Sub-genre of the Week: Dystopian
Last week, I talked about Epic Fantasy. This week I’ll be discussing one of everyone’s favorite genres: Dystopian (Science) Fiction. It also happens to be one of the most commonly misunderstood. Hopefully I can clear things up a bit.
Dystopian fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction that involves a societal structure argued to be a utopia by its administrators, which in fact suffers from some fatal flaw, such as authoritarianism or over-surveillance.
Dystopian fiction has a very distinguished history. Samuel Butler first published Erewhon: or, Over the Range in 1872, detailing a country in which the sick are criminals while criminals are considered sick. It could be argued to be a satirical utopia, as it comments on many aspects of Victorian society, and here we come across the first ambiguity of dystopian fiction. However, whichever way it is categorized, it was certainly an influence on later works.
For example, it greatly influenced Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, where society is divided into five major castes, raised in creches and assigned their roles in life. The novel is often considered a response to Huxley’s visit to Imperial Chemical Industries’ Brunner and Mond plant, and is an extension into the future of many of the principles of the Industrial Revolution, and represented many people’s fear of losing their individual identity. A further influence on Huxley was Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We, written in response to the authors life in Imperial Russian in the early 20th century, which reflected on the mass collectivization of labor.
The next major dystopian novel was George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984, which represented the increased uncertainty with government surveillance, the rise of communism, and gave rise to the popular icon “Big Brother”. Other famous dystopian novels include Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
More recently, we have Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a sickeningly accurate prediction of a more modern version of the Big Brother surveillance state.
And finally, we arrive at Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games series of novels, which spawned a vast tide of YA “dystopian” novels. The Hunger Games recalls Koushun Takami’s 1999 nove, Battle Royale, the story of a class of Japanese teenagers iset on an island for a game of survival where only one can remain. It remains to be seen whether this new wave of dystopian fiction can match up to the old giants of the genre. So far, I’d say it hasn’t.
Common Tropes and Conventions
A “perfect: society with one major flaw, generally the rampant suppression of a group or social freedom we take for granted today. Otherwise, not much else has to be in common.
Dystopian strongly crosses over with apocalyptic fiction, especially in the new wave coming out in the wake of The Hunger Games. It can also cross over with near-future SF, such as in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl.
Many dystopians, from Soylent Green to The Hunger Games have graced the big screen. They’re also common in Japanese manga and anime, such as Deadman Wonderland, where a privatized prison has become the new Disney World.
The new wave of YA dystopia is still going strong, and looks to keep on going for quite awhile. Whether adult dystopias will make the same comeback is uncertain. But the genre looks to be in no danger of slowing down.
9. Movie: Soylent Green
10. Anime/Manga: Deadman Wonderland
Goodreads list of Dystopian fiction.
Check in next time for a discussion of Portal Fantasy.