A while ago when asked what subject I’d like to teach, I replied “Dystopian literature”. A blank stare was the response. I then went into a lengthy explanation as to why I picked this genre. Not as a topic of literary work, but as a vehicle in which we can explore and confront our basic human nature and ask hard questions of ourselves: Stripped of modern day luxuries would you break or would you be forced to start living? Could you, if need be, break from an oppressive society? Are you a sheep more comfortable with known rules and norms or are you a rebel, willing to risk it all for self identity? Again, a blank stare was the only response. I realized my companion had no idea what I was talking about.
” Distopeeann literature, what’s that”? Had this been an illiterate friend, I would have chalked his confusion up to too much TV, but this was a published friend. Someone I was sure would understand my enthusiasm for the topic. This was a good reminder not to take it for granted that everyone knows or enjoys what I do. So, if you are as confused as my published friend, this blog is for you. It is the first of two parts. The first deals with the urban side of dystopian literature. The second post will delve into my favorite, the post- apocalypse side.
Things you may not know about urban dystopian literature.
What does dystopian even mean?
A dystopian setting is the opposite of a utopian setting. The very word dystopia comes from the Greeks, meaning bad place. So a dystopian setting is one in which the conditions are miserable. Usually dystopian literature is characterized by human misery, poverty, oppression, disease or pollution. Sometimes the plot involves the cause of society’s breakdown, most often than not, the cause is not as important as the effect. Dystopian societies are portrayed with different defining features. Included in this list but not limited to are: futuristic, allegorical, metaphorical, political, and religious. Though each novel and its setting is unique, they a share the idea that these societies resemble or try to resemble a utopian society but fail because of one fatal flaw. Other times the condition of the setting is so bleak (think post-apocalypse) that it in no way can be passed off as anything other than it is.
When did we start using this term?
The first use of the word in modern English may have come from John Stuart Mills in a 1868 speech before the British Parliament in which he was defending the poor; Mill said, “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favor is too bad to be practicable “. Let it be noted, Mill’s was not describing the poor in this quote, rather those who would oppress them.
The first true dystopian work of literature
Many credit Aldous Huxley for writing the first dystopian novel with Brave new world, yet I say one of the very first is found in the Christian Bible. The Book of Revelation may be the oldest surviving story of a post-apocalypse world.
Key elements found in urban dystopian literature
Social Control: Someone or something is trying to gain social control usually in the guise of social order. Fahrenheit 451 and Atlas Shrugged are two examples of novels in which the plot center around social control.
Lack of social cohesion: Fanaticism is the more typical form of dystopian politics, sometimes an alternative version to social control is lack of social cohesion. A Clockwork Orange and Lord of the flies are prime examples of social order spinning out of control.
Absence of Civil Society: There are no social groups besides the state, and or such social groups are subdivisions of the state. 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale are two extreme examples.
Political ideologies: Dystopian urban societies come in all forms of governments and political systems. Each with the goal of turning society into one predominate system usually by oppressing ideas and individual thought. Iron Heel and 1984 both exemplify the idea of a society in which censorship is key to political rule.
How do these books end?
The hero’s purpose is either escape or destruction of society, yet the story is often unresolved. Individuals in a dystopian society are discontented, and may rebel, but ultimately fail to change anything. Sometimes they themselves end up changed to conform to the society’s norms. Yeah, kinda of bleak, but we are talking about dystopian literature.
And now you know.