Dystopian fiction is a particular kind of science fiction. Whereas science fiction can be about intergalactic travel, off-world adventures, spaceships and futuristic technology, dystopian fiction is always situated on our Earth, ‘somewhen’ in the future. Dystopian fiction is therefore a sub-genre of the wider umbrella of science fiction, and it has its own unique rules.
Dystopian fiction imagines how our future might be shaped by all the things we’re doing wrong to the earth and its people today. Pollution, exploitation, plague and nuclear/natural disaster are often the basis for stories set in a dystopian environment. Dystopian fiction is set far enough in the future for us to see the negative effects of these things, whilst being close enough to today for us to recognise our own Earth and its people in the story. So, in dystopian fiction, the planet has already been polluted, or partly destroyed by nuclear war, or divided into social tiers which leave the disadvantaged unprotected, or ravaged by plague. Sometimes, dystopian novels feature all of these things.
The first dystopian fiction was published around the turn of the last Century. Writers such as HG Wells and Jack London imagined a flawed society in which advancements in technology and social structure might not bring the best out in people. London’s novel ‘The Iron Heel’ set the tone for the underdog narrator, who is pursued and punished by a ruling elite. If you think about Katniss Everdeen in ‘The Hunger Games’ and the kids in ‘The Maze Runner’, you can see how this aspect (known as a trope) has continued through time. The underdog always fights for freedom, and the reader is always on the underdog’s side - this is a major trope of dystopian fiction.
After ‘The Iron Heel’, the most popular dystopian novels were Zamyatin’s ‘We’, Orwell’s ‘1984’, and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. These stories are built on the ‘grey corridors of power’. They aren’t adventure stories so much as tales about a government which tries to supress its people, treating them as automatons who must obey the rules and relinquish true freedom. In these novels, a faceless elite rule from their secret corridors of power, stamping down anybody who tries to be different. You can see how this has continued in ‘The Hunger Games’, with the citizens of Capitol treating the residents of the Districts so cruelly.
Later dystopian novels began to examine the damage nuclear war might do to the earth, or the havoc that climate change and habitat destruction might bring. These novels are written in the vein of classic adventure-quests, and include ‘Z for Zachariah’ (Robert O’Brien), ‘The Madd Addam Trilogy’ (Margaret Atwood), and ‘The Ice People’ (Maggie Gee). In these novels, wilful damage of the Earth has got truly out of hand; disasters (both natural and man-made) happen with alarming regularity, and all life on the planet is in grave danger.
Many dystopian novels look at the social aspects of a dysfunctional society, with a focus on women’s roles: Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and its sequel ‘The Testaments’ are examples, along with Vonda McIntyre’s ‘Dreamsnake’ and Doris Lessing’s ‘The Memoirs of a Survivor’. Other dystopian novels are apocalyptic in nature, dealing with the immediate aftermath of ‘the Fall’. These stories follow a family or a small number of people as they fight for survival in a lawless and destroyed environment. Examples of apocalyptic dystopian novels include Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, and John Christopher’s ‘A Wrinkle in the Skin’.
But, the most popular kind of dystopian fiction written today is the YA (young adult) adventure. In these novels, many of which have been made into films, a young protagonist underdog must take on society’s ruling elite and fight for freedom. ‘The Hunger Games’ (Collins), ‘Divergent’ (Roth), ‘Maze Runner’ (Dashner) and ‘The Giver’ (Lowry) are all examples of YA dystopian adventures. The tropes created by writers of dystopian fiction over a hundred years ago can still be seen in these modern stories: the underdog narrator, who leads a rebellion or campaigns for change; the ruling elite who tell others how to behave; the supposition that one-size-fits-all in this futuristic society; and the narrator’s fight for truth and freedom.
Once upon a time, dystopian narrators were swallowed by the system and ultimately failed to break free - today, YA heroes and heroines triumph over the ruling class and win a better life for themselves and their people.
It will be interesting to see what developments in dystopian storytelling occur over the next fifty years.
This blog was written for a teenage education group who needed a high-level summary of the genre. It really made me think about the most important elements of dystopian fiction, which helped me to distil the genre down to its most basic but informative components.
June 17th 2021