Merriam Webster dictionary defines Dystopia as:
- An imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives
Dystopia derives from the combination of the two Greek words dys (meaning bad/hard) and topia (meaning place/landscape). Dystopia is also sometimes referred to as Cacotopia.
Humans have always been fascinated with imagining what future — near or far — has in store for them. Weaving dystopian stories is a natural progression of this attraction. So, dystopian fantasy (stories set in a less than optimal world) has been around, I’m sure, since man could exchange ideas with fellow humans using words. Dystopian novels have been published for more than a century now.
Dystopian fantasy is a popular sub-genre of science fiction or, more broadly, speculative fiction.
The young adult market is teeming with dystopian fantasies (Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix, The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Uglies by Scott Westerfield, to name a few), although many dystopian adult novels (The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Children of Men by P.D. James among others) have been popular over the years, too.
With the recent release of the movie The Hunger Games (based on a YA book of the same name), this genre is probably more popular now than ever.
These novels depict either an individual fighting against oppression or a group of people coping collectively as a society with the dehumanized conditions.
Some of these stories are set in non-specified (in terms of time and geography) worlds, though generally speaking they are set in a future that is dark, dismal and oppressive. The reasons why society, in each of these books, has slid into this state is one of many:
- The rise to power of one political or religious group of people who then begin a systematic oppression of the society.
- An apocalyptic disaster, natural or otherwise, resulting in pockets of survivors.
- An unnatural/mysterious fear or disgust of the world outside. This usually is the consequence of a disaster in the distant past, the details of which none of the living members of the society remembers.
- Advancement of technology at a more rapid rate than humans could handle. So man has shunned technology and gone back to the dark ages.
- Technology has taken over humans, making puppets of them.
When I first began to read dystopian fantasies I refused to take them seriously, because they seemed overly fantastical and set so far in the future.
And then I picked up The Handmaid’s Tale. This story takes place in the United States where a theocratic regime has made the lives of women sub-human.
The ultimate shock for me? The story unfolds (in an eerily unemotional first person narrative) the truth of how the society has hurtled towards this state within the life span of a modern American woman. This novel forced me to look at the disturbing possibility that something like this could happen to any country, any time.
Despite that realization, I’m not a big fan of dystopian fiction. Why? Because, the eternal optimist in me shrivels up at all the gloom and doom in these stories. Who is to say what the future holds for us humans? Why look at it only through a pessimistic lens and expect the worst?
And the mom in me balks at the supposition that we may be leaving our future generations to such a miserable future.
Even if you haven’t had a chance to read a book set in dystopia, you may have encountered it in movies such as: The Matrix, Minority Report, Total Recall and Avatar.
So, do you like dystopian fantasies? Why or why not?