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:
At LTUE (Life, The Universe and Everything, Science Fiction Symposium) this spring, I was on a panel of authors talking about dystopia, and we spent forty of the fifty minutes simply trying to define what dystopia is. Even after forty minutes we didn’t agree—we just decided to move on.
I think there are two big reasons that dystopia is so hard to define. The first is that some people confuse the definition of the word with the definition of the genre. The literal Greek translation of the word ‘dystopia’: “dys” meaning “bad” and “topia” meaning “place”, so some people claim that any book set in a bad place is a dystopia. I disagree with this definition pretty strongly. That makes as much sense as saying that the mystery genre is any book that contains a mystery, or that the romance genre is any book that contains romance. (I also think that defining dystopian fiction very broadly is also kind of useless from a practical standpoint, because it becomes so vague that it’s impossible to talk about, even in generalities.)
The second reason that dystopia is hard to define is because it has become a very hot trend, particularly in YA, and therefore publishers and marketers are eager to cash in on the popularity—they slap the dystopia label on almost anything. Consequently, books like The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Road sometimes get classified as dystopian literature, even though they’re quite obviously a different genre altogether: post-apocalypse.
(Very related side-note: if you look at the sidebar of my blog, you’ll see that even I hypocritically do this. My short bio says Variant is “dystopian-ish”. That’s because even though I personally wouldn’t define Variant as a true dystopia, it has enough dystopian elements that I can see the benefit of calling it such.)
So, for the sake of this week’s blog series, I’ll be defining dystopia more narrowly. The definition I prefer is: Utopia with a fatal flaw. Think of all the classic dystopias—1984, Brave New World, The Giver, etc.. These novels all show worlds that attempted to create a perfect society, but that “perfection” was attained at a horrible cost.
There’s obviously more to a true dystopia than just that, but “utopia with a fatal flaw” is a good starting point. Tomorrow I’ll talk a little about the history of dystopia—where it started and how it’s changed.