Welcome to Dystopia Now!

Hello all and welcome to this month’s theme – dystopia!

Writing a thesis which focuses on young adult dystopia brings up lots of fun questions and channels for inquiry, but what I didn’t expect was a genre debate.

Not all ‘dystopia’ is really dystopia.

Many recent ‘dystopia’ texts are not really a critique, they don’t seek to question the utopian ideal or poke at culture but simply want to tell a compelling story and adventure, often a love story, and often an adventure that leads to a coming of age. Actually, the utopian and dystopian impulse has often been little more than a trope, a mode, a theme or a setting. It’s a trend that is a little alarming, booksellers and publishers are using the term ‘dystopia’ as a kind of brand to sell books which is incredibly ironic because a true dystopia should strive to criticism consumerism and this kind of false marketing. I mean so many ‘dystopia’ that I have read recently are just blatantly not dystopia at all. A good example, Pitticus Lore’s I Am Number 4 which is a wonderful science fiction adventure about an alien disguised as a human and who, of course, falls in love with a human girl and drama and adventure ensure. Where’s the social critique? It’s hard to be human? Love stinks? No, I’m sorry, not dystopia.

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But wait! You may be saying, I though dystopia was a sub-genre of science fiction.

To which I must disagree, for me dystopia has its own place separate from sci-fi. Science fiction speculates about futuristic life, new technologies and aliens and ray guns and adventure – while, dystopian necessarily critiques and comments on culture. It would seem that an easy definition of dystopia would simply be the converse of utopia. If utopia illustrates a place so perfect that it does not exist, dystopia is the depiction of a place, or of a time, so unpleasant that no one desires to see it. Dystopia has evolved out of science fiction and speculative literature into, as I would argue, a genre of its own. Throughout the 20th century, dystopia arose as a dominant with H.G. Well’s novels, and blooming with Aldous Huxley’s, George Orwell’s, and Margaret Atwood’s works of fiction.

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A true dystopia should explore what I like to call a kind of ‘what if’ question. Let me explain with one of my favourite dystopias The Giver by Lois Lowry and winner of the 1994 Newbery Award. Lowry explores what life would be like if there was no colour, how would that happen? Well, we couldn’t have any memory of colour then, and we would have to alter and control nature because it is in nature that we find colour. But to accomplish all that we’d have to live in a very controlled society, and from there choice is eliminated because choice gives colour and variety to human life. For a world without colour you’d have to live in The Giver. It is a book that critiques the human drive to control and it is a critique of a culture that takes for granted colour and choice and variety.

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One could probably argue that most fiction could be derived from a ‘what if’ question, and I think that is quite possibly true. However, the dystopia seeks to answer that question with the intention of addressing cultural anxieties and threats, with the purpose of contemplating what the ideal solution, the utopia, might be. The dystopia should tease out how easily that utopia slips into dystopia. Indeed, utopia and dystopia are closely tied; I don’t think you can have one without the other. What is one person’s utopia might be another’s dystopia, and vice versa – let’s take a quick look at another classic William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies.  The what if question of this one is, ‘what would a bunch of intelligent boys do if they crash landed on a beautiful island and tried to create a democracy? ‘ The answer is that they are doomed to fail because democracy is a flawed system of government, because there are always bullies and because being fed is more important than government. Though the boys have literally crashed on a utopia, and though they strive for peace and unity to create a utopian society, anarchy inevitably takes control  and the island becomes a nightmarish prison. The Lord of the Flies is a recipe for utopia that is bound to fall into dystopia.

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So that’s what to look for, look for that nugget of utopia. What were they striving for and how did it fail? Look for that critique, the failure is the critique. If it is truly a place you would never want to live then it is a dystopia. I want to finish by saying that there really are some wonderful contemporary YA dystopia novels out there and to give you a well known example. Let’s take The Hunger Games for a final very quick example. I would argue that it is indeed a true dystopia. The Capitol instated a government, the district system, and the Hunger Games in the hopes of maintaining peace and order – but also with the hopes of the Capitol remaining in power and comfortable. In order to do that there is constant surveillance and there are strict rules impinged on the outlying districts. It is a dystopia because I would not want to be in Katniss’ place, but at the same time while she exists in dystopia a character like Cato lives in relative happiness (until he realizes he’s going to die) and so there again is that nugget of a utopia turned dystopia, Cato is an interesting critique of the systems of privilege and power. While there are elements of romance in the book, I would argue that they serve the critique as Katniss and Peeta play out the role of the starcrossed lovers in order to pander to the crowd and earn sponsorships. Critiquing the power of media and how easily it is to manipulate through it. I could go on, but I will be posting on The Hunger Games later this month – so tune back in for some more Katniss fun!

This month I think we’ll have a healthy mix of both true dystopia and books that use dystopia as a setting or a trope. We’ll be teasing that out and we’ll be interviewing some authors to see what they think of the genre debate as well.