Dissecting Dystopia

I was talking with some people (some very smart and lovely people, I should mention) about dystopias (a horrifying literary, or cinematic, setting, shown built on a socio-political commentary). It illuminated for me what had been bothering me about many other conversations I had partaken in, with other people, both on and off the net. I was struck by the disconnect that seemed to exist between the saying of the term – the discussing of the matter – and the actual comprehension of it. Or, in less convoluted terms, the term was defined and the definition accepted but the implications of it – the comprehension of what it meant – seemed to be lacking. People would agree that dystopia was a social commentary, which is the key to its definition, then seemed surprised by any socio-political issues or criticism involved in it. The idea that a dystopia was about pointing out a problem system or issue – being at once both a warning and an axe, of the author’s, to grind – became both a surprise and an indefinite floaty concept which was never truly grasped. The phrase socio-political commentary was used, but seeking to find any socio-political commentary within a work to judge if it were actually a dystopia or just a really unpleasant/apocalyptic setting never was considered. At one point, it was mentioned – as if this was some great revelation – of 1984 that it was “disturbing”.



Dystopia should disturb you. Dystopia should alarm you. Dystopia should set off all the warning bells in your head that cry that this isn’t right because that is the point the author is trying to make. Dystopian fiction is, or should be, when the author is metaphorically trying to reign in the society as it eagerly runs at what looks like a really good idea but which actually has a sheer drop off a cliff hidden just around the bend. Dystopia is scary. Dystopia is unspeakable horror made into a place. It is the inevitable failure of humanity inherent in the system.

It’s not about violent rebellions against open tyrants who abuse and starve the population – this can be present, but it’s not the point. That kind of horrible place to live is nothing special: humanity has been doing that on a wide scale to each other since we first learned to stand upright. What’s more, the very fact that a widespread rebellion can happen? That is a beacon of hope, that is the typical heroic fight against an Evil Overperson and there is nothing especially disturbing about that because every story we hear from the cradle tells us that Good Will Triumph. That’s not what dystopia is.

Dystopia isn’t comfortable. In dystopian fiction there is no reason that the brainwashing one of the heroes undergoes should be something they can recover, even with a struggle and scars, from – the love of a protagonist should not protect them in that setting. At the end of 1984, Winston LOVED Big Brother. There was no coming back from what Room 101 made a person. He wasn’t even leading a rebellion – he bought a journal, he thought for himself and he loved someone: and that was crime enough for The Party to annihilate everything that made him him and fill his empty shell with itself. It wasn’t just about fighting for equality or freedom from blatant oppression; it was fighting for basic humanity: freedom to think, the ability to love and feel and want; to disagree even if only the privacy of one’s head.

Dystopia isn’t about how the hero sees what’s wrong and defeats the enemy. Sure a dystopia might end on a hope spot – the protagonist escapes to outside the dystopian government’s reach or some people who intend to rebel haven’t been caught yet – but that’s all. The fucked up dystopian setting, even if the hero escapes or has hope, will continue because somewhere along the line humanity hit on an idea too dangerous and too evil and crossed the point of no return. When a “dystopian” setting has an open rebellion, when the people have not grown so used to thinking as the government has taught them that they are actually capable of fighting on mass: that’s the power of good triumphing and, coincidentally, crushing any point the author might have had about why issue X was something that should we should be wary of now. Now. Not in the future when that sort of government is in power and opposition – rebellion – has come too late. The moment the heroes can defeat it – the moment there are heroes instead of protagonists – you no longer have dystopia, but evil villain X and the standard hero plot of most action, fantasy and much sci-fi. There’s nothing wrong with that plot, but it is mutually exclusive with the dystopia. It is taking all those socio-political points – often very good, very important points – that the author has spent the story building up as something Important, which the READER should be thinking about and worried about in reality, and then patting the reader on the head as assuring them that they don’t actually have to be worried about it. That’s the exact opposite of what a dystopia’s author is trying to say.

Dystopias are about what an author fears could irreversibly damage or destroy humanity if those issues aren’t dealt with, aren’t stopped, here and now. In reality. By the readers, by making them wake up and take action, rather than just blindly digesting new prolefeed. It is about saying that it is not going to be okay if this should come to pass. Dystopia isn’t about how humanity gets screwed up after some major disaster, although it can be set after one, because that disaster – zombie outbreak, plague, natural disaster, nuclear war, et cetera – absolves the reader of fear and blame. The moment the author tells us that a story’s awful government came after some great catastrophe, even if it didn’t wipe out most of humanity, they are assuring the reader that it couldn’t happen here. But that’s exactly NOT what a dystopia is about. A dystopia is a warning. We, Brave New World and 1984 didn’t take the time to assure the reader that there was definitely a catastrophe between the reader’s government and this dystopian one rising to power. There might have been a disaster, but it might have just been a natural progression of the current government and the way it was heading. 1984, specifically, hints that The Party took over in a mere thirty years with no blatant war or catastrophe. It was just humanity blindly pursuing one course without stopping to think about what it would mean – like how right now we’ve all given away our privacy for free email accounts and ease of having things sync, but are too lazy and too complacent to make the changes needed to prevent further spying and further invasions of privacy (advertisers aren’t exactly benign right now) and those who do yell from the roof tops about the dangers are ignored because “it couldn’t happen here”. Dystopia is a warning that this shitty, irreversible situation could happen in the reader’s lifetime, where the reader lives, unless they wake up and do something, so the moment extreme or unlikely circumstances are required to create a world, it ceases to be truly dystopian. Dystopia should scare you. It should depress you. It should, if it’s done its job right and is not merely some other type of story with “Dystopia” applied because that’s the modern buzzword, make you want to do something so the world never turns out like that.

Dystopia isn’t merely a socio-political commentary. It’s a socio-political commentary standing between the reader and the ravine, desperately waving a stop sign and hoping society does not merely read but actually comprehends.

Ahem. Yeah, I named this blog as a place of rants for a reason. (And yes: I know I used 1984 more than We and Brave New World for my examples, but of the three it’s the best known. If kids were reading real dystopia when they’re young, maybe they would still have some fight in them when they grew up and would be able to comprehend instead of just parroting empty phrases.)

Rants means rants. This – and any that follow – are opinion pieces, pure and simple. You are free to disagree, just don’t feel that I am obliged to change my mind and agree with you.


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