Monday, July 22, 2013

The Surefire Way to Recognize "Real" Dystopia Amist the Sea of Wannabes

This Wednesday is a state holiday in Utah known as Pioneer Day. The 24th of July is the day we celebrate the settling of our great state and the pioneer heritage that got us here. (Visit both my blogs on Wednesday for more discussion about pioneers.)

I got to thinking about pioneers and characters, pioneers in stories, etc., and I realized something: Pioneers are a HUGE part of the dystopian genre! It just never occurred to me in those terms before.


1. A person who is among those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others.
2. One who is first or among the earliest in any field of inquiry, enterprise, or progress.
3. An organism that successfully establishes itself in a barren area... (Source for definitions.)

Great Dystopian book!
Many of my other posts about dystopia have established what it is: an undesirable society where basic human rights have disappeared from society and much or all of the population live in squalor or some kind of oppressive conditions. Basically, society has retrogressed from our current first world and democratic conditions to something that's in some way more medieval.

But there's something else that most dystopians have in common: a pioneering character that's willing to venture outside the norm, often alone or against overwhelming odds, to challenge the system or ruling entity. 

Note: Now, not all dystopias have this. There are some (not my faves) that have no hope. These dystopian stories don't end with the heroic character being victorious over the oppressive government. A great example of this is Never Let Me Go. Books like these do serve a purpose: shock value and to show what will happen if people ever stop fighting back. But they aren't always the most popular because there's no hope involved. They tend to be profoundly depressing and readers, while they may be compelled to keep turning pages, may throw the book against the wall at the end and declare something along the lines of, "Why the hell did I just read that? Never picking that book up again." Granted, the author has evoked an emotional reaction, but most people prefer to see good triumph over evil, or at least the hope of it.

In my humble opinion, dystopias that don't have this hopefulness, this pioneering character, aren't true dystopia. Doubtless some people will disagree with me on this, but without the hope, there's just too much of an agenda. Books like that could be considered political books or the kind that sells a certain way of thinking. True dystopian has real entertainment value and can be applied to all lifestyles and schools of thought. If you want great dystopian, look for that pioneer. Even in the goodreads blurb, it's recognizable!

More great dystopian!
Most popular dystopian literature has a character that challenges the system and somehow manages to bring it down and, you know, save the world from the oppressive slavery in which they're mired. Sometimes this involves an actual journey. Other times, the "journey" is simply attempting the impossible in whatever way the story requires.

Either way, these characters are pioneers. Without these courageous archetypes, dystopian literature would be boring, depressing, or both. Instead, characters like Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior, Aria, Kira, and Maggie Harper show us hope in otherwise hopeless worlds, and leave us feeling uplifted, rather than depressed.

Now there's the dystopian literature we all know and love!

Who's your favorite dystopian, pioneering character?


  1. What a great topic for discussion! While I somewhat agree that these books should have a "pioneering" character I disagree that there has to be a hopeful ending in order to be considered a true dystopian. I am definitely a reader who prefers darker stories without a HEA. I think there is a place for both without one or the other being considered not "true dystopian." It is the survival aspect of these types of books that fascinate me, the struggle & finding ways to cope in untenable situations, and it significantly increases the intensity of the story if the main character is not guaranteed to overcome their circumstances.
    What book classed as dystopic do you feel did not have that pioneering character? Never Let Me Go actually did have that character who looked for a way out, just not successfully. But the struggle was still present, although much more subtle than in many comparable books such as the similarly themed Unwind. I can't think of any that did not have a character who at least tried to overcome their circumstances. Again, great post!

  2. In any genre, I need a little hope. Life is depressing enough.