As I said when I reviewed The Maze Runner, the YA genre, and, to a lesser extent, fiction in general, is being flooded with novels falling under the dystopian genre. Thus, I've decided to talk about the genre, what it is and maybe clear up some confusion (though I'll probably just make things even more confusing). While the YA flood is recent, the genre is nowhere near new. Within the dystopian genre fall such classics as H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, George Orwell’s 1984, and, one of my favorites, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Recently in the College Students group on Goodreads we had a discussion about the meaning of the term “dystopian fiction,” spurred by a question about lumping dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels together as one genre.
So, first of all, what is a dystopian novel? I suppose, like with many genres, the definition is subjective. According to Wikipedia, in literature, a dystopia is “an often futuristic society that has degraded into a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian. Dystopian literature has underlying cautionary tones, warning society that if we continue to live how we do, this will be the consequence.” Dystopian novels, though generally revolving around government repression, can involve a wide variety of situations, from the kind of micro-dystopia of The Maze Runner, to a more science fiction-like one in M.T. Anderson’s Feed, to combinations of basically everything, like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which includes government repression, corporate control, and a generally screwed up society. I think that dystopian fiction has probably become so popular as of late because of this multitude of possible conditions, as well as the eerie possibility that some of these worlds, like Atwood’s, could truly manifest if we continue our current lifestyles.
As to the question that prompted this post, I believe that, while there are a number of post-apocalyptic books that fall under the category of dystopian (such as Oryx and Crake), an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic novel is only dystopian if the initial or final society is truly dystopian, as I defined the term above. For example, I Am Legend (though I’ve only seen the movie), portraying the life of one of the few remaining people on Earth after a disease turns everyone into monsters, is definitely post-apocalyptic, but it does not depict any sort of dystopian society. Maybe the society was dystopian beforehand, but we have no way of knowing that. Really, though, I’m getting a bit too technical about this. Like with all art forms (or really, like with everything), the line between dystopia and other genres can be pretty blurry, but, of course, that doesn’t make one genre any less meaningful/significant than another.
So, before I totally ramble myself into oblivion, that’s what I have to say on the dystopian genre. I love it because of its endless possibilities: everything from the fully technological society of Feed, where the control and corruption is nearly invisible at the surface level, to the barren (in multiple ways) and blatantly repressed world of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, to the closed society of The Giver, where the inhabitants know nothing of their society’s reality. I’m excited to see what the future holds for the genre!
What dystopian novels have you enjoyed? Anything to add to the difference between dystopian/post-apocalyptic or about the genre in general?
What dystopian novels have you enjoyed? Anything to add to the difference between dystopian/post-apocalyptic or about the genre in general?
I've read three of the classics, of course -- 1984, "A Brave New World", and "A Handmaid's Tale", if that counts. I don't think it should, from a purist perspective, but it's similar in most respects.ReplyDelete
"The Iron Heel" (Jack London, 1906) is an interesting case, for it documents the struggle of a failed revolutionist, Ernest Everhard, to fight against a protofascist state that intends to create a world dystopia -- but from the perspective of the FUTURE, which is set in a utopia of sorts. It's my favorite London novel.
I loved Veronica Roth's Divergent, which comes out in May. It's going to be a huge dystopian series. I predict it's going to be the new Hunger Games. Loved it!ReplyDelete
I stick to a distinction that I heard Margaret Atwood give: dystopian means that there is order (often too much order) where there is generally no order at all in post-apocalyptic literature. They are two very different things, i.ei 1984 vs. The Road.ReplyDelete
Thanks for posting this, I love dystopia!
To edit that previous statement: I love dystopian literature. Oops!ReplyDelete
Nice job defining and distinguishing dystopia and post-apocalyptic. I've never given too much thought to separating the two, mostly because its just easier to lump them in a singular tag.ReplyDelete
My favorite recent work of dystopian literature is The Book by M. Clifford. It explores a futuristic version of Chicago in which all literature and reading is done through digital devices and the hero inadvertently discovers that the government has been editing and altering classic literature. Great story, superb writing and definitely a thought-provoking slightly cautionary tale too.
I love dystopian novels. I recently read the Hunger Games trilogy, which I would classify as dystopic. I've also read Genesis by Bernard Beckett (a surprise to that ending, at least one I hadn't picked up on while reading). I've read The Handmaid's Tale and The Year of the Flood (which I believe is a sequel to Oryx and Crake, even though I haven't read that one). I loved The Giver--read it for school in 9th grade. Also read Anthem in 10th grade--a GREAT book. I loved The Time Machine, but I haven't read 1984 (ashamed of this). Would Fahrenheit 451 be a dystopian novel? I read it so long ago I don't remember too much of it aside from book-burning and some robots.ReplyDelete
I think that some books, such as Idlewild by Nick Sagan and maybe even The Host by Stephenie Meyer, fall sort of in the gray area. They might not seem dystopian at first, but thinking about the definition you gave, I think they would qualify.
My goodness, I've read a lot of this genre and didn't even realize it!
I quite like the classic dystopias - 1984 and the like - and I really enjoy Margaret Atwood's novels. The other great dystopia I've read recently is one that I had the privilege to publish - Broken by Susan Jane Bigelow. It definitely fits your characteristics - a fearsomely oppressive, yet somehow mostly unquestioned government, ruthless ploys for power, and a cowed society.ReplyDelete
Wonderful post! I enjoy the classics like 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale so now I'm trying to read more recent dystopian literature. I read The Year of the Flood recently and enjoyed it so I'm looking for more in the genre.ReplyDelete
I looked up this information yesterday. I'm reading Hunger Games which is based on a Dystopian Society. I've read a number of books in this genre and never knew it was a genre. Informative post.ReplyDelete
I've read 1984, Oryx & Crake, The Handmaid's Tale and recently The Year of the Flood. I think they're all fantastic. I also agree with difference between post-apocalyptic vs dystopian.ReplyDelete
I also keep hearing about how great The Hunger Games is, I guess I should really read it.
Dystopian literature is my second favorite genre to read (I think Romance Novels would be my first). I really enjoyed The Hunger Games. Another book that I read recently that based on that wiki definition would be Across the Universe. Another really good book!ReplyDelete
Great post! I think your distinction is spot on. The line gets crossed in a lot of stories and that's were confusion arises.ReplyDelete
And I Am Legend was not a dystopian society in the beginning. Things were pretty ordinary. You should read it though, it's really good.
I read Shades of Gray by Jasper Fforde last year, another dystopian tale. So much government control that it's ridiculous.
I have only really read some of the classics from when I was in school, but your post really prompted me to think about this genre again :)ReplyDelete
I have loved every single dystopian book that I have read. And the cool thing is that they are all really pretty different from each other. Love that.ReplyDelete
Other than 1984 I've probably never read a dystopian novel...unless, oh Wait! I guess that there are parts...or maybe all of Poison Study is dystopian, but not the sequel....ReplyDelete
Great post! Answered some questions for me and gave me some books to contemplate putting on the TBR!
This is a great post -- I love love love dystopian literature. I devour books full of dystopian-ness for breakfast. Okay, but really... My absolute favorite books of all time are Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. I also loved Brave New World, The Giver, the Hunger Games series, and Jonathan Lethem's Gun with Occasional Music. And even though I haven't gotten to read them yet, I have tons more on my bookshelf - Margaret Atwood, A Clockwork Orange, Ayn Rand, Battle Royale, Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, and some of the new YA dystopian stuff like Matched and Feed. It's probably my favorite genre of all.ReplyDelete
I think the distinction between dystopian and post-apocalyptic is an important one to make, and I think you did a great job of distinguishing. The lines between them can definitely get blurry sometimes.
I've read a number of the dystopian, classic novels-- 1984, Brave New World, the Time Machine. But, I didn't much care for any of them. I did read the City of Ember though, and I thought it was absolutely fantastic.ReplyDelete
I love dystopian movies and I love post-apocolyptic video games with hints of dystopia. So it sounds like I really need to expand my library of dystopian books! I'm not sure why I haven't yet!
I really enjoyed this post. I'm going to go out on a limb here and tell you that I was not really clear on what constituted a book as dystopian before reading this post. I had some idea but a little different than what I thought... You certainly cleared up a few things for me.ReplyDelete
I have read 1984 and really enjoyed that one. I knew it was considered dystopian but I wasn't sure exactly why until now.
Here is an interesting thought for you. I recently read a "Christian" dystopian novel, called The Last Christian in which society no longer exists as we know it and people have been implanted to with microchips that practically allow them to live in a virtual world all the time, controlled of course by the government. It was totally refreshing and different for Christian Fiction...
Thanks for the great post!
I think Dystopian books might be my favourite genre to read. I'm not sure what I love about them, perhaps its the characters determination/desperation to overcome what seems to be impossible odds. Their quest to change things, protect others-set things right. The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games, Fahrenheit 451, Delirium and recently Divergent are all titles that I have loved.ReplyDelete
Thanks guys! Glad to hear I cleared things up for some of you! :) I've been meaning to read Fahrenheit 451 for ages, but haven't gotten around to it. I'll make sure to check out the other books you all mentioned!ReplyDelete
Excellent post -- I think it's important to note the difference between dystopian and post-apocolypic fiction. I'm a huge fan of Unwind (by Shusterman) and it's easy to get students to move from it to other dystopian titles.ReplyDelete
It irritates me when people try to label such novels as Life as We Knew It ( by Pfeffer) as dystopian. While I love that novel too, it is truly post-apacolyptic.
While I think that the distinction you make is an important and true one, I gotta say that I pretty completely dislike dystopian novels. I hadn't been able to put my finger on exactly why until relatively recently: the ending are always unsatisfying.ReplyDelete
The entire genre is essentially foreshadowing the future of society if we don't stop [insert negative activity, belief], and if the author's goal is to "scare" people into changing, they can't very well put a happy ending at the story's conclusion.
I think that real life is scary and stressful enough -- I want the stories I read to end on an "up" note, if not a happy one. I suppose that's rather small-minded (because that's not how real life is) but so it goes.
The one classic dystopian novel that never seems to get mentioned is Yevgeny Zamyatin's We. It was published in 1921, and as you can tell, the author is Russian, so it gives one hell of an interesting change in perspective from the standard western view of future dystopia.ReplyDelete
I have been reading a lot of Dystopian fiction also, (and also have noticed an abundance of it available to YA.) Like it seems that realistic fiction novels are far and few between these days.ReplyDelete
Anyway, I just finished Delirium by Lauren Oliver and absolutely loved it. Oliver spends a lot of time creating a dystopian world for her readers, and a beautiful love story.
I have started countless others in the past month, XVI and Hunger Games to name a couple and I just couldn't get into them. I did promise that I would give Hunger Games another shot though.
I totally agree that a dystopian novel is a cautionary tale that gives the reader road signs indicating how the present could become a dystopian future. You should see your own society in the reflection of the dystopian society. In my novel (e-book) Against Nature I start in the present and take the reader into the dystopian world. The catalyst is a global pandemic; a disease without a cure. I consciously put the road signs and reflections in the book. It’s what makes it a dystopian novel.ReplyDelete
I think recent YA dystopia lacks the reflection of our own society. Hunger Games is a great example. Though an entertaining read, it lacks any social commentary. How did we get to such a society? Who or what does the “capital” represent? Is it a critique of reality TV where we watch groups of people emotionally tear each other apart and this is the progression of our current popular culture? If so, the reader will never see the (non-existent) road signs (especially the younger reader.) I also found Cormac McCarthy’s The Road lacked any hint as to how we got to the post-apocalyptic world. It too was a good read, but it didn’t have the elements I look for in a dystopia. I didn’t learn much about our present social condition from either. Brave New World, 1984, It Can’t Happen Here, and Animal Farm do that very well. I tried to emulate that with Against Nature.