Dystopian Worlds

November 2011 Jenna Hathaway

The word dystopia originated from Ancient Greek δυσ which means “bad” or “ill” and τόπος which means “place” or “landscape”. It is the opposite of utopia—which usually is used to describe the perfect and heavenly world or society. So dystopia means a repressive society or a heavily controlled state, though they also often masquerade as a utopian world. Usually the government will be controlling a lot of things and the citizens will experience either passive or active coercion. Most dystopian societies are described as “perfect” whereas actually underneath it the system is corrupt and rotten, and the government isn’t actually thinking about the well-being of its citizens.

For example, in Matched we learn that the Society controls every single one of its citizens’ life choices to make their lives easier, healthier, longer, and generally better. But this isn’t all true, because the Society also controls when they die, effectively killing their own citizens. Same as in Uglies where at a certain age everyone is made prettier and thus allegedly happier, but there is always something the government is hiding from the people. Something they’re not telling everyone, something sinister that would destroy the disguise that everything is perfect. Because, well, let’s face it, real utopia probably will never exist on earth.

Lately, since the success of The Hunger Games, there has been a lot of rise in the dystopian fiction genre. What is dystopian fiction exactly? It is a story that is usually characterized by the setting that is far ahead in the future, where the world has collapsed because of some big war or other disaster and the new society was rebuilt mostly to prevent such thing from happening again. It also usually involves technological innovations that do not (yet) exist in our time, which is why in a way dystopian fiction can also be classified as science fiction. It just doesn’t always involve futuristic spacecrafts like the images the words ‘science fiction’ would immediately trigger in mind.

The changes in society in dystopian fictions are usually drastic and when we read it, we will often wonder how human beings could have fallen to such a state. We will wonder how their social norms could be so disturbing and downright terrible. But to those characters who have ever only lived in this new society, their way of living is absolutely normal. After all, this is the only kind of society they know. Maybe they would have heard of how it was in the past from their history books, but it’s rare to find them yearning for those good old days. Usually they would just accept that their current society is the better one. After all, had those good old days not collapse? They will automatically believe that their current society is made the way they are in order to fix the previous world problems and make sure they don’t happen again. It is all once again for everyone’s betterment.

Or even if some of them don’t agree, they will be too scared to rebel because the government is too strong. The Hunger Games is one example. I think in any kind of society, people will never believe that sending a bunch of kids to their death every year is for everyone’s benefit. The people in the districts recognized that this was a punishment—an inhumane one—but there was still nothing they could do about it because they aren’t strong enough to revolt. They have tried to take on the Capitol before and that was how they ended up here in the first place. They would surely not be too inclined to try it again. The government usually has an iron fist in these stories, and everyone knows they are not to be messed with because behind their protective guise, they are actually dangerous.

Why is dystopian fiction interesting? First of course because there’s an entirely new world the story is based around. That’s always fun to explore; the possibilities of how the world could have changed and what kind of life the characters are forced to live in. The more imaginative the writer, the more intriguing the world would be. Secondly, dystopian fiction almost always tells about change. How this secretly rotten government will be toppled and everything turned back to normal or, at the very least, the systems and social norms that are wrong will be discarded.

Dystopian fiction tells the journey of a hero. A hero who will start questioning whether the instilled belief that their society is designed to be perfect is indeed the right one, or someone who just gains the courage to go against the government and shake its system. Sometimes the hero will be reluctant like Katniss in The Hunger Games, and sometimes they will make the decision to rebel themselves eventually. Either way, it promises an epic journey and an ending that will end up in a world that is yet again vastly different from where we started.

I think these are the reasons why dystopian fiction is such a popular genre right now. It breaks norms and tests limits, it shocks us, and it’s usually filled with fast-paced action. It’s gripping, thought-provoking, and will sometimes chill us to the bone. It is not an easy genre to write in at all, so it’s admirable when the author manages to make their book a success in this genre. I am always looking for more and more good dystopian books, so if you come across some interesting ones, be sure to recommend them to me!