Defining Dystopia. Hint: It’s not about love triangles.

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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 offSeveral 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.

11 thoughts on “Defining Dystopia. Hint: It’s not about love triangles.

  1. Pingback: My Thoughts Halfway Through The Handmaid’s Tale | (Spoilers) | The Bookie Monsters

        • Not if you wanna market it. Before folks even ask what the book’s about, they’re already heading towards a section of the store. I guess lit fic is as close as you’re gonna get to ‘just’ a novel, but people are still gonna wonder if it’s women fic, journey fic, whatever…

          • I was rather expecting you would say that. It’s obvious that when you’re searching online you need some kind of pointer, given the triliions of books available. It just seems a pity that there’s the supposition that for every book there’s a pigeon hole just the right size.

            • That said, I think you can get pretty specific and niche unique. When I was a kid, I was all into female-fronted symphonic metal music. My weakness when it comes to movies are assassin rom-coms. Both are a category, believe it or not. I’m not sure you could ever do a novel that defied categories – it’s a human brain thing to create patterns out of chaos and try to make sense of it…

              • I take your point. My problem is with the specificity of categories. Can’t a story be a just a crime thriller? Does it have to be a Scandinavian police procedural with depressive investigator, incest and lots of snow? What happened to reading the blurb and flicking through the first few pages? Is it just the sheer volume of stuff on offer? Or do people just want to be directed to something very specific?

                • Great discussion!

                  Hmm, maybe both? I tend to feel that it’s the authors who use the major categories (fiction, nonfiction, crime thriller) and the fans who dive into specificity. Sometimes, I’m in the mood for a very specific thing, not because I know a female shapeshifter paranormal romance with a murder plot in a futuristic universe is guaranteed to be good, but because I’ve read this sort of stuff before and liked it and want more. It doesn’t even have to be a genre thing – many readers go by authors or titles: “I want Sherlock Holmes in space.” or “I want something just like The Lord of the Rings.” or “This author is just like this other author.”

                  As long as there is variety and that sheer volume of options you mentioned, readers will continue to search for shorthand ways to describe what they want.

                  • I can remember when there were kids books and adult books, and they were classified alphabetically by author unless they were deliberately Mills and Boon or crime thrillers. Readers browsed, picking up books that looked interesting, moving from stack to stack. In those days there were far fewer authors. The mere fact of being published gave authors a sort of credibility, a seal of quality. All that has gone. there are no guarantees of quality, no trust to be placed in reviews, but a plethora of choice. I’m not saying I regret the old days—I very likely wouldn’t ever have been published—but I do regret the mass of ‘stuff’ available that means publishers have to tidy up and categorize.

  2. Thank you for deciding to follow my blog.

    Well, I agree that dystopia has come to mean a great many things that it does not actually mean, and the idea that it might be broken down into small sub-dystopian sections is appealing and appalling in equal measure. That is the trouble with made-up words. Dystopia being the opposite of Thomas More’s Utopia. A weary, disturbed world view and the titles listed are the obvious examples 1984, Farenheit 451 and Brave New World being early examples. A recently published novel Hystopia takes this to an entirely new level, and one might expect Mystopia, Austopia, and several other similar neologisms to follow.

    Where does this get the reader though? In a previous early life, I was a librarian and we filed fiction under the author’s name (and that only), even Mills and Boon was spread among the more serious and classical fiction. For bookshops, I do see the difference, though find it regrettable, since if you are buying presents and you know the authors you are looking for, you might have to traverse three floors before collecting your list.

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