Why I Love Dystopian Fiction

Today I was talking to a friend and editor over at Blank Slate Press about why we enjoy dystopian fiction so much. The conversation started when I e-mailed Amira to ask her for her top 5 reasons why she likes dystopian fiction. The question stemmed from more than just curiosity; I’m currently revising my YA dystopian novel Wrinkle and am designing a dystopian-themed board game. Thus Amira’s answers proved quite helpful, and it was also interesting to see how a few of them differed from mine.

Here are the top 3 reasons why I love dystopian fiction (including examples), followed by the one reason that I’m occasionally disappointed by this genre. Feel free to check out Amira’s thoughts on her blog when you’re done here.

  1. Sense of Discovery: I absolutely love discovering dystopian futures. Part of this discovery comes from the description of the world, things that the protagonist has accepted as reality even though they’re vastly different from the world we know. Another part of this discovery happens when the protagonist starts to realize that the world is not quite what it seems as they peel away the superficial layers to see the harsh reality of their universe. And the last part is when the protagonist learns what the old world looked like and what happened to catalyze such a drastic change. A great example of this is Pure by Julianna Baggott, especially since the book follows two protagonists, one of whom was forever physically changed by the apocalypse and is learning the truth about those who escaped, the other of whom was protected from the apocalypse but learns that the world is much bigger than he ever imagined. It’s fascinating to be a part of their journies as they rediscover the world.
  2. 220px-Ready_Player_One_coverIndividual Impact on the World: The common narrative arc in dystopian fiction is that the protagonist discovers what the world really is, rediscovers who they are within that new frame of reference, escapes from the world they’ve always known, and then rises up to make the world a better place. That arc differs from story to story, but I’ve generalized it there to point out something important: Imagine if the last part of that arc never happened. Imagine if the protagonist found a new place in the world but didn’t try to change anything for the better. Imagine if, like so many of us in the real world, they just decided that nothing was ever going to improve and they were just going to go through the motions and occassionally grumble about how much things suck. Of course, that never happens in dystopian fiction, because no one wants to read that! We want to see the protagonist rise up against the world–we want to believe that the world can be improved. In all its hopelessness, dystopian fiction has the power to make us hope for a better world and maybe even do something about it. A great example of this is Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, my favorite book of 2012. It chronicles the journey of one boy trying to win a contest in a virtual world, but the stakes end up so much higher than that, as do his motivations. It’s impossible for a reader not to root for a character who puts everything on the line to change the world for the better.
  3. Reasonable Motivations: One of my struggles with fiction in general–whether it’s books or movies–is that bad guys always seem acutely aware that they’re bad guys and good guys are acutely aware they’re good guys. It’s not their fault–it’s the way they’re written, and it’s largely due to their motivations. Bad guys want bad things, like total control, death, and destruction. Good guys want good things, like peace and love and kittens. However, the black and white of good and bad is much more muddled in dystopian fiction because of one key reason: everyone thinks what they’re doing is for the greater good. Everyone does morally questionable things, and if you really think about and debate what’s happening, it’s hard to come up with the correct answer for anything. That’s what makes dystopian fiction so interesting. A great example of this is Wool by Hugh Howey. Sure, you end up rooting for certain characters over the others, but the bad guys have perfectly reasonable motivations given their circumstances. Even in the Hunger Games trilogy, although the bad guys are set up as bad guys, Katniss has to kill people to stay alive. And when the stakes are raised, creating a new world over exposes new problems that can be just as bad as before.

If there’s one aspect of dystopian fiction that I really struggle with, it’s contrived thought experiments that only make sense in a book. That’s the thing about dystopian fiction–for it to work, you have to believe that you’re looking at a possible future. Amira’s going to give you a great example of this, one that is so terrible that I couldn’t even finish the book. But my example may be even worse because I read the entire trilogy hoping it would redeem itself with some justification for the terrible things that happen to the kids in the book, and the justification never came. It was a classic case of an author coming up with terrible things and social experiments for the sake of entertainment, but because nothing was grounded in reality, it almost became unreadable.

I feel bad speaking so poorly of a fellow author, but this guy is incredibly successful and will continue to be no matter what I say on my little blog. His name is James Dashner, and he is the author of The Maze Runner trilogy. [spoiler alert] The series follows a scrappy group of young people who have to try to solve and survive a number of “trials” in order to save the world. They run against an escalating series of monsters that are created with the justification (as you learn in the second or third book) that the people running the trials are monitoring the brain waves of the children to use their mental coding to cure an epidemic disease. These children go through horrific trials for the sake of this “coding,” but the problem is that it’s not believable at all. You don’t have to actually put someone in a life-threatening situation to see how their brain responds. You can just simulate it. Not only that, but in the end of the book, nothing that happened in any of the previous books even matters! Instead of solving the problem, the survivors walk through a portal into a part of the world that is untouched by disease, and they decide to rebuild society there from the ground up. [end spoilers]

The point is, if you write dystopian fiction, don’t come up with the dystopian solution before you determine the problem. If you start with the solution, no matter how interesting it is, it’s going to seem contrived unless it’s a realistic (albeit exaggerated) solution for the problem. So start with the problem instead and be creative with the way you solve it.

I’m looking forward to reading Amira’s post, and I’d recommend that you check it out as well. What do you love (or dislike) about dystopian fiction? What is your favorite dystopian novel?

7 thoughts on “Why I Love Dystopian Fiction”

  1. I loved the BIRTHMARKED trilogy and am loving BLOOD RED ROAD. I haven’t read the next book, DUSTLANDS, mainly for lack of time, but I’m looking forward to reading it as well. Outside of YA, THE ROAD is a beautiful yet ghastly look at a future that seems all too possible. The love story between a man and his son, and the lengths the man will go to in order to protect and love his son is haunting.

    I think I like the survivor/community relationship aspect of dystopian. Usually, a group of young people have to band together, even with major character flaws and “issues” to make it out alive. Even when there is no hope in the foreseeable future, they continue to work together to make it work.

    Plus, it’s so damn fun to read.

    • Great point. In a dystopia, one of the things that matters most is the bond a protagonist is able to form with the characters around him or her. Without those relationships, he cannot move forward.

    • Ansley–Thanks for recommending so many books that I’ve never heard of! Except for The Road. I would classify that as post-apocalyptic fiction and not necessarily dystopian fiction, though (Amira has a good definition of what a dystopia is on her blog).

      Great point about the survivor aspect–fiction works great when the stakes are high.


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