Sunday, August 26, 2012

A cornucopia of dystopia?

The word dystopia has been thrown around a lot lately. It's a useful term to refer to novels that take place in a world where there's been a big change in the way society runs things. I've used it myself to refer to, say, The Hunger Games. But a discussion of how exactly to define dystopia has made the Internet rounds lately, and this flowchart in particular got me thinking. (Click to embiggen, as they say.)

Dystopia is the opposite of utopia, and in the novels that I think perfectly fit the designation, those in power have tried to create one. In The Giver, the community has eliminated pain and suffering by eliminating emotion. Ditto, basically, for Delirium. In Divergent, the "solution" to humanity's problems is to isolate and strengthen each of five dominant human characteristics, and in Uglies, it's to make everyone look and think the same way. There's some overlap, certainly, among the solutions in many of the above and others like them (to mention both The Giver and Delirium is to think of Matched). Most of them involve some degree of removing difference and emotion in an effort to remove the problems that surround them, and I think we keep exploring that idea because it seems tempting. But then, of course, the dys comes in; the "solution" turns out not to be worthwhile.

I'm loathe to, ahem, let go of my beloved Knife of Never Letting Go as a dystopia, and one might argue that the decision to start a society on New World counts as an attempt at a utopia, though it's much clearer from the outset how wrong things have gone. But there's little if any pretense that the Capitol in The Hunger Games is making its decisions for the good of the community.

In any case, we've had a spate of novels lately that show ways our society could change dramatically, complete with characters who deal with it in interesting and often inspiring ways. Not bad for a follow-up to the vampire trend.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post and brilliant title - ha :)

    The chart is interesting, but as you noted, it doesn't go deeply into what a dystopia is rather focusing on the difference between post-apocolyptic stories and dystopian stories. There is huge diversity within the non-isolated dystopia, for example. Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World explore it in completely different ways (Huxley wrote to Orwell about it here - http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/03/1984-v-brave-new-world.html).

    Crucially, I think dystopias come about in the pursuit of utopia - whether by force (like in The Hunger Games, Nineteen Eighty-four, Delirium) or by distraction (like in Brave New World, and in a way as in the Capitol in The Hunger Games). It is the pursuit of perfection that creates dystopia.

    There is, of course, another branch of utopian fiction, like Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy which contrasts a modern day dystopia with a future utopia, but there is a lot of overlap as often these are actually stories about dystopias, like H.G. Wells' The Time Machine which starts off seeing its world as a utopia but then when the layers are peeled back is actually a dystopia.

    I haven't read Knife of Never Letting Go so I don't know about that, but if it feels like a dystopia it will probably fit somewhere!

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