Monday, May 27, 2013

Dystopia and Disturbia

Photo Courtesy of Liqueur Felix

Last year, the YA author Saci Lloyd wrote a piece for the Guardian website, examining why dystopias are so popular among teenagers right now. To summarise, she argued that dystopias offer us a lens through which to critically examine contemporary society, so that we are in a position to make better choices for our future. The gloomy future ahead of most young people now (spiraling tuition fees, recession, climate change), she argues, is driving them toward dystopian fiction as a means of making sense of a crazy world, and hopefully thinking of how they can avoid such a fate. Being a dystopian author herself (see The Carbon Diaries and Momentum), you wouldn't expect her to say anything else I suppose... 

But she has an excellent point, and the fact remains that dystopia is still popular with young people a year and a half on from her piece being written. I pinched the title for this blog post from our school's reading challenge: the month of March is dedicated to all things dystopian. The kids can't get enough of it.

Recently, I did a talk for the school's "Lit Soc", which is an after school society organised by one of the English teachers. It seemed to make sense to me to discuss dystopias. I can't upload the presentation to here, unfortunately, but the main points are:

  1. Dystopias came about as a backlash against the idea of uninhibited progress being automatically a Very Good Thing. The term 'Utopia' was coined by Thomas More, in his book of the same name, written during the Renaissance. He assumed society would progress evermore until we reached an ideal Utopia. Dystopian writers don't see it that way. They argue that irresponsible, unreflective use of science and technology can make our lives worse not better. They have a deep seated wariness of 'progress' in the classic sense of the word.
  2. They do indeed reflect and critique contemporary society. To go back to Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, for example, it is clear that this is a satire of Stalinist Russia. Fast forward to The Hunger Games, and we can see a deep unease about reality TV going to its mad, violent conclusion, plus the 'hyperreality' prism through which digital media, TV etc makes us experience as 'reality'.
  3. The issue of individual rights and freedom colliding with collective state interests comes up again and again. In Brave New World, John the Savage sees the artificial society that's been created, in which everyone is pre-programmed to be happy with their lot, for what it is and demands 'the right to be unhappy', for to do so is to be human. Another example is Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, which robs Alex, the MC, of his free will by making him physically unable to commit or think about the acts of violence which have got him apprehended in the first place. 
I ended things with a rhetorical flourish, of course, by quoting the great George Orwell. He was talking about 1984, but I believe what he says applies to dystopias as a whole:

"The moral to be drawn from this dangerous, nightmare situation is a simple one. Don't let it happen. It depends on you."

So whilst I can't claim to be an expert on dystopian fiction (and no, I don't write it, which is the first thing many people assume when I tell them I'm a YA author), it's apparent to me that, whilst there may be a bit too much of it around right now, it remains a very important genre. Let's hope quality dystopian fiction keeps coming out, reminding us to stay vigilant, and to offer us that crucial lens through which to evaluate today's world.


  1. I liked dystopian fiction when I was a teen, and actually still do now, several years down the road. If I ever decided to write a science-fiction novel, it would fall into the dystopian genre, I think.

    I propose that, besides the hope of making sense of a crazy world, dystopia also prods our complacent minds in just the right way to wake us up. Perhaps a typical teenager might not see any dangers in reality TV, but by the Hunger Games' presentation of an extreme version, he or she is prompted to turn critical eyes on his/her own life. A certain amount of self-examination is a healthy thing, after all - we can even feel satisfied when we've looked at our lives and analyzed them. Dystopia offers that chance, but in a subtle way that doesn't irritate us with too much moralizing.

  2. Agreed. As Saci Lloyd says, the best dystopian fiction can prompt us in to undertaking a fundamental reevaluation of our lives.

  3. Enjoyed this post, Joe. It's interesting most people assume you write Dystopian fic, in my case it's vampires...probably of the sparkly variety.