Dystopian movies and books are everywhere, and it seems like everybody loves them. If I have a student who doesn’t like to read, my ace in the hole to get them engaged in a book is almost always a dystopian novel. But this genre dominator hasn’t always been around or as prevalent as it is today. Where did this art form come from? And what does it mean for us today?
Origins of Dystopia
Dystopian fiction started with Sir Thomas More’s 16th century book, Utopia. Sir Thomas More was an advisor to King Henry VIII (the guy that had six wives and famously broke England off officially from the catholic church). If you've ever seen the move Ever After, Danielle quotes this book often, and its ideas underpin much of what drives her as a character.
Utopia is written in two parts, the first being a dialogue about the state of society and the government’s role in promoting a good society. This part reads a lot to me like one of Socrates’ dialogues.
The second part is the interesting part (to most people, specifically me). It describes an isthmus called Utopia in which there is a bizarre, but much better, society. There are intricate rules to balance power, correct wrongs, and keep peace and prosperity. The crux of the goodness in society doesn’t come from a good leader or good people, but rather an elaborate, all-encompassing system that leaves people no choice but to act morally and promote the general welfare.
It wasn’t until the mid 20th century the dystopian take on this type of society took off, with such works as 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
Conventions of the Genre
There are several parts of a dystopian story, and it’s much more than just a broken society. It’s a society that tries to create a perfect world--its aim is to eliminate something bad or provide something good--but in doing so, it creates a terrifying reality.
A Good Idea Leading to a Horrific Idea
For example, in Louis Lowry's book The Giver, the society is seeking to eliminate pain. While this seems to be a noble cause, in order to keep a painless society there is euthanasia; loss of color, music and memory; and a shallowness in connection. Different dystopias explore the effects of eliminating different “evils'' or promoting different “goods.” Fahrenheit 451 tries to eliminate differences, inequalities, and dissension, making a bookless, uneducated society. Brave New World tries to make a world of just comfort and 1984 tries to make a secure and safe world, both leading to horrific results.
Systems, Not Just the People in Them
Each dystopia has real people who are real villains, but they are not truly the heart of what is wrong with their world. They are often products of broken systems. Sometimes these systems are given names, as is the case in 1984’s “Big Brother.” The rules and regulations of society shape its citizens into monsters, whether apathetic or enthusiastic.
In many famous dystopian novels, there is a pair that work together to escape or undermine their dystopian society. These two characters represent two different sides of resistance, each having and missing something the other does not:
Fahrenheit 451: Faber and Montag
The Giver: Jonas and the Giver
1984: Winston and Julia
Brave New World: John and Bernard
The Hunger Games: Katniss and Peeta
These pairs often show different ways to resist the systemic wrongs, often showing they must work together or showing that there are two ways and both are hopeless.
The Power of the Dystopian Art for Today
What does this mean for us today that we are so enamored with this art form? Our world is not unfamiliar with pain, terror, and social turmoil. However, the glow of optimism after the second world war is fading away, and cynicism the unchallenged master of our minds. But art is a gateway not just to expression, but also change. When reality becomes hopeless, imagination and truth from new angles becomes more potent than ever before. CS Lewis stated that “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”
So long as there is dystopian art, there is hope for our reality. These dystopian stories don’t just magnify truths, they plant and water seeds for a better future.
If you want to read about why I think Katniss and Peeta are some of the best hero twins in the genre, check out the blog I wrote about them here.