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:
In this final installment of the dystopian blog series, I want to talk about the social commentary that is inherent to dystopian fiction.
On Tuesday we talked about how dystopia is reactionary; it looks at a social problem and extrapolates that problem to its frightening extreme. When looking at the origins of almost any dystopia, the authors often frankly coming upon a troubling subject and then imagining how the world would be different if that subject became more and more prevalent:
From Ally Condie, about Matched:
“The real catalyst was a conversation I had with my husband about marriage in the fall of 2008. He posited the question: What if someone wrote the perfect algorithm for lining people up, and the government used it to decide who you married, when you married, etc.?”
Publishers Weekly wrote about Suzanne Collins inspiration for The Hunger Games:
Collins says the idea for the brutal nation of Panem came one evening when she was channel-surfing between a reality show competition and war coverage. “I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way.” She also cites the Greek myth of Theseus, in which the city of Athens was forced to send 14 young men and women into the labyrinth in Crete to face the Minotaur. “Even as a kid, I could appreciate how ruthless this was,” Collins recalled. “Crete was sending a very clear message: ‘Mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.’ ”
Some authors take it a step further, where the social problem is not just the inspiration, but the author specifically wants to make a political/philosophical point:
Ray Bradbury wrote about Fahrenheit 451:
There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist / Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist / Women’s Lib / Republican / Mattachine / FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse….Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever.
Rand said she “set out to show how desperately the world needs prime movers and how viciously it treats them” and to portray “what happens to a world without them.”
Almost every dystopia fits this mold: taking a current problem and extrapolating upon it. Uglies addresses body image. Brave New World is about our disposable consumer culture and our obsession with hedonistic pleasure and entertainment. We talks about conformity and Communism.
Going all the way back to our Monday topic, I really think that this social commentary is an integral part of the definition of a true dystopia. A book with a vaguely dystopian setting, but which lacks this distinct issue-based element, is probably a different genre altogether: sci-fi, or post-apocalypse, or something else.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this week-long blog series. I’ve definitely enjoyed writing it. I know I’ve defined things pretty narrowly, and that some people have broader definitions; I’d love to hear your thoughts.