A Book Brat’s View On… Dystopias!
Yeah, yeah, I know. I am probably one of the more vocal people tackling the “Is it REALLY a dystopia?” question, and I do it a lot. But let’s look at the not-so-proven facts. Publishers found a genre that sells on name alone so of course they are going to be using the word “dystopia” to promote books. Common sense says they’ll use it on books that aren’t really dystopian. Well, from my personal experience, this has happened a lot more than you might have thought, which begs the question.
What does the word dystopia really mean?
According to Merriam-Webster, a dystopia is “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives”, or according to some professor’s reading guide for some book, “Literally "bad place." A community or world (often set in the future) wherein conditions at first glance might appear to be wonderful or ideal, utopian in fact. However, further investigation reveals that it is often repressive in that it severely restricts freedom of thought, speech, or movement. Lois Lowry's novel, The Giver, or the movie, The Stepford Wives, are two examples of dystopias.”
Author Erin Bowman has this amazing flowchart that came about after Maureen Johnson managed to create a twitter discussion around #isitdystopia – and it’s a really good introduction to the differences between a true dystopia and the post-apocalyptic stuff usually considered wrongly to be dystopian. You can check it out here.
With this in mind, I decided to hit the streets… or Twitter and AIM to ask some readers their opinions. Yeah, I was on the student newspaper, I needed sound bites.
Mrs. ReaderPants defines a dystopia as “A group of people ruled by authoritarian government that curbs personal freedoms through force or coercion. Dysfunctional.” For Amber of The Musings of ALMYBNENR, “Utopia is the culmination of the perfect world. Politics, the economy, the way the world works: all of it is stable and people are content…and static. Dystopian worlds can be frightening, but in some ways, I feel like a dystopian world is better. Yes, a dystopian world may be one where our technology has gotten the best of us or one where we have lost all modern comforts, but it is ever changing. They might be populated with a lot of all-powerful bad guys, but dystopias are also testaments of hope and the underdog.”
So what is a dystopia? Does it have to be a world of the future? Does it have to be a world where things are clearly bad? I say no. I have read dystopian books (can’t remember their names right now, oops) that take place in the present. What they do have to have, though, is an overarching theme where everything appears perfect and utopian and safe, but then we slowly begin to discover with the main character that things are not the way they seem. Emotional suppression, thought control, Big Brother – the populace is controlled in some way or else kept from the truth of their situation and environment.
The thing I have discovered about the publishing industry – especially Young Adult publishers - is that anything that looks like it might have an element found usually in dystopian fiction will be immediately labeled with dystopia. Books like Jo Treggiari’s ASHES, ASHES and even Susan Beth Pfeffer’s LIFE AS WE KNEW IT have both been labeled by either the publishers or bloggers as dystopian when neither actually are dystopian. ASHES, ASHES comes close with a villainous organization, but there was nothing utopian about their situation, and in fact they were really trying to do a good thing. But check out my review of that to see more.
Applying the word dystopia to describing post-apocalyptic novels is especially doing the word dystopia a disservice. The word dystopia brings up connotations of great novels like BRAVE NEW WORLD and 1984, novels where there was a clear element of a utopia gone wrong. As readers and bloggers, we should know the difference between a dystopia and a simple post-apocalyptic novel. Yeah, it’s a thin line in many cases, but seeing as how dystopia has become a genre all its own, maybe it’s time we step back and ruminate about what the word really means.
I would love to know your thoughts on the subject! Please feel free to discuss this in the comments because I do want this to become a topic of talk.