Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Rise of Dystopian Fiction

My friend Katie and I have been discussing the rise of dystopian fiction especially in young adult literature. I'm sure this is a topic many avid readers have been talking about especially with the wild success of books like Suzanne Collins Hunger Games trilogy, something I listed as one of my absolute favorite reads in 2010.

For those less familiar, dystopia is defined in the dictionary, as "a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding" though I prefer Wikipedia's explanation:

"Dystopia is, in literature, an often futuristic society that has degraded into a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian. Dystopian literature has underlying cautionary tones, warning society that if we continue to live how we do, this will be the consequence. A dystopia, thus, is regarded as a sort of negative utopia and is often characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government. Dystopias usually feature different kinds of repressive social control systems, a lack or total absence of individual freedoms and expressions and constant states of warfare or violence. Dystopias often explore the concept of technology going "too far" and how humans individually and en masse use technology. A dystopian society is also often characterized by mass poverty for most of its inhabitants and a large military-like police force."

I loved this second definition not only because it's much more thorough but the emphasis on government control and the guise of the dystopian state as utopia is, in my opinion, the essence of the genre. In fact, I couldn't think of a single dystopian novel where the government itself wasn't a key ingredient in shaping the narrative and societal restraints. It's not a society based in some great depression but rather repression.

My first foray into dystopian fiction began in high school, with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

I came across a great article on the topic of dystopian fiction in YA while writing this post and what struck me most between the young reader in this story and myself back in high school was how far fetched dystopia seemed to me then and how relatable it may be for readers now. When I first read Orwell or Atwood or Huxley, they seemed very science fiction (which, of course, dystopia is related) but today, the idea of Big Brother watching you doesn't seem far fetched. We've seen the lack of privacy with the popularity of the Internet and social networks like Facebook and, of course, there was The Patriot Act and its associated wiretapping of Americans.

Before, the idea of surrogates or physical perfection--and selection--were abnormal ideas but now they seem pretty main stream. And, of course, there's the violence--often from the oppressive government and then the eventual uprising of those they so coldly wish to control. Violence in literature wasn't something I came across much in my early reading years but, today, violence is everywhere. It's in the news (which we're constantly inundated with), in our video games and movies, and sometimes in our very lives. And this article highlighted that for many of today's youth, they do not remember a time when we were not at war.

Another interesting take on this topic was in a New Yorker article. It quotes author Scott Westerfeld. "The success of [the]‘Uglies,’ is partly thanks to high school being a dystopia.”

What an interesting idea and yet...perhaps not so novel. Teens are forced into an adult ruled institution often feeling judged against one another and without very much influence in its overall governing. For those lucky enough to be popular, high school may be a utopia and "the best days of your life" but for others yearning to escape it can be anything but. And it is this too that makes this genre, even in these supposed futuristic places, seem perhaps not that far off. The characters, however, usually have an opportunity for rebellion--something that's heroic and revered and often ends all for the better. But rarely do teens have that opportunity in real life to reverse the things around them they do not like, most especially rules created by adults and institutions in which then enroll.

It is for these two reasons: high school as dystopia and teens not only escaping but relating to the plots, subplots, and characters in dystopian fiction now more than ever, that has contributed to the genre's growing appeal in this age group.

Do you agree? Do you think the view of dystopian literature has changed over the years as our society has?

What great dystopian fiction have you read and would recommend? If you're like me, you're finding more and more options to choose from. In fact, my "to be read" list in 2011 was (now that I think of it) quite lacking in this genre and so I'm officially adding three more reads to my 2011

They include, Matched by Ally Condie, XVI by Julia Karr, and Possession by Elana Johnson.


  1. Great post! I couldn't agree more. I love that Wikipedia definition. I hope POSSESSION doesn't disappoint!

  2. Thanks Elana. I'm sure I'll LOVE the book! I'll have to post a review once it's out.

  3. Just came across this post and I would have to say I really agree. Someone asked me to define dystopia so I googled it so I could explain properly and I saw the Wikipedia list of dystopian literature and was struck by the difference between the 19th and 20th century lists, and then by how close to the same number there are already in 2012 in comparison with the 20th century. It's a very interesting phenomenon and kudos for noticing and for your blog on it here! :)