Monday, August 27, 2012

Five Things You Probably Don't Know About Dystopian Literature

When I explain to people that my debut novel will be a futuristic dystopian fantasy, their foreheads generally scrunch. They understand futuristic. Fantasy is pretty prevalent these days. But dystopian? Ninety percent of the population doesn't know the word. When I throw out phrases like 'post-apocalyptic,' the comprehension rate goes up to fifty percent or so. If I'm lucky.

Not many people outside the writing/publishing industry have the word dystopia in their working vocabulary (understand that I include those who write films). Yet, the more I learn about dystopian stories and their psychological effect on our modern society, the more important I realize they are. I've thought about this a lot lately but then I read a column by Steven Kalas  that really got me thinking about it.

Here are the conclusions I've drawn (so far) and that I think everyone should be aware of concerning dystopian stories of any kind:

1) The definition: a dystopia is a society characterized by human misery (i.e. squalor, oppression, disease, overcrowding, etc.) see source

2) Where to find more. Dystopian stories are all the hype right now. Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, Christopher Nolan's movies at large (batman, Inception, etc.), Twilight, even our favorite boy wizard's world has elements of Dystopia in it. Every superhero movie is the same way (the main difference being that the story begins with an acceptable world that is threatened by evil the superhero has to overcome, where true dystopias start with the world already in the clutches of the evil). Zombie movies are quintessential dystopian stories, and they're pretty big these days as well.

But is this a new thing? Are audiences just catching on to this? Of course not! Dystopian literature has been prevalent all throughout history. H.G. Wells, George Orwell, and Ayn Rand, to name just a few were writing dystopian literature long before most of us were born. (Let's not get any snarky comments from the vampires or highlanders out there!) For a decent list of classic dystopian literature, see this article. Today, we have people like Elana Johnson, Dan Wells, Veronica Roth, and Cormac McCarthy still cranking it out. It's more prevalent than most people realize!

3) Depending on how you mold the definition to fit whatever aspect you are addressing, any story, specifically any conflict, can be characterized as a dystopia. Now don't get me wrong: if we're talking about a man vs. himself kind of conflict that has nothing to do with society, and you try to categorize that as a dystopia, lots of people in the industry will shake their heads in your general direction. But, if a character's main conflict is within himself, then his "society" is what's inside his own head. If he's miserable in some way, then your story is dystopic. (Kafka would be an expert at this. As much as I hated The Metamorphasis, it IS actually relevant here.) I don't say this to confuse the genre issue, but only to point out that dystopias are simply conflicts on a societal level. They deal with how the individual reacts to a society-level problem, but more on this in a minute.

4) Dystopias forecast/warn about the future. There are two films I've seen that have very similar elements in their stories, but are dealt with in very different ways. The first is The Island; the second is called Never Let Me Go. Both deal with clones that are raised for the sole purpose of being sacrificed so the individuals they were cloned from can live. The Island is the more hopeful of the two. It ends on an inspiring, reach-out-and-grab-your-freedom kind of note. Never Let Me Go is horrendously sad and just plain horrible. In it, the characters go willingly to their fate like lambs to the slaughter. It doesn't even occur to them to rebel or fight for their right to survive as human beings. The point here is to make people shocked and angry. Though the films are very different, their message is the same: LET'S NOT LET THIS HAPPEN, PEOPLE! It would be horrible and amoral and what would it say about our society if we let this happen?

This is what dystopian literature does: it points out the flaws in our society in a very extreme, terrifying way, as a means to keeping those horrors from actually happening. Kalas says he believes we are forecasting our own future; that everything will eventually "go to hell."

While I totally get that society is fast going into the toilet, I think it's important to point something out: we create these dystopian stories and the public eats them up, whether in book form or on the big screen, because we hunger for answers. Maybe we all do know that society won't be a utopia in the long run, so we crave these stories so that we can define ourselves in the face of what we believe society will become and keep ourselves from slipping into anarchy.

Granted, there were plenty of people prior to WWII that knew if the Nazis came to power, it would be a bad thing, and Hitler still made it to the top. But if some Joker-esque character showed up in NYC tomorrow, how many Americans would stand by idly and watch, much less follow him blindly? In my mind, not many. For us, it's a been-there-done-that situation, even if it was just in a film. My point, well it brings me to the fifth thing you should know about dystopias;

5) Dystopias help us work out our psychological issues. They become an outlet for how the individual reacts to society's problems. We watch them and we resolve within ourselves that we would be the one that was different; that we would stand up to the oppression (Christopher Nolan's Batman series) , find a way to feed our families (Hunger Games), keep the ones we love alive (every zombie move EVER!) or just all-out save the human race (I am Legend).

My point is that the entire reason we create dystopian art in any form is to keep it from happening in real life. It's the ultimate example of why we love to read stories about human beings in the midst of conflict: we want to educate ourselves, decide how we would react in that or a similar situation, and make ourselves better/stronger by it. If we can address our society's flaws and show why we must keep them at bay, we will be able to keep our society sane and ordered for that much longer. Hence, audiences drink up dystopian stories like people dying of thirst. After all, we can see aspects of society crumbling around us daily. So we read books and watch films about individuals banding together to reclaim their society and triumphing over all that is wrong with the world. Then we go back to our lives feeling a little stronger, a little more able to deal with our own problems.

 And we sleep peacefully at night knowing that when the zombie apocalypse hits, we'll totally be ready! :D

Persistence of Vision
Winter 2012

15 comments :

  1. I'm ready for a zombie apocalypse! Double-tap and cardio. Got it down pat.
    I think sometimes dystopian can help us see where we might be headed if we don't change.

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  2. Before Hunger Games I didn't know about dystopian either.
    Great post! :D

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    1. Thank you! Hunger Games is a good one. And thank goodness for Suzanne Collins who really put dystopian lit on the map! :D

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  3. Oh yeah -- 1984, Brave New World, Animal Farm, Clockwork Orange, Farenheit 451. Definitely some of my favorite novels.

    I can also think of ton of great (and not so great) movies like the Mad Max series, Blade Runner, Clockwork Orange Robocop, the Terminator series, THX 1138, Logan's Run, Brazil, Escape from New York, Soylent Green, Silent Running, and many others...

    Great post, Liesel!


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    1. Yeah, those are all great ones! I haven't seen all those movies, though. I'll have to check them out! Thanks Chris! :D

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  4. I'm kind of shocked that other people don't know what dystopia is, especially because it's been so popular nowadays...
    Well, at least how I see it, right? Like The Uglies, The Hunger Games.
    Granted, I never did see if any of my friends really knew what dystopia meant, but...
    Anyway, I'm going to hop on a motorcycle with a chainsaw and go racing around with it when the zombie apocalypse comes! >:3

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    1. LOL. Sounds like a plan to me! Thanks for stopping by! :D

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  5. Interesting post, Liesel. I'll confess that I'm not a big fan of the dystopian setting in general. That's not to say that I don't or won't read them; they're just not my first preference. That may be a little ironic considering how much I love fantasy, but my enthusiasm cools at the mention of vampires and zombies. There are, of course, always exceptions. :)

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    1. I'm not huge on vampire/zombie books either. At least, not in general. I'm VERY picky about what I read in those genres, but when I like something, I tend to love it! Thanks for stopping by Jeff! :D

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  6. I always wondered why I am drawn to dystopian stories;I've read most of what's been mentioned. I think you hit it right on. The stories do prick the psyche very distinctly. I tend to stop at vampires and zombies too. Except for 'the classic- Dracula'.

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    1. I LOVE Bram Stoker's Dracula! Thanks for stopping by, Tracy! :D

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  7. Really good article. I've never thought of Kafka's Metamorphosis as a form of dystopia. It's interesting to think of it from a different angle even though I also detested the book haha.

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    1. Glad to connect with you over our mutual Kafka loathing! :D Thanks for stopping by Leah!

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  8. This was very interesting! I knew most of this stuff but there were a few tidbits that I didn't! Thanks so much for sharing. :)

    Krystianna @ Downright Dystopian

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