At the recent Storymakers conference, I taught a class on Writing Dystopia. This week I’ll be turning that class into a series of blogs:
Yesterday we talked a little about the definition of dystopia, and today we’re going to talk about where dystopian fiction came from.
Before dystopia, we had utopia. Although the term comes from Thomas More’s book, Utopia, and is translated in that context as “no place”, utopian fiction had been around long before he put his name on it–all the way back to The Garden of Eden (and other paradise legends). Essentially, utopian fiction is stories of places where life and society are significantly better than the real world.
It was Plato who took it a step further, purposely creating a hypothetical society that ran according to his philosophical ideals. This concept is reflected in both Plato’s Republic, and his Timaeus and Criteas (both about Atlantis). I’ve read all three of these–The Republic for school, and the Atlantis books for a writing project that didn’t go anywhere–and let me tell you: DELIGHTFUL.
The problem with reading utopian fiction, from a modern perspective, is that it lacks one crucial element to good (modern) storytelling: conflict. These books–even More’s Utopia–are essentially academic. They present a theoretical world as a social commentary.
It’s not surprising then that dystopia is a reaction to utopia. In the 1500s and 1600s, utopian stories were the hot trend, and most followed a simple formula: a traveler gets lost, finds an unknown civilization and learns how they live, and then the traveler comes back home to tell everyone about great it was. It was in about 1605 when Joseph Hall wrote Mundus Alter Et Idem, the first dystopia, which used the same formula but with very different results: the traveler visited the lands of Crapulia (gluttons), Viraginia (nags), Moronia (fools) and Lavernia (theives). The book was satire, pointing a finger both at utopian fiction but also at many of the current social conventions.
And really, that’s the whole point of both utopian and dystopian fiction. Utopian fiction looks at current social problems and imagines how they could be fixed. Dystopian fiction looks at current social problems (and social “successes”) and imagines how they could get horribly worse.
It’s worth noting that even in the modern era, dystopia continues to be a reaction to utopian ideals. Some cases are very specific: Brave New World, a classic of modern dystopia, was written almost as a parody of H.G. Wells’ utopian novel Men Like Gods. But really, almost all dystopian novels take an idea that many might consider new and innovative and great and show how it could go wrong. Take Ally Condie’s Matched, for instance: her society is based on technological advances in psychoanalysis and genetic testing, positing that science can understand us so well that it can make better choices (about who we marry, or what career we pursue) than we can. Ally takes that ostensibly positive idea and illuminates the dark consequences.
I’ve speculated a few times on the blog about where the current rise in dystopian fiction is coming from and, while I’m not ready to commit to a firm theory, if there’s one thing that’s been historically clear about dystopia: it’s a reactionary genre for a dissatisfied audience.