar with the term don’t have a complete understanding of the genre. I’ve come across more and more people who think dystopian fiction is brand spanking new, because of the huge swell of popularity in the genre with writers like Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) and Scott Westerfeld (Uglies) making waves in the YA market. And it’s definitely true that the genre has exploded recently, which I love because it’s one of my favorite genres of literature. But it’s been around a LOT longer than a lot of people new to the genre might think.
Dystopia is a word with which many of us writers, especially those of us who write speculative fiction, are already familiar. The easiest way to define it is to say that it is the opposite of a utopia.
The book which coined that term, Utopia by Thomas More, described his idea of a perfect world, outlining the specifics of government, ownership, and religion that he believed would combine to create an ideal society. Many of the ideas he presented were radical at the time--there were female priests in his society, for example, and it was published nearly five hundred years ago! The ideas in his book went against much of what his society (and he himself!) upheld as the standards of the day. When I look at Utopia, I see the very earliest form of speculative fiction. The book asks, What if? and then tries to answer the question.
I’ve always hated definitions that fall back on comparison, however, so I’ll offer up an explanation of dystopian fiction that doesn’t rely on a companion term:
A dystopian society is usually a futuristic one, in which the laws and morals that govern the people within it have regressed to the point of repression or loss of human rights, designed by the author to highlight and explore the flaws in his current society.
At some point in the mid to late 19th century, writers began toying with the idea of examining what makes a perfect society by presenting us with the opposite: terrible futures, societies in which we would find life unbearable. Instead of telling us what we should do to create a perfect society, these writers showed us the possible consequences of continuing to live as we do now.
H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, for example, portrayed a far-distant Earth inhabited by two species: the peaceful, beautiful Eloi with no curiosity or spark of intelligence, and the harsh, brute-like Morlocks. Gradually he comes to realize that both are descended from humanity: the Eloi are the descendants of our upper class, while the Morlocks are the descendants of the working class. In Wells’ increasingly nightmarish version of the future the Morlocks actually eat the Eloi, who are too complacent to break free of the strange parasitic relationship with the Morlocks. Wells was trying to warn us that if society continued to be exclusively classist, then the future portrayed in The Time Machine could very well be possible.
Other classic dystopian novels operate much the same way. George Orwell’s classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is set in a world dominated by a totalitarian government, which controls its populace by constantly monitoring their private lives and changing/censoring history to perpetuate its own power and image. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury offers a future that would strike absolute terror into any writer’s heart: a world in which America has so regressed into hedonistic, thoughtless lifestyle that any free-thinking, intellectual pursuits are outlawed. The title of the book refers to the supposed temperature at which books burn--because they are outlawed, and anyone caught reading is shipped off to an insane asylum.
So that’s all great to know, but what does this mean for us, as writers? I believe it’s important to know why a genre exists if you’re going to write in it. The definition of a dystopian novel as “a science fiction novel about a bad future” is really too simplistic.
Want to know the real secret about dystopian fiction? It’s not about the future at all--not in the slightest. Dystopian fiction is about what’s happening right now.
Dystopian novels are products of their time.
Wells wrote The Time Machine during the end of the Victorian era, in which the extreme distinctions between the classes were magnified by the increasingly industrial society. Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four shortly after World War II, about a society that strongly resembled the regime of Joseph Stalin. Bradbury, writing when American children were for the first time growing up in front of the TV, envisions a world where the immediate, thoughtless entertainment available through technology eclipses literature so completely that books become outlawed.
The best of dystopian fiction today continues this practice of highlighting the flaws in our society and extrapolating them into the future, imagining what our world could become if we don’t repair the cracks now while we still can.
Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series takes place in a future in which every teenager gets plastic surgery at age 16 to become pretty, and in doing so, is stripped of his or her individuality and passion, becoming a mindless pleasure-seeker. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy is a terrifying, gripping warning about what reality television could become, pitting children against each other in death matches for the amusement of spectators at home.
If you’ve ever thought you might want to try writing dystopian fiction, the first thing to think about is this: what warning do you want to send? What about today’s society scares you so badly that in twenty years, or fifty, or a hundred, it could change our lives so drastically that we, as people living in the 21st century, would scarcely recognize them?
Science fiction is all about the “what if.” What if the qualities that define our society today are the very cause of our downfall tomorrow?