Friday, July 15, 2011

Is It Dystopian? Methinks Perhaps Not.

So, ya'll know that I've been working away at a post-apocalyptic project. Which means, of course, that I've been reading a lot of post-apocalyptic books to get myself grounded in what's out there. And one detail has me thoroughly confused.

The line between Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian. It seems to me that many books that I would call Post-Apocalyptic or perhaps even speculative are labelled as Dystopian. I've said in describing my project that it's post-post-apocalyptic and pre-dystopian--it's the story of how the emerging society after life as we know it is kaput tries to prevent the world from going down Ye Darke Road of Dystopia. So, clearly, I enjoy confusing these things more than is truly necessary.

There are some great articles already out there: This flowchart is hilarious, and this blog series explores a lot more deeply than I'm able to today.

But for me? When I think of "Dystopia" I think of the exact opposite of "Utopia." Or, perhaps more precisely, I think of Utopia gone horribly awry. And when I say "Utopia" I mean, in all seriousness, the 1516 book by Thomas More.


You thought I wasn't going to go all historical on you today.

Thomas More wrote a rather scary story that was not intended to be frightening about a nonexistent but plausible place in which all of society's ills had been cured. Make no mistake--he is not subtle about this. You know how sometimes you see an allusion to a problem in modern society in sci-fi and are shown how it's been solved? Yep, More's not so crafty--his Part One is a discourse, in the form of a conversation, about What's Wrong with Kids These Days (or, less flippantly, problems of government, use of funds, crime, etc). In Utopia, set vaguely in the New World, these problems have all been addressed, and More describes the solutions and lifestyle.

I said this was a slightly scary story. It is, from a critical point of view. Conformity, control, and enforced communal living are a basis of the invented world. (My personal favorite tidbit--in Utopia, pre-marital sex is punished by lifelong celibacy--try being that parole officer.) But it's not meant to be scary--in More's depiction of Utopia, everyone is hunky-dory with the world they live in, the rulers don't abuse their power, and you, as a reader in sixteenth century England, are supposed to be dazzled by their radical but great ideas and wish you were a Utopian. In fact, my college lit course was split over whether we'd like to live there--and I, even as part of the "heck no" camp, feel I was at least partially influenced by the lessons of the great dystopian books more than an aversion to More's general idea.

Because you know, it could work. The right conditions, the right leadership, could make this society a pleasant one to live in. The wrong conditions, however, the wrong leadership--and it's a terrifying world.

This is where the classic dystopian novels--Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World--get it right. They take a society created to be perfect and make that pursuit of perfection the downfall. Because to enforce perfection, a society needs perfect control. That, I think more than anything else, is what we react to, what we rebel against when reading good dystopian fiction. Yes, the soma holidays in Brave New World appall the reader with an aversion to substance abuse--but it's the carefully created genetic reproductions and the claustrophobic need to toe society's line that really grab us. And you know, they do it without zombies or viruses or anything else to spur them. It happens because people wanted it that way. **Shiver**

(I could wax poetic about how dystopian literature's heavy hitters came out in the first half the 20th century, amidst social movements that scared people and fears of communism. But I won't, because you can draw your own conclusions.)

What about the books that had be confused? When I applied my historically-inspired definition, the classifications clarified for me. For instance--Whither. I read this recently, and while it was a great story, I'm not calling it dystopian. Why? Society was reeling from a biological disaster and the after-effects of widespread war, struggling to get by--not oppressing everyone still around in the name of the good of all. People had the freedom to do as they chose--limited by their circumstances, but still free. It was crappy, sure. But it wasn't, in my view, dystopian. I'd contrast this with the Hunger Games trilogy--I would classify this as dystopian, because the main challenge in living in Panem was not apocalyptic-y survival issues, but lack of agency enforced by the government. The Capitol's control spurs the conflict.

So--my final answer to what is and isn't dystopian: Crappy situation isn't the same as dystopian. Futuristic crappy situation, still not the same. Dystopian societies are deliberate, not created by apocalyptic happenstance. Dystopian societies are marred by the imbalance of freedom, by the pursuit of perfection resulting in the surrender (consensual or forced) of individual agency for communal or governmental control.

And my story? Not dystopian. But the threat of it serves as a motivation for the central conflict.

What do you think? Does my definition miss key points? (Answer: I'm sure it does!) What's the best dystopian book you've read? What about a book billed as dystopian that you'd call something else?


Jenny Wren said...

I think you're right. To my mind, a dystopia is a failed utopia, and at least some members (usually those at the top) will believe it to be a utopia. The Time Machine is a good example of this- to the narrator, the futuristic society seems at first to be utopian, but turns out to be the opposite.

anachronist said...

I read Hunger Games series and I would call these books dystopia-just-before-revolt-and-right-afterwards novels.

1984 WAS a dystopia pure and simple. Animal Farm was a dystopia as well.

I find your definition just fine but sometimes the lack of freedom is not compensated by the pursuit of perfection but rather by the pursuit of perfectly autocratic power.

Jen said...

Great post, Rowena!

You don't need an Apocalypse to have a Dystopia. In fact, one would think that an Apocalypse would pretty much ruin any Dystopia you had going. The scariest Dystopias are the ones that don't look very different from current society.

I also have a theory that there is no difference between Utopia and Dystopia, it's just about perspective. Because no one rule fits all, and your idea of happiness and my idea of happiness might be two completely different things.

Connie Keller said...

I enjoyed the post. (I read Utopia in college too). Honestly, I think a lot of books, rightly or wrongly, are classified as dystopian vs. post-apocalyptic based on which label is selling better.

BTW, you are making me very eager to read your novel.

MrsC said...

A Handmaid's Tale, for my favourite and the ickiest Dystopian book I've read. I'm nto really into such things, I prefer fluffy bunnies to nuclear mutants, but that book really got to me. Also, Logan's Run in a limited way. The pseudo Utopia underpinned by a Dystopian reality is interesting.
REcently, I read Blind Faith by Ben Elton, it too is a Dystopian future that is almost too beleiveable given how well he has taken what isn't working about today and extraplotes it to logical extremes hard to bear. I gave it away. *shudder*

Kat Zhang said...

I'm gad you addressed this, Rowenna :) I think a lot of books that technically aren't Dystopian (though what can I say...genres will develop and shift meaning over time) are being labeled as such, recently. A craptastic world does not a dystopian novel make!

anachronist said...

Oh A Handmaid's Tale, that one was one scary book. Good but scary.

Maybelle said...

Interesting post! I don't know much about both genres, but so far having read some of the books on your list, I'd say you pretty much hit the mark. I do envision "dystopia" as the flip-slide of "utopia" (shared by the "-topia" - which I think meant "world" or something like that). It's interesting, though. Utopia's definitely an interesting concept to get into when you think about happiness, quality of life, and so forth. I do tend to think happiness is subjective, though. What's heaven for one can be hell for another.

Jill said...

I'm a little late, but I have to tell you I love this post. My philosophy is never to trust anybody whose ideal world is Utopian. I'm inspired to write a pre-dystopian book. Hopefully, I'll get to it.