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Exploring Genre: Dystopian Literature by Mary Rose-Shaffer
Review by Mary Rose-Shaffer *Essay  
Date: 01 January 2009 /

Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse -

Dystopia or Anti-utopia means not or against utopia. In literature these terms are generally applied to the worst possible society and environment imaginable. Just as a utopia is the ultimate and perfect place to live, a dystopia is the place from which to escape or against which to launch rebellion. The author creates an entirely dysfunctional world posing as a functional one. Interestingly, dystopias are often disguised as utopias in their initial presentation to the reader. Consider the society of The Giver: all is peaceful; everyone cared for and equal. Then the reader discovers the price of this peace and equality is the complete absence of all differences and uniqueness, all emotion and color – figuratively and literally.

In dystopian fiction the key conflict is the discovery of the inherent wrongness of the world by a single individual or group of individuals. Overly simplified, the plot generally revolves around the hero/heroine/rebel group arriving at the knowledge that their world is bad and their subsequent acts to reform the world. The hero/heroine/rebel group decides to fight against the oppressive regime and is either victorious or fails miserably after some confrontation with the main figure representing the oppressor. The other elements of the story involve directly describing or implying the characteristics of the social, political, intellectual, emotional, and physical world of the piece. It is the subtle or not so subtle approach to these elements that distinguish the mediocre from the great.

Dystopian literature may be easier to write than utopian fiction because the conflicts and problems are readily apparent and easily used in the telling of the story. It is also hard to write because one generally doesn't wish for the ultimate negative example of society. In dystopian fiction the political and social realm are intentionally constructed. Authors have models from actual history upon which to build these possible worlds – the past as inspiration. Dystopian futures are often written as warning against the current path; often the logical extrapolation of current social, economic, governmental, ecological, technological, etc. direction. Most dystopias also effectively incorporate some manipulation of the population using fear: fear of further repression, of an unknown and demonized enemy, of the new and different, of older ideas or ideals, of torture and death.

Cover of Jack London's The Iron Heel An author may use this genre of SF to espouse his/her own social political beliefs – the ultimate literary soapbox. Jack London's The Iron Heel discusses an oligarchy based on upper-class business/manufacturing owners revealing labor issues that were important to him. A Scanner Darkly created as Philip K. Dick's response to conspiracy theory and drug use and abuse. Make Room! Make Room! Harry Harrison's discussion of the consequences of over-population and the basis of the film Soylent Green. While these authors approach major issues in an obvious way, the result is an entertaining, thought-provoking piece of fiction.

Cover of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly A well-created dystopia seems possible based on current trends – in government, in technology, in social norms. Advancements in technology are such that it is possible to envision an overly technological world, one where the now-sentient machines rule. Based on genetic testing and genetic research, it is possible to imagine a world stratified by genetic class. All elements of society based on genetic predispositions, weaknesses and strengths, where human physiology itself is manipulated for specific jobs. A society where citizens are controlled by drugs seems possible as well. It is possible to have a dystopia set in an agrarian, non-technological future – as is Anthem – but it seems increasingly unlikely given the current political and industrial tendencies.

Cover of Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! The restriction or elimination of individual freedoms serves as a recurrent theme in dystopian fiction. A created government or a small group of men (yes, usually men not women) take control after some event makes the previous government or society unsustainable. Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale gives an interesting vision of a totalitarian patriarchal theocracy which severely restricts the lives of its lesser and female citizens. The graphic novel, and subsequent film, V for Vendetta offers a gritty realistic perspective of a highly controlled police state. An early dystopian satire, We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin reveals a world in which all activity, even sex, is controlled by the state.

Cover of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale Authors often create worlds emphasizing differences in class and stratification of society to comment on increasingly disparate social climate. Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron" is an example of an imagined future where the meaning of "equality" has been misapplied in a social-political context to satirical effect. Similarly, Scott Westerfeld's books of The Uglies series portray a world where manipulation of physical appearance as well as intellect and memory are manipulated to maintain order and stability.

Cover of graphic novel V for Vendetta Many earlier dystopian novels continue to be read though the particular future their authors predicted may be a bit dated and certainly has not come to fruition. 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 remain popular because they are well-written and well-thought through, with engaging characters and plotlines. And though these futures have not proven completely true, the fears from which the stories were created still resonate; the possibility remains in the imagination. Though we are twenty-five years beyond the year 1984, the world in constant war, the continuous revision of history and social reality, and the omnipresent monitoring of Big Brother seem all too familiar and all too possible.

Implied in most of these works is the concept of human complacency or acceptance of the situation as it is presented. The machines/computers take over because humans let them. Books become illegal because people focus on radio and television and quit reading. Included here is the mindset that nothing could possibly go wrong. The computer(s) take control because there is no way that machine could turn against its creators. Dystopian fiction takes advantage of the idea of people as two-legged sheep – willing to be led. The government knows best after all. Doesn't it?

Cover of George Orwell's 1984 Cover of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World Cover of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

Dystopian film provides even more fertile ground for discussion. The created worlds of The Matrix, Equilibrium, Gattaca, Brazil, V for Vendetta are all fairly logical negative extrapolations of possible futures. While this essay is not about film, it is of interest that many highly successful films of the past twenty or so years have been dystopian in context and content.

Interestingly, many dystopias are created from the ashes of some worldwide catastrophe – war, plague, accidental release of atomic or biological weapons and such. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fictions have their own rich foundations, history, and conventions – to be discussed in more depth next month.

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