It’s Dystopia Week on Tor.com and, when I saw that (a week or so after I started writing this post – yeah I’m slow!), I thought it made my
rant thoughts on the subject even more timely. Dystopian fiction seems to be the latest Big Thing, especially in Young Adult fiction which is really exploding into genres beyond the couple it tentatively dipped into back when I was a teen.
But are these books actually dystopian, or are they some other sub-genre and we’re all simply repeating the same mistake, heard from each other?
This has occurred to me a few times over the last couple of years, but I think now’s a good time to look into exactly what a dystopian world actually is. See, I started reading Wither recently, a new YA release by first-time author Lauren De Stefano. I’m only a hundred pages in, and I don’t really understand the futuristic world she’s created here yet – the information doesn’t quite make sense but I’m hoping it will come clear before the end – but I noticed when I added it to my Goodreads library that over 200 people had tagged it as dystopian.
(I’m not the only person who’s noted the blurry understanding in YA fiction here – Gwenda Bond has a post up on Tor’s website about the YA dystopian fiction that, I was relieved to see, also talked about how many YA novels are more post-apocalyptic or even straight sci-fi than dystopian. It’s a great post about YA dystopian fiction in other ways too; I hope you get a chance to read it.)
Sometimes you can’t tell until the end whether a book is one sub-genre or the other; you have to finish it and get the whole picture to feel confident about tagging it. But dystopian books should be evident from the very beginning. To compare Wither with another new release in YA, Lauren Oliver’s Delirium (which I’ve yet to write my review for), the latter is clearly dystopian right from the beginning. Wither, on the other hand, has a few little elements of dystopian fiction (barely) but is really post-apocalyptic science fiction more than anything else.
What’s the difference? Let’s be clear about what a dystopia actually is.
For more on what dystopian fiction is, check out John Joseph Adam’s post on Tor.com.
To return to my example of Wither, the book doesn’t meet these criteria. It is set in the future, after an apocalyptic event, the repercussions of which are still strongly felt. Society is in disarray. There is no sign yet of any cohesive ruling power in place. There is no illusion of happiness. It is a world of survival and brutality, where young girls are kidnapped and sold to have more children before they all die at age twenty, where men live only five years longer, all dying at twenty-five. While alive, they try to survive and otherwise do as they please.
The only element of dystopia I’ve encountered so far in Wither is that what began this devastating cycle was scientific intervention: genetically engineering babies to be long-lived and free of disease, and conquering all major diseases. But this is straight-up Science Fiction rather than Dystopian. Yes, the domination of science over nature is a recurring theme in dystopian fiction, which generally features a society that is so repressed and sterilised and forced into a uniform mould, that the earthy, the organic, the natural is relegated to sin, or turned into the enemy.
That one element in Wither, mentioned above, does not automatically make it a dystopian novel. What is it then? Post-apocalyptic, definitely. Science Fiction, absolutely. Speculative Fiction, naturally. But I would argue that it is not Dystopian, not when there’s no supposedly-utopian society in place, no party line, no governing body of any kind – to be honest, I’m more interested in how this world operates than in the heroine’s personal story, and thus increasingly frustrated because it’s not explaining how things work. But, I’m nowhere near finished yet.
There are some fantastic dystopian books out there, both classics and new or modern releases, in different age groups. I’ve read several, and have yet more on my shelves to read. Here’s a selection to get you going:
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
If there’s an epitome of a dystopian novel, it would be We. Published in 1927, it’s the book that inspired Brave New World and 1984 and was inspired in turn by the author’s experience working in the Newcastle (England) shipyards during WWI (not by Stalin, as you’d expect). In this world, people have letters and numbers, not names, and it’s the ultimate conformist society, living in a domed city of harsh lines and concrete, while beyond lurks the wilds, the natural world that must be kept out at all costs. When D-503 meets I-330, he becomes rather obsessed with her and discovers a secret world under the One City that his mind simply can’t handle.
It’s a genius of a novel, and cleverly written.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
More famous than its predecessor We, Brave New World was first published in 1937 and presents a distinctly dystopian society where humans are genetically engineered and hatched rather than born; a world where every person has a clearly delineated place in society, where sex is liberated but natural bodies are repressed (as in, no pregnancy, no motherhood). The population sees it as the perfect arrangement, and there’s no regime to fight here. It speaks to many themes, but at its very elemental I love how it shows the single-mindedness of a given society, how something can be understood as “normal”, “natural” and “the way things are” – a direct comment on our society where, while we do question things, there are still always these notions that some things are “natural” and “right”, when really it’s a matter of perspective, social conditioning and historical pressure. Say something enough times, and it becomes “true”.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
This one probably doesn’t need an introduction, or a summary – even if you haven’t read it I’m sure you’re familiar with it. The dystopian world presented here is the aggressive, totalitarian kind – a guise of protectiveness, unity and harmony barely hides a deeply repressed and fearful society. It makes me think of what Germany – and other places – might have been like if Hitler had won.
First published in 1949.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
I can’t tell you the details – even now I refuse to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read this gem of a book – but it’s an alternate history novel, set over the 70s, 80s and 90s, that presents a dystopian society – wonderful for some, but bad news for a select minority.
This is a deeply sad and tragic novel, especially as the individuals are so apathetic about their fate, so accepting. It’s the scariest thing, and yet we are like that all the time in our own society.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Although I was disappointed with the ending, the premise is exceptional. Society has identified a demon in its midst: books. Books make people feel stupid, therefore, get rid of them. Outlaw them. Anything that confronts people, makes them feel uncomfortable and upset, is often the source of censorship, and that’s what lies behind this dystopian world. When a “mob” gets a single idea, it becomes a mindless force that can’t be beaten. Here, also, the people police themselves.
The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya
I just got this the other day so I haven’t read it yet and I can’t give many details about it, but it’s a post-apocalyptic dystopian fantasy set two hundred years after civilisation was destroyed by the “Blast” (probably nuclear). People are divided and categorised into roles and groups – there are serfs, mutations, and those with designated jobs – a caste system. And there are Saniturions, who watch for any sign of Freethinking.
I love this last line in the blurb: “[It’s] a vision of the past as the future in which the future is now.” It’s also been described as postmodern, which makes me nervous! First published (in English) in 2003.
The Iron Heel by Jack London
First published in 1907, this is another I haven’t read yet. It’s commonly considered the first modern dystopian novel, featuring an oligarchic tyranny which obliterates the middle class, creating a class of serfs to do unpaid labour. It’s a story of political resistance and tragic love. It also makes predictions (that haven’t come true) of a breakdown of the American republic, as well as international empires and oligarchies forming.
Delirium by Lauren Oliver
This YA novel, released just this year, is clearly Dystopian. It presents a near-future America which has turned love into a disease, a curable disease that, if left untreated, causes all the problems in the world. The cure is a kind of lobotomy that is surgically performed when people turn eighteen; afterward, they are almost emotionless but content. It’s also a society that polices itself, aggressively so. What’s interesting is how hard it is for us, the reader, to understand this belief system that is so drastically different from our own – how these people could want this. Nevertheless, there is resistance.
My review is upcoming.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
First published in 1993, The Giver is similar to Delirium in its basic premise: one element of our world has been identified as the cause of human unhappiness, and obliterated. I won’t tell you what because if you haven’t read it it’ll spoil it for you, it’s so cleverly revealed.
This is also a society where everyone has a designated role, decided upon by the community or rather a group of leaders. In fact, most things are decided for you – the fewer things an individual has to decide for themselves, the “happier” they will be.
Battle Royale by Koushan Takami
One of my favourite books, this is also a sheer horror novel set in a dystopian world in which whole classes of high school students are sent on what they think is a field trip, but on the bus ride they’re gassed and wake up on an island with exploding collars on their necks. They’re each given a bag that can contain weapons of all kinds – some more lethal than others – and ordered to go forth and kill each other. There can only be one survivor – one winner.
The motivation behind this methodical – and socially approved – method of keeping youth in line isn’t explored at any great depth, more hinted at, but that only makes it more provocative. The not understanding fully drives you mental. It’s like watching that horror movie, Cube – you never learn who’s behind it or why and that’s part of the terror.
As soon as I read The Hunger Games I noticed the similarities between it and this older novel, but Suzanne Collins insists she’d never heard of it and I’m not one of those people who think two people – or cultures – with no contact can’t come up with the same ideas. It happens all the time. Take the written language, for instance. 😉
Other dystopian fiction:
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld
The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
The Running Man by Stephen King
Got more to share? My mind’s gone blank!
You can see a list of books commonly categorised as dystopian on Wikipedia, here.
Just keep in mind – dystopian books are Science Fiction first, being the parent genre, and just because things are crappy it’s not necessarily “dystopian”.
One day, when I’ve read enough of the genre, I’ll have to do a Top Ten post on my faves. 🙂
Books often mis-identified as dystopian include:
The Road by Cormac McCarthy – this book is post-apocalyptic speculative fiction. It’s a shitty world but that doesn’t make it dystopian.
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – a modern-day WWI feel to this YA novel, with the heroine shipped off to live with her cousins in rural England, does not a dystopia make.
Blindness by Jose Saramago – I had this categorised as dystopian fiction on Goodreads and it pulled me up short. I don’t remember it being dystopian at all. It’s apocalyptic fiction, speculative fiction, but what’s dystopian about it? I removed that tag.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr. – this is pure post-apocalyptic Science Fiction. It’s also rather dull – I’ve been “currently reading” it for over a year now and am only halfway through. Not sure if I’ll ever go back to it.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood – again, this is Speculative Fiction and Science Fiction (as much as Atwood hates her work to be relegated to a genre, there’s no escaping it), but I wouldn’t call this Dystopian. It’s a post-apocalyptic world with flashbacks to a Science Fiction world. I’m not sure where the dystopian label comes from for this one.
Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer – this YA apocalyptic novel has no dystopian elements to it, but as Bree (All the Books I Can Read) pointed out, it gets put on lists of dystopian novels. And why? Because of this idea that any speculative novel where people are struggling to survive is automatically dystopian. The thing about dystopian worlds is that, often the people aren’t struggling at all. It’s an almost (I hesitate to say this) socialist world, and is often considered a genre that stems from capitalist countries’ fear of socialism. A discussion for another day…
Got more to add?