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.

Artful and the Rejection of Oliver Twist as an Interesting Character

OliverTRecently, having run out of new books to read and lacking the funds to obtain more, I downloaded some e-book samples from Amazon.com. One of them was a sample of Artful: A Novel by Peter David. Since I spend all of seventh grade reading and rereading Oliver Twist [since if I declared myself finished I’d have had to write a book report on it], I thought it might be a good read.

Sadly, like all too many e-book samples, the sample of Artful was brief— too brief to get to the real beginning of the story. It was mostly the narrator showing bits of evidence of vampires in Oliver Twist (such as the fact that Fagin’s name could be rearranged to spell ‘I Fang’). And a lot of stuff about Oliver Twist was too passive and whiny, and it was amazing Charles Dickens didn’t have the wit to center the story on the Artful Dodger instead. (One retort that sprang instantly to mind was that if Dickens HAD, Peter David would have nothing to write about.)

I believe the criticisms of Oliver Twist are a sad sign of the tastes of our age. Because it wasn’t that Oliver Twist was passive— if he had been, he’d have died in the workhouse, unremarked. And it wasn’t that he was ‘whiny’. Yes, Oliver cried when other characters would have expressed anger, cynicism or just gone off and picked a pocket. But that was because Oliver was still possessed of that once cherished childhood quality of moral innocence, and the contrasting characters, having been already corrupted by an evil world, had lost that quality long ago.

Innocence was once a beautiful and attractive quality in fictional characters, much sought after by readers. Think of young Jane Eyre, or of Lucy and Mina from Dracula. We could see the evils afoot in the world more clearly when we saw characters like that, who had at least a touch of purity and light in them.

But what does the reader of today want? Dexter Morgan— the serial killer from Jeff Lindsey’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter and series. Here we have a serial killer as the first person narrator, and we see all of Dexter’s world from  his corrupted point-of-view. The ‘good guys’ of the series such as Dexter’s late adoptive father Harry and his sister Deb are corrupted by their acceptance of Dexter’s serial killings, which are deemed OK since the victims are (mostly) uncaught murderers.

But I think the hunger for the innocent character is still there. Think of the anti-war novel series ‘The Hunger Games.’ Katniss Everdeen may be a minor-league rebel from the beginning with her illegal hunting and listening to Gale’s treason-talk. But she is innocent enough that when she decides the world is too awful to bring children into it, her method is to decide never to marry. Heck, today’s fifth graders are less innocent than that when the government-mandated sex education classes get through with them!

Don’t get me wrong— I like the Artful Dodger. And I’d love to read ‘Artful’ and see him in new adventures. But it is the pure and innocent characters of the world like Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre that really touch my heart.  And it would be sad to see them wholly replaced by the cynical and the violent.

Artful: A Novel, by Peter David

ArtfulRandom thought: maybe part of the appeal of Dexter Morgan is that though as a serial killer he is the ultimate in being a corrupted person, he also has a curious degree of innocence about social interactions— he doesn’t ‘get’ stuff that even a grade school kid gets about human relationships. To the point that often I felt Dexter seemed more like a person with Asperger Syndrome than a pure sociopath as the author probably intended.