Diana on Dystopia

So this post started life a few weeks ago as a conversation with Carrie about what “dystopia” actually meant in the context of writing dystopic fiction. Carrie’s opinion, which I’ve since confirmed is the prevailing one, is that a dystopia is a society featuring negative/miserable/oppressive/violent conditions. My understanding of a dystopia, which I’ve held since high school up until the point that I had this conversation with Carrie and went to do some research on the subject, was that the word dystopia was specifically dealing with a society that presented itself as being perfect and utopic, but was rotten underneath. Something like the society in Scott Westerfeld’s book UGLIES. Everyone thought they were happy and at peace, but it was a lie.

Compare that to the societies in Carrie’s books, where no one is under the delusion that they are living in a perfect society. So I was describing her books as being post-apocalyptic but not dystopic, whereas she was saying they are both. (Note: you can have  dystopias without corresponding apocalypses. Cf. THE COMPOUND and CANDOR.) So is Publisher’s Weekly, as of 2/15, in an article about “dystopian” YA fiction that comes with the headline “Apocalypse Now.” From the article:

“…hundreds of thousands of today’s teens are reading future-as-a-nightmare novels—and not just the 1984 and Brave New World classics required by their teachers. Publishers will be releasing dozens of new dystopian titles over the next few years. Among the scenarios: no more gas, no more water, viruses run amok, genetic manipulation gone awry, totalitarian leaders, reality TV gone too far, and so on.”

(Incidentally, both 1984 and Brave New World, to me, are what I’m thinking of when I classically define “dystopia”: both show societies that present themselves as being the ideal–particularly the latter, which bears many similarities to Uglies in its makeup and treatment of “wild” men.)

I have a thing for dystopian fiction and always have. Much of my juvenilia takes place in post-apocalyptic and dystopian worlds, and much of my teen reading did, too. In fact, most of my science fiction reading can be classified under the post-apocalyptic or dystopian sub genre. (Though, in a con-level conversation about YA SF on Janni Lee Simmer’s blog the other day–and really, the whole thing is worth reading–one big topic was how many SF folks discount dystopic fiction from their ranks.) If the idea of fantasy and science fiction is about holding up a mirror to real world issues, it helps if you can recreate the entire world of your story around that particular real-world issue. Do you want to talk about genetic engineering creating unfair class differences? Gattaca. Do you want to talk about ideals of beauty? Uglies. Privacy? 1984. Free will? Candor. Censorship? Farenheit 451. Third-world exploitation and getting desensitized to televised violence? The Hunger Games.

Like a scientist, the author of a dystopian work of fiction creates a set of very particular conditions within which he runs his human experiment.

As an author of six books of fiction set in our world, I have to say that’s an idea with seriously seductive potential. How often do the rules of our world get in the way of fiction I want to right? Astrid may rush out into the knight with an alicorn in her fist, intent on vigilante justice, but even she knows that the police must be called, people must be taken to the hospital — there’s proper procedure. In Secret Society Girl, the grinding of the tectonic plates between the created society (which has its own arguably dystopic qualities) against that of the real world formed much of the tension of the books. Was Amy going to follow the rules of her society, or the rules of the real world? What about the other society members? How could they play those rules off one another to achieve their ends?

So though I have never written a dystopic novel, both of my series do deal with a fictional construct of a little worlds-within-worlds where the rules operate differently, and usually in such a way that it’s severe detriment to the members of the little society. Rose & Grave’s secrecy hurts its members; the benefits aren’t as clear. The rules of the Order of the Lioness are restricting and backwards, even to those trying to resurrect it. I would describe only the former, however, as being a society that thinks of itself as actually beneficial.

(It’s interesting to think about this though, because I recently finished writing a historical killer unicorn story that has a very different perspective on the OoL — it is apparent to me now that a society might work under some circumstances and not others. If the world outside is a far more dystopic place then maybe you’re better off in the Order.)

But just because a book present a war or an oppressive society does not make it dystopian. As Joni Sensel says in this blog post attempting to define the genre:

But I’m not convinced yet, because I also would argue that books that are simply post-apocalyptic are not dystopian. To me, [The Hunger Games] is simply post-apocalyptic. (Those in charge weren’t and aren’t aiming for a utopia. Just control.) Similarly, just because a war is involved doesn’t make it dystopic to me. (Is Star Wars dystopic? Is The Hurt Locker?)

Unlike Joni (who comes down on my side of the definition, i.e., “dystopia”=”utopia gone wrong”) I would absolutely argue that The Hunger Games is dystopic fiction, even by her and my more limited definition. You are simply seeing it from the perspective of the already-oppressed. The population of the Capitol is shown over and over again that they have been taught to believe that their society is perfect, and that this horrible, torturous existence of the Districts is the way things are supposed to be.

So now we’ve got these two working definitions of dystopia:

  1. a utopia gone horribly wrong (Uglies, Gattaca, Candor, etc.)
  2. a world where everything is as bad as it could possibly be (The Forest of Hands & Teeth, Life As We Knew It)

But at what point are we just mixing up post-apocalyptic worlds and dystopian ones? Is an apocalypse necessary to bring on a dystopia? It’s easier, I suppose, to remake the world in the dystopic image of your choice if you clear it out with an apocalypse, first.

One of my favorite pieces of dystopic fiction is Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake. (She recently wrote a sequel, The Year of the Flood, which I haven’t read, though Ursula LeGuin’s review in the Guardian should not be missed, seeing how she takes Atwood to task for insisting that her work is NOT science fiction. ). O&C is about a dystopic future society, one in which corporations rule the United States, genetic engineering and pharmaceuticals are king, all creative endeavors have gone to the lowest common denominator (read: porn and snuff films), and the manufactured apocalypse that comes out of that. It’s not post-apocalyptic, really, It’s just plain apocalyptic, and it’s the dystopia that brings the apocalypse about, not (as is so often the case) the other way around.

Is dystopia in the eye of the beholder? Carrie calls her books dystopic. Publisher’s Weekly, along with some other sites that have been compiling lists of dystopic YAs, agree. To read these lists, though, one comes away with the idea that for all the talk about vampire books, it’s post-apocalyptic and/or dystopic fiction that’s really making a splash in YA these days.

There are books on that list I’d describe as dystopic, and ones I’d describe as post-apocalyptic. My own, personal definition is that if the effects of the apocalypse is still coloring everything, and bringing it down, it’s post-apocalyptic. If it’s more about the new (evil) society and the way things are working (even if that society is a direct response to the apocalypse), it’s dystopic. For instance, I’d classify Uglies as dystopic, because though we hear about the Rusties and what happened to them, it’s ancient history to Tally, like Roman ruins. It has nothing to do with her life and the way her dystopic society operates.

(And, as I said earlier, it’s quite possible to have a dystopic story without a corresponding apocalypse.)

But the trend these days is to lump them all together. Post apocalyptic –> dystopic. And maybe, as a subset of YA speculative fiction, it’s as good a definition as “a girl and her paranormal boyfriend.” After all, there are a lot of books on shelves right now that are werewolves or demons or fairies or fallen angels and they definitely appeal to the same market share as the people who are reading the ones about vampires. The people who like to read the post-apocalyptic books are the same ones who read the ones I’ve been calling dystopic.

The PW article goes on to say:

“YA authors “are using the dystopian genre to try to grapple with the issues of today,” says David Levithan, v-p and editorial director at Scholastic. But unlike writers of adult fare, they are giving their downbeat stories an optimistic twist. “It’s about improving the dystopia rather than throwing up your hands and saying, ‘This is what we’re fated to be,’ ” he says. “We realize we could be these characters.”

““If there’s any one theme in children’s literature, it’s hope,” Perfect author Lerangis concurs. That was true for Diamond of Darkhold, the fourth and final tale in Jeanne DuPrau’s Book of Ember series, and it’s true for the final book in Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It trilogy. The books are never as bleak as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Stephen King’s Under the Dome. Scary stories (and movies) help kids work out their fears, says Girl in the Arena author Lise Haines, “and almost function like fairy tales. Even in the worst of situations, we find ways to get through, and sometimes even better the world.”

I really like that. In fact, I was saying something very similar to my editor the other day, in a discussion about this very topic. About how post-apocalyptic fiction can in fact, be quite optimistic.

How’s that for irony?

Posted in PAP, writing industry, YA

18 Responses to Diana on Dystopia

  1. Jo Treggiari says:

    Very interesting post. My next book LUCKY falls into this category. I had classified it as post-apocalyptic (global warming ravages, global pandemic) but my Scholastic editor called it dystopian, so I figured that was just the all-embracing genre label the publishers had decided on. Scary by the way, to write a book because that was the story I wanted to tell and then have it be a big, bombastic genre.
    I agree with the point Lisa Haines made about hope. One of the reasons I chose the title LUCKY was because of the irony factor. That my heroine (also nicknamed Lucky) could be catastrophically unlucky throughout the story but by tale’s end change her mind.

  2. Patrick says:

    Huh. I was thinking the same as Carrie. Dystopia was the opposite of utopia to me. Much like Bon Jovi was the opposite of Nirvana.

  3. Celia says:

    I hadn’t heard the word ‘dystopia’ until early 2009, but I’m like you – I always thought of the word as an upside-down utopia, like in 1984. I think the strains of hope in YA dystopian literature are refreshing – and they keep me coming back to the genre. If it were all The Road-like fare, I might find it hard to get out of bed in the morning…

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  5. Diana, I agree with your differentiation between a dystopia and a post-apocalyptic setting–thank you for laying out your thoughts so clearly on the matter! 😀

    I’ve always really, really enjoyed both types, from the post-apocalyptic ARIEL, to the dystopian 1984. I was trying to figure out the difference in my own work in progress, and now I realize it’s definitely post-apocalyptic. Thank you for this insight!

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  7. mordicai says:

    I’m inclined to agree with the notion of “utopia gone wrong.” Heck, even “control” as a motive isn’t usually done with bad intentions, unless things are a paper tiger of black & white. Dystopia is when social systems go haywire; Post apocalyptic is when social systems go away.

  8. Great post! I’m like you — I haven’t written dystopian lit by my first novel The Mockingbirds deals with worlds within worlds as Secret Society Girl and Rampant do! I love the idea of slightly altered states and finding new ways to navigate in the real world, but one where there are new rules.

  9. lenore says:

    I love what you wrote here, and that you linked to me 🙂

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  12. Thanks so much for this post, Diana! I blogged about it some, but basically — I agree with you about separating the words, since it’s so useful to have separate words for distinct sub-genres.

    That said, I also agree that it would be handy to have a word to lump them together, since it’s the same readership. “Dark future” fiction, maybe? You’d run into some post-apoc that isn’t dark at all, but not much.

  13. Diana says:

    Agreed, Sam, but it’s also not always about the future. Look at something like CANDOR. Isn’t Little Brother also sort of in the “now?”

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