Monday, February 6, 2012

Wait, What's Dystopian Again?

Tip of the Day: I have an article about story in the Winter Rhemalda Opus. Check it out at

There are so many dystopians on the market these days, the word is losing its meaning. Check out this Goodreads list named Dystopia! It's kind enough to provide a definition: "no singular catastrophe may have occurred but things have somehow still slipped into a horrid state of paranoia and oppression."

I like that definition a lot. Unfortunately both history and modern politics provide us with ample states where paranoia and oppression rule. So when looking at a dystopian, the question is how does this compare to Stalin's Siberia or modern-day North Korea? A shortage of consumer goods and rampant disease do not a dystopian make. Hunger and pestilence are humankind's eternal companions. We keep them at bay for only short periods of time throughout history. In other words, a dystopian requires more. It's a heck of a lot easier to research history than to create an entire world.

Looking at the list, we see people arguing over what novels are really dystopian. Catch-22 is on the list. Nonsensical power structure that leads people who follow the rules to death? Check. Rules that bring about extreme paranoia and oppression? Check. And yet isn't it historical fiction? It's a novel about a specific place and time in history. 

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is on the list too, and I'd like to protest that. It takes place in the future, and horrible things happen to some specific characters. But in general, society seems to be a kinder place with great advances in medicine and education. Look, bad things have to happen to your main characters or nobody would read your story. But that doesn't make it dystopian.

Here's a tough one: Watership Down. Dystopia? I don't know! Horrible things happen to several societies of rabbits. Each society has a particularly awful way of dealing with life's harshness. There is a way out, but it comes with a huge price attached. The stakes are life and death. Of course, it's about rabbits in a field in England. What do you think? Dystopian or not?

-- Kate, Miss Perfecting the Pages


C. K. Kelly Martin said...

I agree with you about The Adoration of Jenna Fox. I guess I would categorize it as sci-fi but not dystopian. I never thought of Watership Down as dystopian either but now that you've posed the question I'm starting to wonder...I don't know! My grasp of the genre is very shaky.

Jennifer Hoffine said...

Watership Down Dystopian? No. It seems closer to fantasy or speculative fiction...but maybe I'm just splitting hares (har, har).

Adoration of Jenna Fox could be considered straight up sci-fi, but I still consider it Dystopian because it uses elements from our current culture (differences in health care between the haves and have nots) to highlight what might happen in an extreme version of that in our future. To me, that's a better definition of Dystopian than the stuff about opression and paranoia...because, as you so aptly pointed out, there's plenty of that stuff in our present and past.

Christina Farley said...

Fantastic post. But then anything with Watership Down is fantastic. I've forgotten about that book! So glad you reminded me of it because I A- DORE it. That was the first book I really ever read and I couldn't put it down. Crazy, huh?

DeenaML said...

I agree that JENNA FOX = sci-fi, not dystopian. But I think those who like dystopian might enjoy JENNA FOX.

WATERSHIP DOWN = I can't read it and couldn't even follow the movie in 5th grade. Yawnsville. I guess in general I don't do rabbits. (Sorry, Christine!)

I usually think of dystopian as stories where an attempted utopian society goes wrong/the main character sees something wrong with it and tries to overcome the totalitarian-like control.

Kate Fall said...

Ha, good one, Jennifer! Deena, count me in with those who adore Watership Down. It moves at a slow pace at times but the different rabbit societies are all sorts of crazy. They find all these supposed utopias that are fundamentally sick.

I don't know, Jennifer, I don't remember the "have nots" having things worse than today in Jenna Fox. But maybe in the sequel, which I'm dying to read and sounds more extreme. There are definitely points made in that novel about what money can buy, but money buys you better health today and we don't call our own society dystopian. It seemed like the Fox's spent most of their money on deception and breaking the rules of a society trying to get it right. Like what the Fox's did that we would find wrong, their own society also found wrong.

Sumiko Saulson said...

Watership Down is not itself a dystopian novel but the rabbits, in seeking a new home, must escape at least one dystopian society. The one where the rabbits have actually accepted snaring and death as a part of their life fits dystopia in every sense of the word, and the dictatorship of Woundwart might.