What is a Dystopia?

‘Dystopian’ is a popular subgenre these days particularly in older children’s fiction (YA/Young Adult.) But a lot of people don’t quite understand what the word ‘dystopian’ means— even people who are thinking of writing dystopian fiction!

‘Dystopia’ comes from the word ‘Utopia’— a word coined by Thomas More (1478-1535), and the title of a book of his. The book was a philosphical account of an imaginary kingdom and its ideal government. ‘Utopia’ means ‘Noplace.’ Thomas More may have been interested in government because his good friend Henry was a king of England. Unfortunately for More, it was Henry VIII, and when the king broke with the Church in order to get rid of his first wife, he insisted his subjects sign an oath which assented to Henry’s rejecting the Church. Thomas More was a faithful Catholic and could not do that, and so on July 6th, 1535, he was beheaded. It never would have happened that way in Utopia. Thomas More was canonized a saint and his feast day is July 9th. He is considered a martyr who died in defense of marriage and so is a saint for our own times.

‘Dystopia’ replaces the ‘U’ of ‘Utopia’ with a syllable which means ‘painful’, so instead of ‘noplace’ it means ‘painful place.’ A ‘dystopia’ is normally more painful for some people than for others. Think of the real-world examples of Stalinist Russia and National Socialist Germany. If you were a faithful member of the ruling party, even a lower ranking one, life might not be that bad at least as far as the government was concerned. But if you were part of a group the government targeted, life could be hellish.

In ‘The Hunger Games’ you can see how Panem was a ‘dystopia’ for Katniss. She lives in an impoverished district and has to break the law to keep her mother and sister fed. Both she and her sister are eligible to be selected for the Hunger Games, a fight to the death between 24 contestants. But for residents of the Capitol, like Caesar Flickerman, an entertainment celebrity, Panem isn’t a bad place. It’s a place where he can live in comfort and luxury.

In The Safe Lands series by Jill Williamson, the Christian villagers from Glenrock are kidnapped by the infertile people of The Safe Lands so that the women can be made pregnant and have their babies taken away by the state. But the hedonistic young people that live in the Safe Lands have good lives— until they reach age forty and something that sounds like death is their fate. So The Safe Lands society is dystopian for the Glenrock villagers and for people approaching 40, but not so much for the younger people of the society.

When planning a dystopian story, you have to consider both who are victims of the dystopia and who are the people that benefit. There will likely be a third class of people who are at least getting by— the system is something they can live with and that is not targeting people like them.

Should every main character in a dystopian story be involved with overthrowing the government? It’s probably not such a good idea. The teenage kids who read a dystopian YA story will soon be in colleges where they will be taught that they must have an absolute meltdown when someone from the ‘wrong’ political party gets elected. We don’t want to encourage the idea that rioting in the streets is a good idea.

An alternative plot to the start-a-Civil-War approach is the escape story. The Dystopia is bad, but there is a place where the dystopian conditions don’t apply. Your character can be struggling to get to such a place.

Your character can also be involved in a non-violent underground or subculture, like the Christian subculture in the Communist countries both in the past and in China today. Such an underground may be aimed at allowing people to practice a forbidden faith or pass on a forbidden minority culture or language.

A final thought about dystopian fiction: the temptation may be to make the dystopian leaders similar to the leaders of your least favorite political party or faction and the heroes of your own political party or faction. This is not a good idea. Ideally your reader should have to stop and think when asked who are the Democrats and Republicans in the story.

Note: comments with swears and nastiness don’t get published on this blog, be civil.

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‘The First Principle’ — first impressions….

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FirstPrinciple-258x400OK, so I got this book in connection with the Christian science fiction and fantasy blog tour— which reminds me, I have to post this:

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher. 

And, you know, getting another Christian fiction novel— especially when it’s a ‘YA’— doesn’t always thrill me. Too often it’s a trip into the world of bland. But this book is not that trip.

The setting is— well, there are some states going pretty far this way already. Have you heard that story about the public schools dishing out IUDs as ‘birth control’ to schoolgirls? IUDs work by preventing a conceived child from implanting in the uterus, so it’s not really ‘contraception’, it’s something else. I’ve heard a defender of the IUD say that children killed by the IUD are so young it doesn’t really count as abortion, so in fairness we’ll just have to call it something else. How about ‘child killing’? And back in the day the IUD damaged so many women that even the feminists were against it. NOT something most parents want government schools to stick into their young daughters’ bodies.

In ‘The First Principle’, all high school girls are required to receive contraceptives, but the contraceptives do not work as well as advertised. The answer to that is government-required ‘termination’ of the unwanted life. Vivica Wilkins, a high school girl, defends a pregnant classmate against harsh treatment of a government agent out to enforce the law. And then Vivica discovers her own illegal pregnancy.

What protects this book from the blands is that Vivica is NOT a born-again believer from a churchy family. She’s the daughter of a female governor (with no father currently in the picture), and so a part of the system, brought up to think that the required contraceptive use and even the terminations are a good, right policy that prevents harm. She has no traditional moral training as earlier generations of young people had through their religious education and catechism classes. She has nothing to go on but a sense of wrongness in her heart when she contemplates some of these policies.

Vivica’s problems increase because of her mother’s political ambitions. Mommy can’t become the next president if she has an illegally pregnant daughter who won’t go along with the termination law. It will ruin her mother’s life if Vivica lets her child live.

What Vivica does next and where it leads are something you’ll have to discover by reading the book. [Available here: http://www.amazon.com/First-Principle-Novel-Marissa-Shrock/dp/0825443571/]  And it’s worth reading. When the book arrived at my place I opened the package. I opened the book intending to take a glance at the first page of the book. Before you know it I was halfway through the book and the laundry was NOT getting done!

And when I finished I quick hopped over to author Marissa Shrock’s FB page: https://www.facebook.com/marissa.shrock.writer. I also shared the book with a small FB writers’ group I’d joined, Pro-Life Speculative Fiction Readers and Writers: https://www.facebook.com/groups/776019142490663/ This is a small group and always in need of new members, by the way.

Marissa Shrock’s author page: http://www.marissashrock.com/

And now, the blog tour. Here is the list of participants in the tour. I really would suggest that you go and visit the participants list and comment on their posts. It will do your own blog good.

Julie Bihn
Thomas Clayton Booher
Beckie Burnham
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Carol Keen
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Megan @ Hardcover Feedback
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Nissa Annakindt
Jalynn Patterson
Chawna Schroeder
Jessica Thomas

You still here? Still? Well, why not jump over to my Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/nissalovescats  and see my picture of a kitten in a boot. Because the world need more kitten in boot.

#CSFFBlogTour: ‘Rebels’ and Dystopian Fiction

Rebels Jill WilliamsonThis post is for the Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy blog tour. I should have posted it yesterday but I got sick and instead spent my time petting cats and watching Dancing With The Stars. Dexter and Castle.

This book made me mad at author Jill Williamson. Because it’s the last book in the trilogy and I never, ever, ever wanted it to end. I found it endlessly re-readable as I find The Hunger Games, and that’s rare for me in Christian fiction. Because though I’m a Christian (Catholic flavor) most of my favorite authors are secular, with the exception of Orson Scott Card (who’s Mormon flavor).

So, you may have guessed that in this blog tour I’m not going to be channeling my inner Len Goodman (the mean judge on Dancing With The Stars). Instead, today I’m going to be talking a little bit about Dystopian fiction.

The term ‘dystopian’ is the trendy way to refer to science fiction novels, usually ‘YA’, set in a ‘negative utopia’.  (The term was coined by Thomas More, who became a saint when he stood up for his Catholic faith against the demands of King Henry VIII and lost his head for it.)

The Hunger Games is set in such a negative utopia, as is The Safe Lands series of which ‘Rebels’ is the conclusion. One can ask what are the influences behind the creation of the fictional dystopias in these and other books.

I believe that a major influence on all fictional dystopias created in our time are the real-world dystopias of the totalitarian regimes of the last century, some of which continue to exist and harm their citizens even today. Think of North Korea, where you can spend life in a labor camp due to your brother’s crime, and your children, born in the camp, will stay there for life as well. Or China, where women pregnant out of wedlock, or who already have their one permissible child, are forced to abort, even as late as the ninth month.

These two examples are socialist based totalitarianism. All of the great totalitarian regimes of the previous century were socialism-based, though they represented two different forms of socialism.

  1. The international socialists, also called Bolsheviks and communists, first came to power in the Russian revolution. They murdered people for being from aristocratic families, including the children of the tsar. They turned churches into museums of atheism or places to park tractors. They had a system of Gulags— prison camps. One leader, Stalin, killed about 7 million Ukrainians by taking away their food harvest and then forbidding them to leave Ukraine to find food. International socialist totalitarian regimes existed in the Soviet block countries of Europe, in China, North Korea and Vietnam, and in Cuba.
  2. The national socialists were more pragmatic. Rather than waiting until their countrymen were ready for a revolution in favor international socialism, they incorporated nationalism into their party programs and came to power by elections. The national socialists include the Fascist regime of Italy and the National Socialist (Nazi) regime in Germany.

Fictional dystopias may parallel these real ones, intentionally on the part of the author or not. Or they may represent an attempt to be as different as possible from these real-world horrors. Most have elements of both.

In The Safe Lands series, the dystopia came into being as a result of a plague. The Safe Lands authorities encouraged a wild, self-indulgent lifestyle with lots of drugs and casual sex. And they encouraged a reincarnation belief to help people accept ‘liberation’ at age 40 without rebelling. In all these ways the dystopia is a contrast to the real-world ones.

But there is total control over people’s lives as in real-world totalitarian regimes. Men and women are required to participate in forced artificial reproduction. The resulting children are raised by the state. Dissidents and other rule-breakers may be punished by ‘premature liberation’, which to inhabitants of the Safe Lands sounds a lot like death.

Jill Williamson, author of The Safe Lands trilogy

Jill Williamson, author of The Safe Lands trilogy

To buy the book ‘Rebels’ by Jill Williamson, go here:

http://www.amazon.com/Rebels-Safe-Lands-Jill-Williamson/dp/0310735777/

To visit author Jill Williamson’s website, go here:

http://www.jillwilliamson.com/

Blog tour participants:

Visit these blogs and see what other people have to say about Jill Williamson’s Rebels and The Safe Lands series.
Julie Bihn
Thomas Fletcher Booher
Beckie Burnham
Jeff Chapman
Vicky DealSharingAunt
April Erwin
Carol Gehringer
Victor Gentile
Rebekah Gyger
Jeremy Harder
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Melanie @ Christian Bookshelf Reviews
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Nissa Annakindt you are here
Writer Rani
Audrey Sauble
Chawna Schroeder
Jojo Sutis
Elizabeth Williams

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Ancient Roman References in The Hunger Games

Hunger GamesI didn’t get very far into The Hunger Games before I noticed it: ancient Roman references everywhere! Perhaps not surprising since author Suzanne Collins is said to be ‘Roman Catholic’ (which could mean anything from ‘faithful Catholic’ to ‘angry anti-Catholic’.) Ancient Rome is alive in the minds of Catholics even more so than Evangelicals/Protestants, since we Catholics are more likely to seriously study the Early Church, or to hear it mentioned in homilies or Catholic books. For those of you who didn’t grow up with your nose in a Roman history book, here are some references you may have missed.

Panem – That’s the name of the country in which The Hunger Games takes place. It comes from the Latin for ‘bread’. In one of the books it’s mentioned clearly that the name ‘Panem’ comes from the phrase panem et circenses, meaning ‘bread and circuses’ (‘circuses’ meant sports such as chariot racing and gladiatorial games, not our circuses). I can’t imagine any country naming itself that, can you? Particularly since at the very beginning, the few survivors of whatever-all destroyed the United States probably had very little in the way of panem and no time off to enjoy circenses.

The Capitol – It sounds, the way the Capitol is spoken of in The Hunger Games, as if the whole of Panem was designed to service that one city. It was the same with Rome— it sounds as if the world served one city during the Roman empire. In fact, ‘Rome’ also included the surrounding agricultural land that made the city possible, and in the centuries after the founding of the city, there were Roman citizens in many places other than urban Rome. Logically, the Capitol in The Hunger Games would have included a whole Capitol ‘district’.

Roman Names – The citizens of the Capitol have names taken direct from ancient Rome— Cinna, Seneca Crane, Caesar Flickerman, and Castor and Pollux.

Tesserae – In ancient Rome, tesserae (singular: tessera) were little tags used for various purposes. One type of tesserae served as tickets to public entertainments, including gladiatorial games. In The Hunger Games, tesserae are allotments of food that a young person from the districts can sign up for, if they are willing to put their names in for the Reaping extra times.

The Games – In ancient Rome, their bloodsport, the gladiatorial games, started out as a funeral custom— a wealthy family would order two of their slaves to fight to the death at the funeral of their family member. The blood shed was a sort of replacement for the rejected practice of human sacrifice which earlier cultures practiced at funerals. Romans rejected customs of human sacrifice, and that was one reason they were so appalled by the Druids, who burned human beings alive in large wicker baskets. In The Hunger Games, the Games were a long-term punishment for the rebellious Districts. And just as a successful gladiator got money and fame, the winner of the Hunger Games was promised riches for life.

One thing that is not a parallel with ancient Rome is the matter of religion. Rome kept order by creating a national religion of revering the genius (guiding spirit) of the current Emperor. Christians, who would not burn incense to the emperor, were for that reason condemned to death in the arena— for refusing to be ‘good citizens’.

In The Hunger Games, it seems that the authorities of Panem have achieved what dictators of Stalinist Russia and Mao’s China only dreamed of— the obliteration of all religion. Not even in the Districts is there any trace of hidden people of faith, or even of remembered folk-hymns. It is all bleak, hopeless, and rather impossible to credit— unless you take into account that books that have no religion sell better to the officially-atheist American government-run schools.

For the writer who bothers to learn history, ancient Rome is an excellent source of inspiration for world-building of many kinds. It is a culture distinctively different from our own, and yet it contributed much to our world.

For Christians, knowing about ancient Rome is essential to understanding the world of the New Testament. I remember that reading Robert Graves’ ‘I, Claudius’ and ‘Claudius the God’ helped me a lot in my college level New Testament courses at Fresno Pacific College. I discovered that Graves’ work, though they were novels, were very much based on the existing ancient sources.

After reading some basic books on Rome, the Christian writer might consider learning about the Early Church Fathers. These are the writers of the very earliest preserved Christian materials other than that in scripture. Some of these works, like the Didache, were considered by some to be scripture before the Church defined the official Canon of the New Testament.

In my own vast supply of Works-in-Progress that are not making enough progress, I have one world in which stray Romans went across a barrier between worlds, found themselves trapped, and build an enduring culture. This idea predates my reading of The Hunger Games, but has changed considerably based on ideas I had reading The Hunger Games. (Being contrary, my world is more of a ‘what if the Capitol were mostly in the right?’ take on the whole thing.)

So, what about you? Are there any fictional works inspired by ancient Rome that you really enjoy? Have you ever written a Roman-influenced story?