My Spell Check doesn't recognize the word dystopia. Do YOU?
The first time that I heard the term "dystopian fiction" it was in association with Stephanie Meyers' science fiction novel The Host. I can't honestly recall whether or not it was a book review, but I was reading a lot of them at the time. The word had me befuddled and lost. I knew that The Host was a science fiction novel and at the time had a general idea that it was about some kind of zombie (it isn't; it's about body snatchers) but the only thing I could figure was that somebody had misunderstood the concept behind Utopia (more on that below) and was spelling it wrong.
The odd thing is that I'm not sure how I got set straight. I think that I went to dictionary.com to look up the meaning of the word (a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding). Anyway, once I realized just what dystopian fiction was, I realized that I'd been reading it for years, and loving it. I run through dystopian movies, I read dystopian novels, and I love every one that I've tried. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's my favorite genre.
Only I think of it as dystopian horror rather than dystopian science fiction.
Most people have heard that term at least!
When I was growing up, the term "Utopia" was tossed around quite frequently. I think that some people used it in place of the word "paradise" and to mean roughly the same thing. Any place that was considered to be beautiful and pleasant was a utopia. I've heard people talk about their personal utopia. But these people are discounting the ultimate meaning of the term, which is more complex than that. And in some ways simpler than that.
Although he probably wasn't the originator of the term utopia, Sir St. Thomas More was the author who penned the novel Utopia, which is how many of us have come to know the term. My husband describes a utopia as the "ideal unreality." In fact, the theme behind the Utopia book is ideas and association.
These days, some people view Utopia as being about the government and its essential (or nonessential) involvement in our lives, the formation of society (specifically the perfect society) and the creation of a system that promotes peace. For my part, I've always thought of utopia as being centered around a commune and based on communist ideals. I think of a utopia as a place where everyone has enough. I'm sure I'll have more to say about communism at a later date.
I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that the novel is available for your Kindle (and probably for your Nook as well) for free. It would be unfair of me not to mention that if you purchase the paperback of the book through this link, I get a small commission for directing you to Amazon for your purchase. If you have a reader or tablet, I highly recommend getting the classic books on your device rather than purchasing the paperbacks. Save space, save trees, and save green!
A utopia is a perfect world, a perfect society in which there is no hunger or violence. Everyone is happy and disease doesn't exist. There is no dissent. A dystopia is the polar opposite, an environment where the majority are hungry and there is constant war. There is often an oppressive big government in a dystopian society, one which wishes for nothing more than to control the people.
As my husband put it, a dystopia is the ultimate reality.
There is no perfect society. But there are plenty of societies around the world that have faded into decay and ruin. Look on Flickr under urban decay and see what you find. Some of those pictures are featured on this page, because they are prime examples of what a dystopia is. A dystopia is a ruined society.
The question that is often prominent is "who ruined the society." There are examples throughout dystopian fiction of societies ruined when people turn on one another, societies ruined by corporations, and societies ruined by the government.
New word: Allegory
I'm giving you a new word: Allegory. According to Dictionary.com, an allegory is defined as: "a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another." One example of a very famous allegory is The Wizard of Oz.
Allegories are generally political. An example of this is Gregory Maguire's adaptation of The Wizard of Oz: Wicked (which I will openly admit to not understanding!). Dystopian political allegories, such as The Hunger Games (which I write about frequently) can be either right wing or left wing dystopian societies. In other words, in some cases the big corporations are responsible for having destroyed the society, and in others, it's the big government that has come to oppress the people.
Not all dystopian fiction is political, and not all dystopian fiction is allegorical. In fact, I was surprised by the definition of allegory in that not all allegories are political. I had thought they were, and could never figure out how I didn't understand the politics of certain allegories!
1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451
The following novels constitute a trinity of some of the best dystopian fiction ever written. Each has its own predictive qualities, and that is what makes these novels so terrifying. I believe that every library should include these dystopian classics. Read them, then read them to your children. Examine the themes of the novels together and be prepared to answer questions (both those belonging to your children and those belonging to you). I recommend reading any dystopian fiction with an open mind!
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, is a brilliant novel set in a future where there are no books. The firemen are tasked with the responsibility of burning all of the books in the world. This is the story of one of those firemen. The book is a classic, well worth adding to your library!
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is somehow predictive -- and utterly terrifying. The book accurately predicts some of our modern conveniences in the utopian society of the future, where the people are under the perfect control of the ruling class. We must pray that the future for our own society isn't so "utopian!"
George Orwell's classic, 1984 has given us several cultural phrases that are commonly in use today. Have you ever heard the term "Big Brother?" What about "Thought Police" or "Orwellian?" These terms come from George Orwell, and specifically his novel 1984. Terrifyingly accurate!
Most people have heard of Soylent Green. You might be like me in that you've never seen the movie (in my case, I haven't run into it on television and don't want to purchase a movie I haven't seen at least once), but you've probably heard of it. Soylent Green is a cultural phenomenon, and on the off chance that you've never heard of it (and that you won't Google it now that you have), I won't tell you what the big secret of the movie is, mainly because the point I'm trying to make has nothing to do with the secret.
I wanted to use Soylent Green as an example of a Right Wing dystopian society. As I define the term, right-wing dystopia refers to a dystopian society in which the "right wing" has "won." In this case, the corporations control the society through their provision of foodstuffs; in this case, soylent green. There is more to the story than that, but you'll have to either watch it or find your own spoilers, since I won't provide any here!
Although I'm sure that there will be some disagreements with this one, I believe 1984, with its big government is left-wing dystopia. The political left wing in the United States is in support of bigger government and more regulations. The left-wing tends to want more laws and more control by the government of the people over which it rules.
In 1984, the large government has taken over total control of the people, watching everything that they do ("Big Brother") and regulation thought and activities of the people.
You might consider 1984 to be classic horror, or predictive (which it certainly is, with the predicted technology in the book, such as the CCTVs that are everywhere to monitor possible criminal activity). What's going to come next? The dystopian society of the film Minority Report.
Minority Report is what I would consider a cultural dystopia in which the society simply goes crazy in its attempt to prevent crime, to the point of putting criminals into jail in order to stop the criminals before they can commit their crimes. Is this where our society is headed?
On a final note, I would like to point out that dystopian fiction takes more than one form. There are, of course, the classic books that most people have heard of. There are also obviously dystopian movies, such as Soylent Green and Minority Report or even The Matrix. Dystopian fiction can be right wing, left wing, or cultural. It might even be allegorical. No matter what, however, it always makes a serious impression on the person who is reading or viewing, and is meant to make a point. You can learn a lot about an author by the type of fiction they write, and dystopian fiction, particularly political dystopian fiction, can be very interesting.
It's even more interesting to make the point of discovering what type of political system exists within the dystopian world. I've known many people who have seemed to think that all dystopia is right wing (upsetting for a dystopia-loving wingnut!), regardless of the theme of the story. There is a lot that can be learned through an exploration of dystopian fiction. I'd like for you to keep checking back since I'll be adding to this page. You can also either follow my blog or you can follow me on Twitter. I look forward to offering you some interesting dystopian novels!
I write about several topics (on my blog and on platforms like Zujava). My blog is a source where you can find a full listing of the articles I've written about books and writing, and I hope that you'll take the time to check it out. I work very hard on my articles and if you're interested in the book reviewing and blogging world, I am doing my best to build a good repertoire of articles that will hopefully help you to get started and continue well. I also use this blog for memes.