What is Dystopian Fiction?

Phyl CampbellStarred Page By Phyl Campbell, 27th May 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/eg4lgt4f/
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Books>Dramatic Fiction

Apocalypse Now! Rise of the Machines! Wall-E! Divergent! Hunger Games! It may be the end of the world as we know it, and our media is certainly putting a spotlight on on fears. But the book genre of dystopian fiction can't help but betray some of our hopes as well.

Dystopia Defined

Most book genres are things everyone knows: Children, Young Adult, Romance, Western, Science Fiction, Fantasy, General Fiction, Non Fiction. However, in some libraries Science Fiction and Fantasy are combined. Some authors combine these elements and others in seemingly emerging genres of fiction. Dystopian Fiction is one of those emerging genres that has really been around for quite some time -- at least since George Orwell's Animal Farm.

But if the term confuses you, think of its opposite. The opposite of dystopia is utopia. A utopia is a perfect place. Some people would say heaven, or heaven on earth. Dystopia then, is the opposite. In dystopian fiction, there is generally a small, happy ruling class, but the point of view for the story is someone who is outside that looking in. Generally, the person is looking for revenge, looking to save someone or something, or trying to restore or preserve a more acceptable way of life than the status quo allows.

Some very popular television shows would be correctly categorized as dystopias. Lost, Under the Dome, Revolution, Believe, Star-Crossed -- all are presenting alternate earths where either war, apocalypse, or extreme tragedy on massive scale has happened and the people involved are trying to forge ahead or return the world to normal. Some people call these shows post-apocalyptic, and that's fair, too.

Why now?

So why does it seem like dystopias loom everywhere we turn? How does a dystopia differ from science fiction or fantasy? Those are both very good questions.

I can't really answer the first, except for my own observations -- and I prefer reading dystopias or seeing distopian films much more than television programs. Of the television programs mentioned in the previous section, I watched only Star-Crossed and Revolution. However, due to social media and pop culture, I became familiar with the others. What engages me about this genre is the fortitude of the unlikely heroes and heroines. The double-identity of figures as they must show one face to the establishment while knowing they lead the rebellion creates a tension and intrigue that appeals to me. However, life can be too much like that at times. I want to get to the hopeful part. I don't like being left hanging. Also, I am much more about the character development and a good plan than just shooting a bunch of mutants. I like the emotions to be messy, not the gore. Therefore, I probably won't be watching the Tom Cruise movie that is every other commercial on television. Even if it might be satisfying to watch him die. Every. Single. Day. Ah, I should give the poor overworked, underpaid actor a break. Oh -- wait. I'm the underpaid one here!

Do you know a Dystopia? Would You like a List?

I've mentioned that dystopian fiction has been around for a long time. George Orwell's Animal Farm, William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Invisible Man by HG Wells, Journey to the Center of the Earth (Jules Verne) -- these titles barely scratch the surface of early dystopian fiction. In each the leader of the dystopia creates absolute havoc for everyone else in the novel.

Authors from my childhood include L'Engle and Lowry -- and their respective books A Wrinkle In Time and The Giver -- the latter of which will be turned into a movie later this year. A Wrinkle In Time was released as a Disney Family Movie in 2003.

Authors whose dystopias I discovered in the past decade include DePrau, Haddix, Pullman --authors of City of Ember (movie 2008), Shadow Children, and His Dark Materials (2007 movie Golden Compass).

Today, new authors are emerging nearly every day. Clare, Collins, Ishiguru, McMann, Meyer, Patterson, Roth, Westerfield -- these are just some of the few.

Cassandra Clare

The 2013 movie The Mortal Instruments stemmed from Clare's series of the same name. The first book, City of Bones, was published in 2007. The last book will come out sometime this year (2014).

Clary must learn ancient runes and new fighting styles to save her world from demons after her mother disappears. She also learns interesting and unsettling things about both her parents and gains new insights on family. The use of magic in this series places it on a border between dystopia and traditional fantasy, but given that the emphasis is on the humans in the alternate reality fighting things that are "other", and the otherwise modern-day setting, I include it here as other critics include it in their dystopian lists.

Suzanne Collins

May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor... Collin's Hunger Games Series second book Catching Fire was recently released to DVD and BlueRay. The star, Jennifer Lawrence, though not unknown before, is now a household name in many places. Lawrence plays the dystopian heroine Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to battle 25 other kids to the death to spare her sister from the same fate. The books came out in 2008-2010. The 3rd book is being split into two movies -- one will come out this November and the final film most likely November 2015. So far, I like how closely the movies have honored the stories of the books. Some movies don't.

Kazuo Ishiguro

The author of Never Let Me Go (film 2010) inspired my own book Mother Confessor. Both stories present rumors and lies that have perpetrated their way into the official history of the characters. This false history leads to false hope and uneasy decisions of young people who don't know the whole truth, will never know the whole truth, but have to live life (until death) anyway.

Never Let Me Go tells the story of a house of children who are clones. They are taught, schooled, and cared for. However, when they grow up, their bodies are used for parts as their clone hosts need them. Most clones die after a few "donations." A group of clones tries to escape their grim situation.

Lisa McMann

McMann's Unwanteds Series is not yet complete, and though there have been rumors, I haven't seen any movie trailers for the series yet. This series is often characterized as the juxtaposition between Harry Potter and Hunger Games, but those familiar with Haddix's Shadow Children or Lowry's The Giver will also see parallels.. In my opinion, it only borders on Dystopia because the heavy reliance on magic makes it a fantasy piece, however the false Utopia of the "wanted" side of the book really allows critics to justify its inclusion.

McMann's series features twin brothers. One is Wanted for a position in the high council. The other is Unwanted -- because he likes to create art. But when the Unwanted twin is taken to the death farm -- well, that's when the true story begins.

Stephenie Meyer

Meyer's Twilight Series certainly attracted more attention than her stand-lone novel-turned-movie, Host. But I thought Host was better in several ways.

No battles between humans, vampires, and werewolves -- we all know Jacob is hotter, but if Jacob married Bella, there's be no Renesmee...

It was easier to suspend belief about an alien takeover than it was to imagine a world with vampires and werewolves that lived among people and no one suspected.

It really impressed upon the reader/viewer that not all takeovers are hostile, that not all aliens (from Mars or Mexico) are out for blood, and that harmonious relationships could exist if both sides are willing. The problems occur when both sides are unwilling to live together or learn from each other.

Garth Nix

His Keys to The Kingdom series, released from 2003-2010, features an asthmatic orphan who is supposed to die on Monday. Instead of meeting his maker, Arthur gets involved in a battle to save his world from dark forces beyond.

Each book is titled after a different day of the week. Each enemy was a guardian of time that decided power was more important than guardianship. Arthur must collect all the keys and regain the power. However, the guardians are not the only ones with their own ideas. Even the keys themselves have ideas and struggle for power.

James Patterson

James Patterson crime and adventure novels are known to many.

In Maximum Ride, a group of children have been surgically altered and then kept in hiding until they escape the lab where they have been hidden. One major feature that has been altered is that they have wings and fly.

Patterson's newer series Witch and Wizard involves twins who realize that they have magical powers. They realize this as government is pounding on their door, demanding their arrest, wanting them dead.

These two dystopian series have won Patterson the adoration of even younger audiences and fans of the dystopian genre. Because I liked these YA books, i started to read Alex Cross and his Women's Murder Club series. I imagine other younger (and certainly younger than me) readers will make similar jumps from YA to adult fiction through favorite authors who make it possible by writing in both worlds.

Veronica Roth

Roth's Divergent series books were released from 2011 to 2013. The first film is in theaters now (I haven't seen it yet). The parallels of this book to Hunger Games include the post-apocalyptic city being split into factions and the factions being seemingly on the verge of war with each other. Though the factions in Roth's novel are supposed to be equal, one clearly dominates in terms of wealth and power. When the heroine of the novel moves from one faction to a different one, in part to hide her affinity for multiple factions, tensions rise to the breaking point.

Scott Westerfeld

The Uglies Series (2005-2007) imagines a world where people are made especially aware of their physical imperfections, and then physically perfected in an operation called "The Surge." During patients' beautification, they also have their brains treated so they will be easier to control. I know that sounds nothing like today's culture of bullies, plastic surgery, magazine models, and so forth, but then, it is fiction.

Differentiating Between Dystopias and other Genres

In the world of creating a good story, not every author fit cleanly in one genre. This is great for readers, but may create a categorical nightmare for librarians. When some people place a series in a genre and others don't, it can certainly cause confusion. I've alluded to some of my own misgivings above, including:

Dystopian dramas are almost always some form of science fiction, but not every science fiction novel is a dystopia. Dystopias generally feature people over animals or alien life forms, though aliens can and often exist in dystopias.

The hero or heroine is always an underdog. Underdog-as-hero has become the norm for fiction, but it is essential to the Dystopian genre.

Some people say that when the hero wins in a dystopian novel, then the novel is no longer dystopian. There is both agreement and argument over this. For example, Harry Potter has 11 years as an ordinary orphan before he realizes he is a wizard. However, once Hagrid helps him escape the Dursleys, he learns he is famous. He is The Boy Who Lived, the Chosen One -- all of that. So it is no surprise when he is pitted up against the great big baddie Voldemort. And less of a surprise when he wins. He has losses, but they are not terrible (other than his parents and his mentor). He gets the girl and he gets a life. The later novels in the series (and the movies) have dystopian tones, because times do get bleak for Harry, Ron, and Hermione. But the hero wins.

In dystopian films and novels, it is just as likely that the hero dies. Or that the hero's lover, parents, pets, and everything loved and important gets taken away. Support and mentorship is a double-edged sword in dystopian fiction, with mentors equally willing to betray, back-stab, throw their young understudies under the bus, or use them as pawns in some larger agenda.

Though there are exceptions, dystopias deal more with alternate-worlds and scientific advances than magic, swords, and sorcery. The fear that the alternate world view is possible is one of the things that draws people in to this genre. One of the most frightening and yet compelling things about this genre is the feeling that it COULD happen.

Book Lovers, Rejoice!!

Whether you love a good dystopian drama or prefer lighthearted comedies, whirlwind romances, or living high on the hog in the wild, wild west, tell me about the books you love. Add to my dystopian list, challenge it, or ignore it all together as you tell me about the books you can't live without. Trust me, I will understand.

Check out my articles here.
Or discover more on my webpage, www.phylcampbell.com.
You can also like my author page on Facebook.

I have a full review of Divergent coming, but needed to explain the genre first. Now I have, so not much longer to wait!!

Tags

Animal Farm, Apocolypse, Collins, Distopia, Divergent, Duprau, Fantasy, Fiction, Giver, Golding, Haddix, Host, Hunger Games, Lengle, Lord Of The Flies, Mcmann, Meyer, Nix, Orwell, Patterson, Pullman, Roth, Science Fiction, Shadow Children, Slade, Uglies, Unwanteds, Utopia, Westerfield, Ya Books

Meet the author

author avatar Phyl Campbell
I am "Author, Mother, Dreamer." I am also teacher, friend, Dr. Pepper addict, night-owl. Visit my website -- phylcampbell.com -- or the "Phyl Campbell Author Page" on Facebook.

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
28th May 2014 (#)

Thanks Mark, for fast moderation and star merit.

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author avatar cnwriter..carolina
28th May 2014 (#)

whatever it is...I love you so dearest Phyl...and nothing of import be,,,,

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
28th May 2014 (#)

Thanks, dear!!

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author avatar cnwriter..carolina
28th May 2014 (#)

I have added some of the pics to my netflix list...thanks so much...so the ass is being nice on your page now....oh oh oh...

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author avatar cnwriter..carolina
28th May 2014 (#)

fascinating this page in its entirety...

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
28th May 2014 (#)

I hope you will like them, Caro, and yes, it appears so. ;)

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author avatar Fern Mc Costigan
28th May 2014 (#)

We are seeing a lot in movies as well paperback, nice review as well bringing this topic into our forum, as always I tip my hat to you Phyl, by the way I'm a dude, cheers!

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author avatar Lady Aiyanna
28th May 2014 (#)

I have my James Patterson collection although I have looked through the others. Read my first James Patterson book in 2001. Thank you....

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
28th May 2014 (#)

Thanks Fern. I did correct your gender on my other piece! I have learned my lesson!

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
28th May 2014 (#)

Thanks, Lady A, for your kind and pertinent comment. I understood it, and you. Thanks.

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author avatar vellur
28th May 2014 (#)

A brilliant write explaining what Dystopian Fiction! Now I know what it is.

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
28th May 2014 (#)

Thanks, vellur! I'm so glad.

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
28th May 2014 (#)

Oh! I was going to put "The End of the World As We Know It" on here as my video. Fully forgot after getting all the mini-pics and synopses done. There were so many... I had 6 pages of notes!!! Well, the article is overlong as it was, still I missed setting the tone for the video and the forgetting to include it!! Must do better next time!!

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author avatar n.c.radomes
28th May 2014 (#)

Your wealth of knowledge about writers' products is amazing. Keep it up!

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
28th May 2014 (#)

Thanks, n.c. Reading is a wonderful hobby. I do love it.

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author avatar Feisty
28th May 2014 (#)

What a wonderful and well-researched article!

I don't think many of us have to look far for our real-life dystopia -- we are living it.

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
28th May 2014 (#)

No freaking kidding, Fiesty! No freaking kidding!!

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author avatar C.D. Moore
28th May 2014 (#)

Very educational, entertaining and well written article Phyl

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
29th May 2014 (#)

Thanks, C.D.

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
29th May 2014 (#)

Phyl, This is interesting - Of course I have read some of these and dystopia works actually go back at least as early as the late 1890s (with HG Well's Time Machine and When the Sleeper Wakes) and may even be much, much older. It also goes into SciFi with 2001 A Space Odyssey.

To my mind the problem with this genre is the failure to find a solution to the problem - a pity because I like the beginning of most and hate the end.

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author avatar Ptrikha
30th May 2014 (#)

Can we categorize "Time Machine" in this category?
I like the way Phyl has touched on this concept.

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
29th May 2014 (#)

Some people do not like dystopia. Other critics say it can only be dystopia if there is no hope -- Awakenings and Flowers for Algernon being two examples. Many critics hate one of the series above (avoiding spoilers) because the hero or heroine dies, but the death of that character is what cliches the dystopian genre classification.

Those who want hope should stick to good old fashioned adventure. ;) Happy reading!

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author avatar Pollyal
29th May 2014 (#)

I get so engrossed in the stories that i read that if they dont have some hopeful ending, something good at the end, I feel its my life that got spoilt .....I would like to read the names of the books you mentioned here..thanks for sharing :)

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
30th May 2014 (#)

Thanks, Pollyal. Actually, if you need a happy ending, this may be a genre for you to avoid. ;) Happy reading!

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author avatar Connie McKinney
30th May 2014 (#)

Phyl ,thanks for a well-researched piece explaining what dystopian fiction is. I've read some of the classics: Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, etc. I should give some of the modern books you mentioned a chance. Thanks for expanding my literary world.

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
30th May 2014 (#)

Connie- you should. Thanks!!

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
30th May 2014 (#)

In reply to Ptrikha, if I read Wells' _Time Machine_, it was a long time ago. If there is a desolate, helpless feeling to tone of the story, then dystopia is an apt description. If the characters are simply having adventures time traveling, then it is Science Fiction or adventure and not dystopian.

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author avatar Ptrikha
1st Jun 2014 (#)

Thanks for the explanation Phyl

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author avatar Teila
31st May 2014 (#)

Very informative and just recently, I was introduced to steampunk which is part of this whole genre.

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
31st May 2014 (#)

I know much less about steampunk. It is its own sub-genre in fantasy and sci-fi. But I am sure authors cross over between adventures, time travel, dystopian dysfunction, and other supernatural elements.

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author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
1st Jun 2014 (#)

Thanks Phyl for an erudite post. We maybe crossing into another realm of life with so many authors and films on this subject. Hope dystopia is a short cut to utopia! siva

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
2nd Jun 2014 (#)

Oh, that would be wonderful! !

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author avatar Kingwell
1st Jun 2014 (#)

Thanks for this.

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
2nd Jun 2014 (#)

Thanks, Kingwell.

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