I’m about halfway through reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with Tash from The Bookie Monster, and it has dawned with me that over the last few years, I’ve slowly lost sight of what the dystopian genre is all about.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes North Korean oppression, mixes in the gender-driven segregation of fundamental Islam, and frames it all in the language of Christianity. In no place in the text can you take a step back and scoff, this can never happen. It might. The story makes you believe it might.
This is the chilling power of the genre – it says, This could be the world. Our world. Tomorrow. The dystopian genre is a cautionary tale. It’s a warning. It’s the uneasiness of premonition. It is the Greek seer Cassandra, blessed by the gods to see the future and cursed to never be believed.
Reading The Handmaid’s Tale, it occurred to me that the mushrooming teen dystopian genre has been selling oppression lite. To win itself a shiny “dystopian” label, the ubiquitous YA book checks the box marked “oppressive society” and perform a token wave to its character’s rejection of the status quo. These worlds don’t need to be realistic or thoughtful or threatening (and perhaps that’s why Divergent’s world pissed me off. Several times.) They just need to involve oppression. The weirder the better.
Here I say we need a new term for this wacky new world of dystopian teen fiction, where the romantic subplot is a bigger deal than the oppression of the self, the world provides barely a nod to reality, and the Struggle Against The Man is a scaffold to hold up the character’s action sequence. How about science fiction? How about alternative future? How about romantic adventure?
And if say that any novel with an oppressive society is dystopian fiction, where does it end?
- Dystopian Fantasy: Any novel with an oppressive system in a fantasy setting. See also: epic fantasy, dark lord, final battle, monarchy, any other “-archy”.
- Junior High Dystopia: Any book that involves a kid struggling with school life or suffering in a school system. See also: adolescence, school drama, principals, homework.
- Familial Dystopian Fiction: Books that highlight the challenges of dealing with family issues, abuse, family misunderstandings, etc.
- Space Dystopia: All fiction that involves space travel and includes oppressive regimes or a fight for survival. See also: Science fiction.
- Romantic Dystopia: Books with dysfunctional romantic elements. See also: vampires.
Were the last three Harry Potter books dystopian fiction? The Ministry of Magic did go all incompetent for a while before taking a hard left into Death Eater territory. Lord of the Rings? Ender’s Game?
No, they weren’t.
As a genre, dystopian fiction takes the issues we face in today’s world to their logical, menacing extreme. In George Orwell’s 1984, it is communism, surveillance and language reductionism twisted to oppress the human spirit. In Fahrenheit 451, books and intellectual freedom are joyfully smothered. In Brave New World, consumerism and communal impulse reigns. In The Giver, the slide to oppression is a sad result of good intentions.
It’s not a loud subgenre, nor a triumphant one. Dystopian fiction is, to paraphrase TS Eliot, how the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.