Let’s Talk About: Why Dystopia Matters

why dystopia matters

Dystopia is probably one of my favourite elements of fiction. My love for dystopia/utopia came from a Sociology class that I did in my final year at university. It was called ‘Social Futures’, and was described to be a class that ‘re-imagined sociology in view of major economic, ecological and political crises taking place in the world today’. Which sounds pretty cool… except the first few weeks of the class weren’t cool at all. Our lecturer showed us Threads, a brutal movie that depicts the aftermath of nuclear war (seriously, don’t watch unless you’re mentally prepared — which I wasn’t). To convey the effect it had on me, I almost quit the class. But, I’m glad that I didn’t quit.

For all the misery this class inflicted on me, it also inspired my love for dystopia. I learned how important dystopia was as an idea and as a representation of a possible future. In today’s Let’s Talk About, I will combine my passion for dystopia as an idea with written analysis detailing why I think dystopia matters. In two weeks, my next Let’s Talk About will discuss why utopia – dystopia’s sister – is just as, if not more, important!


DYSTOPIA: AN INTRODUCTION

Based on its more optimistic counterpart, dystopia is the antithesis of utopia. Dystopia is a visualization and thought experiment of a world where society has failed to achieve utopia. It takes the concept of utopia – a ‘perfect’ world – and explores the notion that utopia can be a facade for total loss of liberty and freedom.

(It is important to note that there is a difference between post-apocalypse and dystopia. Though both usually involve a lot of destruction, dystopia should contain some social or political commentary, such as discourse on government, social institutions, or have societal implications. Post-apocalypse is about after the end of the world, and does not need to have commentary.)

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DYSTOPIA IS TERRIFYING – AND IT SHOULD BE

Generally when we see dystopian societies or worlds, there is something that every reader can agree on: dystopia is a lens into a desolate, undesirable future. In other words, nobody wants dystopian societies to come true. Though this simple fact may be taken for granted, this small element of dystopia is incredibly important.

When we read about dystopian societies, they should be – and often are – terrifying to imagine. Well-written books that feature dystopia will give us a good understanding of what it is like to live in that society. Often, the perspective presented will be that of someone who is disadvantaged in the dystopian society, to further illustrate what will be experienced by the vast majority. To immerse the reader in a horrible experience has an intention: it is to give us an idea of what most of us will probably experience in a society where dystopia is realized.

The question to ask, therefore, is: what is something that exists in this dystopian society that I do not want to come trueThat doesn’t mean that authors who create dystopian societies truly believe that what they imagine may come true; what it does is draw our attention to what makes these societies scary. For example, in The Handmaid’s Tale the story looks at a society where women have been stripped of their rights, autonomy and personhood. Atwood has visualized a society where women exist as objects, rather than people – a terrifying image that draws our attention to the importance of women’s rights.

There is an intention to dystopian societies being scary; it isn’t fearmongering or to create a panic, but it is to give us an idea of how these dystopian societies are related to us and connected to us, even if a facet of it becomes true. Dystopian narratives give us a lens into an alternate reality with an undesired sociopolitical climate and thus offers insight of how personal narratives are impacted and shaped by social influences and institutions. In a way, it is making it personal by provoking introspection.

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DYSTOPIA DRAWS OUR ATTENTION TO IMPORTANT ISSUES

Dystopian societies are often inspired by a facet of reality. Often the issues portrayed take shape in the form of ideology (the values and system we believe and why we believe it), institutions (the system that is perpetuated, allowed or made legal by the government), or phenomenon (perhaps as a symptom of a larger issue).

Looking at some popular novels that feature dystopian societies including YA dystopia, we can locate sociopolitical issues in their stories. Here are three examples:

1. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

  • Nineteen Eighty-Four draws attention to how surveillance can be used to strip people of autonomy and freedom to privacy. To constantly monitor the inhabitants of Oceania, the Party uses telescreens, hidden microphones, the Thought Police (secret agents posing as normal citizens) and even children to detect and locate any person who may rebel. Furthermore, the famous slogan “Big Brother is watching you” perpetuates the power of their surveillance, and creates a climate of fear. Surveillance can be a mechanism for control and obedience.
  • The use of fear and fear politics are analysed, and how this links to perpetual war. Not only did the war give the citizens of Oceania a person to hate, it also gave the citizens something to fear, therefore giving the Party justification to control the masses psychologically and physically. Failures of the government and poverty are attributed to the costs of war. War, Orwell is saying, is more than just fighting against an ‘evil’ – it is an industry and fear is what keeps this industry alive.

2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

  • Consumerism is a big theme in Brave New World, and Huxley satirised society for equating happiness to consumption and consumer power. The more, the bigger, the better we consume, the happier we are promised to be. Furthermore, slogans such as “Ending is better than mending” rings true in today’s society – rather than fixing what is broken, we buy a completely new product. Furthermore, the dystopian society in Brave New World has ridiculous levels of production and consumption to pacify the masses.
  • Brave New World also looks at how the people under the World State would become apathetic and passive in the face of truths and information, and what would happen if we were bombarded with irrelevant information (particularly with our obsession with entertainment, celebrities, movies, etc.). In other words, Huxley looked at how people can become distracted and complacent, and thus easy to manipulate and control.

3. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

  • Inequality between rich and poor is one of The Hunger Games‘s more clear-cut themes. When comparing the Capitol’s ludicrous wealth with the Districts’ poverty, we can see the blatant differences in their wealth, which is closely linked to the Capitol’s oppression of the Districts with military force. Collins also conveys why revolution was a necessary release and act to try and change things.
  • Within the Capitol, the media was a tool of manipulation and absolutely necessary to the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games themselves are a spectacle; the talk shows were a tool to emotionally manipulate the spectators, to not humanize them because the tributes were human, but to create emotional investment and to make the spectacle more exciting. In later books, we see how Katniss becomes a political hero, her image manipulated to fuel rebellion or stifle dissidence.

From the above, it is clear that dystopian novels have something to say about society yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The three important questions to ask when reading about dystopian societies is What is the author trying to tell me? and What is the author trying to draw my attention to? and most importantly, Can I locate these issues in real life? 

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DYSTOPIA ENCOURAGES CRITICAL THINKING & RAISES AWARENESS

I love that, more recently, YA authors have begun to broach into topics that were, once upon a time, very difficult to talk about. Books that look at mental illness, books that look at sexuality, books that look at an array of problems that many people face. I love that books have the ability to encourage awareness, and can be an avenue of discovery, education, and discussion.

Likewise, books that have dystopian societies can be a fantastic starting point for people to become more aware of social issues. As a Sociology student, I learned (very quickly) that people didn’t like talking about social issues because they were unpleasant and not fun to talk about. What I also learned a bit later was that if I linked the social issues to a popular book or movie that had elements of dystopia, people were more engaged and willing to participate in discussion.

When we are presented with a dystopian society that is somehow malignant, it is an invitation for us to analyse and pinpoint why. What is so wrong about this society? When looking at how the society developed to its state, we can thus look at our society’s trajectory and condition. Can we find the problems we see in the dystopian society in our society today? What does this mean for our society? Are we on our way to fulfilling the ‘dystopian imagination’ that has permeated in today’s society?

For those who do not find critical analyses or commentary of real-world issues accessible (such as younger audiences), dystopia can be a gateway or an introduction to sociopolitical issues. Furthermore, it is much easier to see flaws in a fictional society than our own. Books are therefore a fantastic way to introduce people to these concepts and get people talking and thinking about the issues that pervade our society – namely gradual loss of liberty, rise of the military-industrial complex, widening gaps of wealth, oppression, and institutional violence.

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Dystopia means a lot to me – in more ways than one. I think the science-fiction/dystopia genre has so much potential in gauging young minds to think about big topics, to encourage awareness, offer insight into different perspectives, and can become more than ‘action-packed’ and pointless revolution tropes.

Here are some great books that have dystopian societies and undertones to get thinking on sociopolitical issues:

Lastly, on Sunday 13th of December, I will be posting the second part of this dystopia/utopia series: Why Utopia Matters. Utopia is an idea that has adopted some very questionable connotations within the last forty years, so I will be discussing why, contrary to belief, utopia is actually very important and is more than a ‘society doomed to fail’.

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LET’S TALK ABOUT IT

I know some of you guys love dystopia, so let’s talk! Even if you aren’t a fan of dystopia, I’d still love to hear any thoughts that you have. Let me know in the comments below!

  • What do you think of dystopia, and why do you think it appeals to people?
  • Has dystopia – in books, movies, TV – changed your perspective of society or the world around you?
  • Do dystopian societies terrify you? What terrifies you the most?
  • How do you talk to your friends about dystopia and/or social issues? If so, how do you go about doing it?
  • What is your favourite dystopian society and why?
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50 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About: Why Dystopia Matters

  1. Honestly, I feel like I don’t have a good grasp on what dystopia is. I’ve only read THG and the Uglies series, which are both classified as dystopian but from your reviews I’ve learned to be more skeptical of ya “dystopia” since they tend to not be dystopian at all. Oh, that’s right! I did read Brave New World for high school too. I wasn’t a huge fan of it probably because I was terrified and weirded out by all the orgies half the time. And what makes dystopian societies scary to me is that there’s a possibility that it may happen someday. When I think of THG’s Cornucopia… shudders

    • Fair enough though Summer! I think the concept of dystopia has been a bit blurred, and people infer its meaning from the books we see. I think that’s why people misattribute dystopia to be a genre with ‘action-packed’ or with ‘crazy’ governments. It is definitely much more, particularly with how it has shaped science-fiction as a whole!

      To be honest, I didn’t enjoy Brave New World either! I mean, I loved its themes and what Huxley was trying to convey, but the book itself… meh. XD

      Ugh yes, the movie captured that scene particularly well. Scary how people (including myself at the time) watched it somewhat unmoved. I think back to watching that and feel like… hmm… how am I different to the people in the Capitol watching it?

  2. Thank you for yet another great discussion post. The differentiation between post-apocalypse and dystopian fiction has always been blurry to me. Thanks for clearing that up.

    I like dystopian books, I think they have this strange appeal in that they give you a glimpse into what horrible future might be in store if we don’t work on a particular aspect in the current society, but also offer a small comfort in the sense that, hey we’re NOT as horrible as the people in that society. I particularly like dystopian novels that have social messages. I haven’t read most of the books in your list, which is great because now I can add them to my TBR. :)

    I agree that good dystopian needs to be terrifying, albeit not always physically. Losing free will is one thing that scares me the most. But the horribleness could be misinterpreted by people who judge without really understand what the book is about. I know a person who refuses to read and/or watch THG because she thinks it promotes violence. idek :/

    Cannot wait to read about your let’s talk about utopia post. There are some books that I considered as dystopian, but after I read your post I realized that they might be more utopian after all. I am confused AND intrigued (but that’s for the next post).

    • Thanks for the very thoughtful reply, Windie!

      I know what you mean – I enjoy seeing what the author has created, and what new ways they have envisioned a society that is wicked and malignant. In a way, it makes me feel better about our society, but the creativity makes us more analytical, I suppose. If authors used the same themes and symbolism over and over, I believe people become desensitized by the messages – so new ways are better. Keeps us on our toes!

      Awesome! Can’t wait for you to read more! Have you read any so far? Any favourites? :)

      Absolutely – I think the ones that aren’t physical are the scariest. The ones where the terror is in the everyday, or when it is invisible to its citizens.

      I can sort of understand that though. THG is very violent, but as we know, it isn’t really its main themes – if anything, it’s a critique of violence! But if she is more sensitive to violence, I can understand that. :( It’s possible to appreciate a book’s themes without reading the book, I guess?

      Thanks! I’m super excited to write about it – more than I was to write about dystopia. It’s a topic I’m very passionate about, so!! CAN’T WAIT! :)

      • Totally true. It’s a shame that some books that are claimed to be dystopian aren’t really dystopian or just borrowing themes from the popular ones like THG.

        I’ve probably read two from your list. lol. I do want to read Red Rising. That book seems to have many proponents on the blogging community, and I’ve heard the comparison with Red Queen (which I didn’t love, but I like the premise).

        Yes, you’re right, she is sensitive to violence. She thinks it’s often unnecessary to portray it in books or movies, which I understand.

        I barely remember my sociology lesson, but utopia is an interesting concept. I’m just sitting here thinking about all the possibilities.

        • Absolutely agree, Windie! I’m very jaded with this whole ‘dystopian-romance’ subgenre that has arisen in recent years (the only exception is Gambit).

          Red Rising is absolutely fantastic. It is NOT subtle in its themes at all (hahhaha), but it’s excellent. Really explores the social stuff well without being boring at all! Hahah Red Queen is a weird one. I enjoyed it very much (like how one would enjoy a whole tub of ice cream), but I’m very hesitant to call it dystopian, though it has dystopian themes!

          I think that’s fair. I have a threshold when it comes to violence too. I think sometimes violence can convey how atrocious something is (and can still be distasteful) but movies/books that show violence for the sake of violence starts to cross a line for me. But everyone is different – to each their own!

          Utopia is very interesting!! I wouldn’t be surprised if many classes taught it; it has become extremely demonized over the years, which I personally think is a shame. It was just by chance that my lecturer was a Marxist-Freudian thinker, so he was very interested in dystopia/utopia! :D

          • Hahaha that Red Queen comparison with a whole tube of ice cream is on point. xD I kept rolling my eyes while reading that book (le sigh all those tropes), but cannot put it down. Hmm, I think you’re right that it’s not dystopian in itself although it borrows some dystopian themes.
            Yes, everyone has their own threshold, but movies/books that portray unnecessary violence is a big no for me too.
            I’ll be waiting for that post!

  3. What a simply great in depth discussion! Absolutely loved this post.

    First of all, I really didn’t know the difference between post-apocalypse and dystopia, thanks for stating that fact. Although dystopia is not my top most favourite genre but nonetheless I love reading it. Whenever I’m reading any books on this genre, the thought always comes in my mind that what if this was true, what if we actually had to go through this? And seriously, that thought is terrifying. Because dystopian world is pretty terrifying. Also I love the social messages that these books convey.

    • Thank you Poulami! ♥
      Haha you’re very welcome – it seems like many people don’t, so I am very glad to have made the distinction!

      I completely agree with you. Dystopians can be very difficult to read, and can be very heavy! So I completely understand you there.

      I think that’s great though, like it’s not nice feeling unsettled or disconcerted, but it means that the book has engaged your imagination which is better than not being engaged at all. At least in this way, we can become more aware!

  4. This was such a great post to read, CW! I love all of your let’s talk about posts :) I really enjoy reading about dystopian worlds in books, because it always makes me think about what society we could turn into. Sometimes, the similarities between our actual world and the made-up world between the pages are scary, because it makes me think that we’re close, very close to becoming like that, I don’t know?! It really is a way to raise awareness to people. But, when I read that they want to make a Hunger Games theme park somewhere in the US, I’m a little mad, because, don’t people EVER learn?! I feel like they missed the point of those books, COMPLETELY.
    Dystopian stories really changed my perception on the world nowadays, though, and that’s why I love reading about it so much. It underlines some interesting and important issues in our lives.
    I can’t wait to read the post about utopia!! :D

    • Aw, thanks Marie! ♥♥

      Me too! I love seeing the depth of an author’s creativity and imagination. And I feel like books with dystopian societies always require a lot of engagement and reflecting, which is what I really enjoy doing!

      I really agree with you. I think in ways, we are quite close to Brave New World and 1984. Perhaps not identical manifestations, but the ideologies/ideas behind those books are becoming true in real life. It is scary, but I think people are becoming more aware and are more likely to not take things for granted. We’re more ready to ask questions and protest, which is healthy in most societies.

      Oh gosh, there’s such a thing? That IS a bit concerning. I can see how that may be fun (well, I don’t personally think so), but it really plays into the ideas that Collins was critiquing. Yes, it would miss the point!! Oh dear.

      I love those too. It’s particularly validating for me as a Sociology major; I can see the things they taught me coming true in these books and in real life… though I wish they didn’t sometimes hahaha.

      Thank you! I’m super excited to write about it!! ♥♥

        • My Sociology degree was very interesting! I wasn’t very fond of it at first, because it was just a lot of heavy, social issues stuff everyday. But I grew to love it! Tried to see past ‘negativity’ and try to see progress and potential. It was a challenge, but rewarding in the end! c:

  5. A really great post. Got me thinking a lot about the dystopian books i have read. And maybe from now on i will focus on the underlying message and keep praying dystopian futures remain in fiction.

    • Hi there! Thank you very much. c:
      Yes, I strongly encourage it! There’s always more under the surface with dystopian novels, and you can get so much more out of them. I hope you enjoy your next dystopian novel! ♥

  6. What an informative post and so interesting to read considering up until a week ago I thought dystopia/ post apocalyptic were the same thing.

    Is The Walking Dead just plain old post apocalyptic? I guess from watching Fear the Walking Dead there was a dystopian element at the start though. Boy is it confusing 😄

    • Hi Nicola! Thank you very much; I’m pleased to hear you found it informative!

      Hahaa, reading over the comments, that seems to be the case! I’m glad that I could elucidate on this misconception though.

      The Walking Dead is definitely plain old postapocalyptic. It does explore humanity, but the way it does falls under the postapocalyptic genre, especially since it focuses on the remnants of society (therefore looking at the ‘animal’ in human) rather than society as a whole and how institution/government affect people.

      I haven’t seen Fear the Walking Dead, so I can’t say, but I’m inclined to say that it is postapocalyptic too. I could be wrong though!

  7. This is a really great post !!!!
    I always liked dystopian worlds, especially in books. My favorite will probably always be 1984. One of my very first dystopian reads, if not the first.
    I think our current society tends to evolve in its sense. With our social media, internet etc, it’s easy to be watched nowadays. And easier to forget about it.

    I really like dystopian worlds because most of the time, they pinpoint something that can become an issue in our society.

    • Hi Flo – thank you so much!

      Nineteen Eighty-Four has a very special place in my heart too. I remember reading the ending and feeling so shocked by it that I just laid back in my chair and thought about it for awhile!

      That’s very true. Surveillance is arguably necessary, but too much can be a little concerning. Everyone has the right to privacy, but I feel like with surveillance being so normalized, that right is slowly becoming blurry. I think about the future and wonder if kids will grow up believing that there is no such thing as privacy – and that’s a thought that worries me.

      I do too, and glad you think so! Especially since people tend to want to believe that society is just. So I like that these books can help us remember or raise awareness without shocking people too much!

  8. Such a great post! There was no need to worry about the length at all!!!
    I personally quite like dystopia, but I have found that I can’t read too many books in the genre in a row. It’s either because they somehow remind me of each other in parts or my brain can’t handle too much of it.
    I am not sure dystopian fiction terrifies me though … well, I guess in parts it does. Mostly I am scared of what humanity is capable of, but even more so I see a way of not making the same mistakes as the people in the book. Among my friends, not many people read book in the genre (or sometimes at all), but talking about certain scenarios is still possible and a lot of fun! It’s interesting to see how different some people would react to the same situation and it even sometimes makes me question their morals. However, in the end it’s all just in theory anyway, I am never quite sure how I would react in real life. I’d like to think that I am brave and that I won’t let myself be pressured into doing things and hurting others in the process, but there is no way to know for sure.
    Lastly, I think one of my favourite dystopians is the Hunger Games series, simply because I studied media production and as you’ve mentioned media manipulation is a big part of it.
    I hope I didn’t ramble too much nonsense! Again, great post!!!

    • Thank you so much for the thoughtful response, Kat! ♥

      Fair enough, imo! Dystopia is definitely one of the more heavier genres – I personally can’t read too many in succession; I would definitely need books in between to make myself feel a bit better, haha.

      That’s a fair point, and I agree – we can all say that we’d react that way, but when it really happens, how it plays out may be completely different!

      That’s cool! I really recommend Red Rising. It has very blatant themes, but it’s super awesome and I enjoyed it a lot! :D

      You didn’t ramble! I enjoyed your wonderful response and I enjoyed replying to it! ♥ Thank you, Kat!

  9. GIIIIRL, YOU NAILED IT AGAIN! :D
    My favorite part in this post is you shedding light on the difference between Dystopia and post-apocalypse as most people (including me) think they’re synonymous.

    Also, it’s refreshing to view dystopia from a sociologist’s POV, when it’s the socio-political issues that’s focused at rather than romance that commonly overshadows other genre in a book.

    From your list here, I’ve only read Hunger Games. Gosh, I really need to get back to 1984. I heard that’s a little bit like Haruki Murakami style of setting. Thank you for this awesome list, CW! I will look forward to that Utopian discussion :D

    • THANKS TRISHA! ♥♥

      Hahahaha well I’m glad to have made the distinction! I think the two genres have become somewhat similar nowadays, but the distinction is something I’m super passionate about, haha!

      Hehe thanks! I can’t help but see those things when I read all kinds of books, but dystopia is a chance for me to really gauge with those topics! Yeah, ugh, I’m not terribly fond that YA dystopia has become a place for fantastical romances. I’ve seen critique of YA dystopians where the romance had more weight than the actual issues at hand. D:

      1984 is great! But extremely difficult to read – I promise the ending is pretty validating! (That’s the part that blew my mind.) I also recommend The Handmaid’s Tale! That one’s a great one, though Atwood’s writing style isn’t for everybody it seems (I personally like it though)!

      And thank YOU Trisha!! ♥ I look forward to writing it and discussing it with people!! :D

      • I just read The Handmaid’s Tale’s synopsis and I’m SO on the edge of reading it. I have to work out my relationship with classic/non-contemporary books though. Haha! But I feel like I’m gonna like it for its themes of feminism/ bias to patriarchy as this is a stuff I’m passionate about. Thanks for this, CW! :D

  10. Ahhhh. This is yet another really great post, CW! As a fan of dystopian novels myself, this post really helped me understand why this genre of literature attracts me the most. My non-reader friend asked me a few weeks ago “what kind of books do you love most?” and I said “dystopian”, then she told me maybe because it was my brutal side speaking and it probably had to do with something in my personality. (In my defense I am the complete opposite of a brutal person especially me being a pacifist and all). Being able to read this, I now understand it clearer. For most of my high school life, being a member of the debate club has made me closer to social issues and my coach told me it’s very important to always be socially aware, so there’s that. I guess that’s the major reason I love dystopian novels. Moreover, I love how it engages my critical and analytical thinking skills! I love how dystopias are somehow connected from what we see in reality and how authors makes us curious and involved in an informative and creative way. :)

    • Thank you, maan! c: Also, I’m not sure why, but I really loved reading your comment. It was just very heartwarming. ♥

      Like you, I always felt connected to social issues when I was young, but didn’t possess the vocabulary to describe how I felt. I’m so thrilled that you feel that way about social issues! Despite my tendency, I was very ignorant back in the day, and I wonder what I would have been like if I was different. Your coach is right – being socially aware is so important! And I understand that sometimes it’s not nice, because we ‘see’ things that other people don’t, but we’re the future of the world; we must be able to see things. c:

      I feel that way about dystopian novels too! They get me thinking, and I love it. I completely agree – which is why I think it’s such a great genre with SO much potential. :D

      • Aww, I’m really glad to know that! ❤
        Social issues can never escape us, whether it be bad or good. So I find it great how authors could turn them into something people would want to read. You couldn’t have said it any better :D I couldn’t thank dystopian novels enough for keeping that critical-thinker side of me burning, so to speak. Books that follow this genre especially are very much deserving of top spots on our TBR all the more! 😊

  11. I absolutely loved this post, it really opened up my eyes to why dystopian is so important. I never really thought about analyzing a dystopian but now i’m sure that I will think about these topics the next time a pick up a dystopian novel!

  12. Perhaps people like to read dystopia so much because it’s a non-threatening way to engage with their worst fears. Until it ends horribly, that is. I suppose the job of the book is to gradually wake us up to the horror of it all. Like in Never Let Me Go. It takes a while for the truth of the situation to become apparent. It’s probably one of the books that has stayed with me the most, of the dystopia that I’ve read, because of how the characters don’t fight. There is something about their acceptance that is scarier than if they’d fought their ultimate fates.

    This is a great post.You are a seriously smart person.

    • I agree with you Lydia! In ways, I think it is easier for people to empathize with a fictional world than the real one – perhaps the latter feels so vast and incomprehensible but a book offers a snapshot or a focus for people to latch onto.

      Never Let Me Go was a really great book! Ishiguro has a way with subtlety. I agree with you there – accepting their fate was a bit disconcerting, but I think it conveys how powerful circumstance can be.

      Thanks Lydia! ♥ And oh gosh no, I just LOVE writing about dystopia/utopia. It’s just one of those things I’m super passionate about. c:

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