For this Friday Funday, I am reposting a guest post I did for SFFWorld a few years ago. Though Dystopia is a little out of favor right now, we all know it will come roaring back eventually.
Dystopia: an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one
This is the accepted definition of a Dystopia, one writers and readers alike have embraced. However, since dystopia has become such a popular genre thanks to the YA explosions of the Hunger Games and Divergent, as well as older staples like 1984 and The Handmaiden’s Tale, it’s important to have a discussion on why the accepted definition is wrong, or at least why it should be.
In order for a dystopian society, or more specifically, the characters living within that dystopia, to be believable, there must be upsides. Why is the common citizen, and possibly your protagonist, delighted to live in this society, at least initially? Of course we can blame it on indoctrination. We saw that approach in The Giver. We can blame it on military might as in The Hunger Games or a secretive police faction that makes dissenters disappear, as in 1984 or the film Equilibrium.
The best dystopias, however, should have at least one aspect that is genuinely good—something to which the True Believers cling. We as humans have mastered the art of justification, and your dystopian society should reflect this. My upcoming novel Sunder of Time portrays an alternate timeline in which the Spaniards became the dominant colonizers of North America and 2114 America is a Catholic theocracy with a heavily Spanish hegemony. It is not hard to see where the problems lie. Dissension is ruthlessly snuffed out via imprisonment and deportation for relatively minor offenses, while major offenses can be punished by death. But why would several hundred million Americans—good Catholics all—find this behavior acceptable?
The answer is they are able to point to the benefits of their society—the absence of poverty and unemployment, the peaceful way the early colonizers awarded Native Americans a cordoned off colony within North America and established peaceful trade, the notable lack of ethnic clashes that so afflict other parts of the world. Such benefits make it easy to ignore the horrors going on just out of sight.
Sadly, many authors of dystopian fiction either ignore the calming salve of the masses or throw out something silly. In Judge Dredd, what is the upside of their dystopian world? The lack of legal red tape and some pretty impressive robotic technology. That’s it. Granted, like most comics and graphic novels, Judge Dredd is more character-driven, but the world is important, and the lack of upside to Mega-City One makes it seem more like post-apocalyptic fiction than dystopian. It’s a fine line, but one that matters. Post-apocalyptic fiction and dystopia go hand in hand—the world as we know it ends in some kind of apocalypse, and the dystopian society is what rises from the ashes, bringing order. Writing about eking out survival in a post-apocalyptic wasteland requires no upside; but an effective dystopia does.