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.

#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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