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.)
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 true? That 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.
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?
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.
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:
- Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (goodreads)
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (goodreads)
- We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (goodreads)
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (goodreads, my review)
- Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman (goodreads; probably my first dystopian novel)
- Red Rising by Pierce Brown (goodreads, my review)
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (goodreads)
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (goodreads)
- The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (goodreads)
- The Ask the Answer (Chaos Walking #2) by Patrick Ness (goodreads, my review)
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’.
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?