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Dystopian Fiction

Written by Kirsten on October 3rd, 2011

So my Banned Books Week ended up falling a bit short, but I did get through two and start one more, which I’ll finish this week for sure. I’d often heard of Brave New World, but knew absolutely nothing about it going into it, which makes it all the more interesting. The world-building is quite well-executed, which is important in alternate realities or far-future novels, and, like The Handmaid’s Tale, and Fahrenheit 451, the explanation of how their society evolved from present-day norms feels chillingly possible.

I found myself thinking about dystopia and its categorization – is it, by default, Science Fiction? Does it always involve a very clear social commentary, almost a fable-ish moral? Are the fears explored in a dystopian novel usually based on the struggles of author’s own nation, or relevant to human nature in general? And, in connection to discussions I’ve had recently about authors and their beliefs informing their work, is the alternate future always something the author fears, or is it sometimes something s/he believes would be utopian?

I personally don’t often feel “preached at” by books, especially if they’re well-written and I haven’t gone into a story with the expectation that it’s a doom-and-gloom, “This will happen if X Y Z powers that be don’t do something drastic right NOW,” sort of tale. With the explosion of The Hunger Games and the usual slew of similar stories popping up in the series’s wake, I wonder if this trend is facilitated by the media coverage of declining economies and countries on the verge of bankruptcy and political unrest in various regions of the world, and if these books, especially those that are popular among a broad range of ages, are contributing to the general sense of public unease.

Literate Housewife (@LitHousewife) posed the question regarding the Sci Fi Classification on Twitter last night; Tanya Perez (@dogearedcopy), who works in Studio Services at Blackstone Audio and blogs at Dog Eared Copy, made a good point about science versus a change in social conventions driving the difference. If you separate physical science from social science (which is a sticky enough debate in the first place), and if government or what serves for it in the society portrayed is involved, which seems to be the case frequently if not always, then Political Fiction seems to work. And of course, it all fits neatly under the umbrella of Speculative Fiction, which Jen pointed out (@DevourerofBooks). As Literate Housewife and Devourer of Books both just reviewed When She Woke, which is what spurred the conversation, and it already has a 4.44 star rating on LibraryThing, I have a feeling this is one I’ll want to get my hands on sooner rather than later.

As for the question about authors’ opinions of the worlds they create – once that idea popped into my head, my inner monologue went kind of like this: “How could you possibly think that an author might want a world where people are conditioned into social strata from the moment the gametes fuse, or a time in which women have been demoted until they are entirely powerless, or for books to only exist in the minds of an few renegade former professors riding the rails???” Honestly, I don’t believe they do. I do believe that dystopia is a vehicle for authors to express concern for a direction they think we (as a society, as a nation, as a species) may be headed, and to warn of the dangers they foresee. On the other side of the coin, do I think some dystopian fiction has its roots in paranoia? Do the authors really fear that their creation will be our reality in two or five or ten generations if we don’t get our act together? Similarly, no, I don’t think they do. I think it’s a creative means of drawing attention to the ways fanaticism about utterly controlling a population through religion, science, politics, or other means can lead to abhorrent circumstances.

Soooooo, what are your thoughts on all of the above? Have you witnessed anything that’s made you think, “Wow, that’s eerily like that one part in 1984,” or read a dystopian novel that truly made you feel like its proposed reality was not only possible, but probable? Do you stay away from dystopia because it’s too preachy, or too depressing? Do you have a favorite I should check out?


4 Comments so far ↓

  1. Thanks for the shout out. The classification of dystopian novels made for an interesting discussion last night. Yes, please read WHEN SHE WOKE. I highly recommend it!

    • Kirsten says:

      I’m absolutely adding it to my wish list :) Already checked the library for the e-book, but I imagine it’ll be a bit; not that I don’t have enough to keep me busy in the meantime!

  2. dogearedcopy says:

    Do the authors really fear that their creation will be our reality in two or five or ten generations if we don’t get our act together?

    In the case of George Orwell (e.g. 1984) and Margaret Atwood (e.g. The Handmaid’s Tale and, Oryx and Crake) I believe that both were writing cautionary tales. George Orwell had witnessed not only the nastiness of Eton (just like Aldous Huxley – coincidence?); but the horrors of watching men become monsters in WWII. Two of the more chilling aspects of 1984 that are all the more unnerving for having become “true” is the use of near constant surveillance (CCTV in the UK) and language (de-) evolvement as specified as in the appendix (e.g. “plus” and the truncating of polysyllabic words/terms into bi-syllabic words. The whole of the government controlling the masses through propaganda has had its precedent as well as current iterations :-(
    And again, in the case of Margaret Atwood, considering that The Handmaid’s Tale I was published in 1985 (and presumably she had been writing it before that year) is incredibly prescient of terms of social and political conventions that came practice. The biblical literalism coupled with religious fundamentalism, the use of debit cards, the shift away from the USSR fright to the Middle East threat…
    In Oryx and Crake, her exposure to the biomedical research industry lends special credibility to her writing about how gene engineering can go awry. We see the hope for cures and solutions justifying some truly horrific practices in the biotechnology fields, including genetically modified foods. Whatever scientific advances have been made have been offset by the consequences and the fact that no widespread or efficacious applications have resulted.

    Conveniently, I’ve chosen of the more well-established authors to make my case; but then again their writing grounded in past experience or knowledge and the insight into human nature is what makes their writing Modern Classics.

    • Kirsten says:

      1984 is on my list, as well; I don’t own a copy (or it’s in one of the still-packed boxes), so I couldn’t pull it out for this year’s BBW. I’d not heard of Oryx and Crake before, but that’s another one I definitely need to read.
      I think it’s interesting that, because the larger story isn’t “true” in the case of, for example, Handmaid, the bits and pieces that have come to be are largely written off – but that’s how societal augmentation comes about, it isn’t all or nothing. It’s a slow, insidious process… and it has to start somewhere. That’s why the exposition about the gradual loss of liberty in Offred’s world is so powerful – it wasn’t a single event that changed the world, it was a little shift here, a slight change there.

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