Genrely Speaking: Dystopia

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking, the part of the show where we examine the classifications of literature and what we mean when we use them here. The dystopia is a particularly notable genre at the moment, as it is used to describe a number of stories that have come out recently, particularly The Hunger Games and Divergent series of books and the corresponding movies. Shall we take a moment to break down the genre and see what that means, and if these two series actually qualify?

Of course we shall!

Let’s begin at the beginning. Dystopia, like so many words today, started life as two separate Greek words. “Dys” is derived from a Greek adjective that refers to something hard, or straight out bad. “Topia” comes from a Greek word that can refer to either a place or an incredibly horrible artificial substitute for hair. Thus it is most literally a hard place, or possibly hard hair, something certainly favored by real life dictators who tried to create dystopias.

But enough of that. What is it that makes these stories, and the places in them, so hard?

  1. The government is treated much like a god. It is nearly or perfectly all-knowing and destroys all attempts to challenge it ruthlessly, but at a time of its choosing. Its power may or may not be absolute, but the long arm of the law is at least powerful enough to crush most resistance and probably alter most circumstances, including culture and sometimes even memory, to suit its own ends.

  2. Like most gods, the government cannot be destroyed or even appreciably harmed, only annoyed. In this way, dystopias are oddly like cosmic horror. Except instead of squidheaded aliens poking their heads out of R’Lyeh, like you’d find in a typical example of Yog’Sothery, what you get instead is masses of humanity united into Parties and actively tearing one another down. The result is actually far more chilling, as the human motivations are far more believable than the supposedly uncaring cosmic beings that populate Lovecraftian stories. Worse, these human gods can and do demand appeasement at the expense of their followers, appeasement that quickly grows natural, then even enjoyable.

  3. The character is feeble in the face of the government’s overwhelming strength. Again like the protagonist of a cosmic horror story, the characters in a dystopia are pretty much unable to make a meaningful change in the world around them. The power of the government is too absolute for them to challenge, their society, crafted by the government to keep them imprisoned, withholds all skills and ideas that would make challenging the status quo practical or attractive. This doesn’t mean people don’t try, just that they’re very bad at it.

What are the problems of a dystopia story? Well for starters, building a believable one is very, very hard.

Keeping all those lemmings in lockstep requires an almost equal sized herd of cowboys (lemmingboys?), all of whom would have to buy in to the ruling ideal unquestioningly. How exactly is a society supposed to make the jump from even the most repressive regime known to man (say, North Korea, where people still escape on a nearly constant basis and subversive ideas like Christianity runs rampant in the backwoods) to a true dystopia where all contrary ideas are extinguished? That such a powerful and self-contained society could exist defies belief and you have to be very, very careful when including ideas that defy belief in a story.

Another problem lies in the very ideas underpinning most dystopias. From Big Brother’s hate (1984) to the World State’s soma (Brave New World) to the hedonism and agism of the Sandmen (Logan’s Run) to the enforced ignorance of the Firemen (Fahrenheit 451), none of them are very good foundations for societies. As the old parable says, a house built upon sand is doomed to collapse as soon as the floods come. It really shouldn’t be possible for these societies to stand up to any kind of serious testing, so why bother telling stories about them at all? In other words-

What are the strengths of a dystopia story? Dystopias are a kind of science fiction, which means the stories they tell are about human ideas. Dystopias seek to take an idea that might look serviceable and even attractive on the surface, and carry itto its most extreme logical implementation.

Doing this exposes the weaknesses of a given system of thought. This is true regardless of what the system of thought is – it’s possible to found a dystopia on the maxim “love thy neighbor as thy self”. (And some people might say we’re in the process of doing that in modern day America. Humans are nothing if not inventive in finding new ways to oppress themselves and others.) The point is, when we take these ideas to their natural conclusion we realize maybe they aren’t such swell things after all.

So dystopia stories fill an important purpose in social commentary. They show us our ideas, and what can become of them when we let them get out of hand. This is where they shine.

You may have noticed that I’ve defined dystopia very narrowly. Like all genres, the dystopia as a kind of amorphous and vague thing, but I feel that it’s important to limit the genre to stories about a society where human culture is in the process of active and gleeful self-annihilation, and not confuse the genre with others it often overlaps with, such as post-apocalyptic literature, or noir (both to have their own days in the spotlight here, I’m sure). Elements of these two other genres can often turn up in dystopias, particularly in modern times, and elements of dystopia can turn up in post-apocalyptic or noir stories as well.

So I don’t consider The Hunger Games, Divergent or even The Matrix dystopian stories. While each contains a totalitarian society that is ruled over by a government that has gained power through manipulation (of food and entertainment in The Hunger Games, social structure and work life in Divergent and technology in The Matrix) they don’t carefully examine the ideas that would create such a society or spend a great deal of time deconstructing how that society dehumanizes individual people. The totalitarian governments are just there to be torn down. While that story serves its own purpose, that purpose is not the purpose of a dystopia story.

Ultimately, dystopias serve to show us human society at it’s nadir and remind us that there, but for the grace of God, go we.

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3 responses to “Genrely Speaking: Dystopia

  1. I agree that dystopia creates an extreme mirror-society that highlights the faults of our society.

    As for authoritarian governments, I think a few things have to be done to make it believeable: 1. The majority of people buy into the propaganda of the government, hence the availability of soldiers. 2. Fear of the government is at a high-level, including among soldiers – a philosophy of ‘I’ll enforce the law because if I don’t I’ll be destroyed’. 3. A small group of rebellion and undermining the thumb of the regime.

  2. Very interesting (and entertaining) analysis, Nate! Since dystopian literature is not a favorite of mine, can you tell me: does it–as a genre–lean to hopelessness? I know there is a ray of light at the end of “Fahrenheit 451”. What about others? “1984” hints at hope, but we see none of it. I can see the difference you are suggesting between this genre, which has a philosophical bent, as opposed to the action/adventure literature which uses some future totalitarian government as the extra big Bad Guy to be defeated. However, I haven’t read “The Hunger Games” or the “Divergent” series either, so I would not have caught the distinction without your post. Thanks!

    • The relationship between dystopia and hope is troubled. The original dystopia is generally considered Jack London’s “The Iron Heel” and it portrays hope in much the same way as “1984”: Often kindled and quickly crushed. Most of the other significant dystopian works of literature maintain that bleak outlook. “Brave New World” is definitely a hopeless book, “Blade Runner” and its source material, “Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep” don’t really include much hope that their societies will change. We all know how “Soylent Green” turns out. Of course, in “Fahrenheit 451” books are being preserved and studied for the time they can return and that gives us some hope. The only other dystopia I can think of with a similar ending is “Logan’s Run”, where Logan does actually get away from pursuit, although he has to go to outer space to do it. There were sequels where the government fell and Logan and other older people came back to earth, but on the whole the genre is pretty dark.

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