What Is Dystopia?
by Dan Wells
Dystopian fiction comes in a lot of different flavors. It’s the reigning queen of YA right now, with books like THE HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT topping the charts, but what does dystopia really mean? I see a lot of people using “dystopia” more or less as a synonym for “young adult science fiction,” but there’s so much more nuance in our genre than that. If we lump all science fiction under the dystopian umbrella, we’re missing out on the wonderful variety that science fiction has to offer.
Dystopia, in it’s origins, was about societies that tried to create a utopia–a wonderful place–but ended up created a horrible place instead. Usually these stories focus on conformity, and the loss of individual freedom; there’s a lot of “communism is scary” tied up in these kinds of books. This category includes not just old stuff like BRAVE NEW WORLD, 1984, and “Harrison Bergeron,” but newer books like UGLIES and MATCHED and DIVERGENT. The government tries to solve one set of problems, and in doing so goes too far and creates a whole new set of problems, and then it’s up to our plucky heroes and heroines to save the day.
Another flavor of dystopia shows society screwing itself up without any help from the government at all. In these stories the world wasn’t made terrible on purpose, it just happened that way naturally thanks to evil corporations (SNOW CRASH, JENNIFER GOVERNMENT), natural causes (CHILDREN OF MEN), or our own obsession with entertainment and hedonism (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE). These stories differ from the first group in that the terrible aspects of society are not enforced, they just happen and we can’t escape from them; the focus of the story is not on overthrowing the society, but on trying to find some way to live within it.
Entertainment-based dystopias became a whole sub-genre of their own, drawing on the Roman idea of using “bread and circuses” to keep the populace in line. In these stories life is terrible, and resources are limited, so the leaders maintain order by distracting us with a constant barrage of media. FAHRENHEIT 451 is one of the oldest in this category; later entries put a stronger focus on blood sport and violence (THE RUNNING MAN, BATTLE ROYALE, THE HUNGER GAMES).
Because we think of dystopia as being “a terrible place,” we have a tendency to group any terrible place or society into the same category. This is especially common with post-apocalyptic stories (A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, THE ROAD), but it gets expanded to include any old science fiction story about a place you wouldn’t want to live. Megacity One from Judge Dredd is awful, but is it dystopian? The Earth of CINDER is gripped by a terrible plague, but is their society a dystopia in any way similar to the other dystopias we’ve discussed? A genre definition that puts CINDER and 1984 into the same thematic category is a bad definition; I love both books, but for very different reasons, and they deserve a better system of classification that reflects this.
I don’t think it’s enough to say that “bad=dystopia,” because that categorization focuses solely on the props and trappings of a story, without considering what’s really going on–what the story is really about. A true dystopian story doesn’t just depict a bad society, it is about that society on a fundamental level. The characters in a dystopia are primarily concerned with surviving or changing the world they live in, and the story as a whole is intended to demonstrate how a certain idea or system or attitude can turn a society into a hell. A story like RoboCop, on the other hand, simply uses a dystopian society as a backdrop to tell a story about human augmentation, and the blurred lines between human and machine. It has a different purpose, and calling it a dystopia ignores this nuance.
So, the big question: is the Partials Sequence dystopian? There’s definitely elements of it: PARTIALS is specifically about an oppressive, authoritarian government, and one girl’s quest to change it, but after that it starts to change. FRAGMENTS and RUINS both continue to deal with questions of authority and responsibility, particularly when Kira learns the secrets behind the Preserve, but the focus of the story changes. If I were forced, I’d called PARTIALS a dystopian story, FRAGMENTS a quest story, and RUINS a…hmm. A war story? A chase story? More than anything else it’s an apocalypse story: the world ended thirteen years ago, and now it’s ending again, and Kira and her friends are trying everything they can to create a new civilization from the ashes. It’s a book about endings, but also about beginnings. I think that’s an important difference.
Whatever your tastes–dystopia, post-apocalypse, or just science fiction in general–I hope you like it.