Dystopias are all the rage these days. From The Hunger Games and Divergent to Elysium and Transcendence and everything in between, It seems like about half of all summer blockbusters and 95% of all popular young adult novels feature a post-apocalyptic or dystopian society in some form or another. I exaggerate, of course, but not by much.
Some may ask just what exactly it is that makes dystopias so appealing and long-lasting in our society. There could be a lot of answers to this question, but after taking a class on Utopian Literature and incorporating the dystopian trend into my Master’s thesis (currently in progress), I think I’ve learned at least some of the answers.
The great thing about dystopias is not the futuristic sci-fi action or high-tech special effects. In fact, dystopias aren’t necessarily even about the future. Sure, many of them are set centuries in the future in societies that have gone too far in some direction or another. But they’re really just projections of concerns, fears, or criticisms that we have about our present-day society. Dystopias look at the flaws and problems in society currently and ask, “What if this was taken to an extreme? What if humanity continues going down this dark path for however many years in the future?” And then they answer those questions, sometimes in very poignant or haunting ways.
In my experience, there are at least two major criteria that make dystopias; most dystopias include one or both of these in some form or another.
1. In a different or future society, some advanced technology is misused or overused.
Many dystopias involve or focus on technology, which is not terribly surprising considering the haunting implications that some modern technologies could bring about. One classic example is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which human beings are grown from test tubes, mass produced just like automobiles, and psychologically conditioned from birth. Another example is Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, in which people become so dependent on technology to perform all their tasks that humans become lazy and obsolete. The wrong or excessive use of some technological innovation can provide fascinating insights into human nature and why man uses things the way he does.
2. In a different or future society, some wrong practice has become the law or the expected cultural norm.
In this sense, dystopias are not necessarily about technology or the future, but more so about human nature and human society. Literary critic Northrop Frye described a utopia as a society “governed by ritual habit,” so it’s not necessarily technology that goes wrong, but just human behavior and government. There are a number of literary dystopias worth looking into that don’t contain much science fiction, including Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Similarly, some more realistic American novels about secluded societies have been considered dystopian, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Some dystopian stories take place only in the near future and thus don’t include many technological differences from today’s time, such as the comic books V for Vendetta and Y: The Last Man.
3. Some dystopias combine both of the above criteria. For example, in The Hunger Games and Divergent, advanced technology plays a prominent role in the plot and the setting, but it’s not the main focus of the dystopia. The stories are more about the government and its restrictions on the people.
So, if you’re looking to write a dystopia, you shouldn’t necessarily start with the setting itself or the finer details of advanced technological trappings. Start with an idea about society and something that it’s doing wrong, or that it could conceivably be doing wrong in an extreme way in another time and place. Then flesh out the specifics from there. What is this society like? In what ways exactly are the people and/or the government taking things too far? What are the people like who will dissent or disagree with the values of their culture? What will happen when these two ideologies come into conflict?
As an example, I’ll use a dystopian novel that I’m currently working on (and, by “currently working on,” I mean that I wrote two chapters some time ago and am totally going to finish the whole thing one day when I have more time to write). I didn’t decide from the beginning that I wanted to write a dystopia. In fact, I wasn’t even intentionally brainstorming for story ideas at all. Instead, I was just feeling frustrated by our culture’s attitude toward relationships (a topic which I’ve written about more extensively on my personal blog) and society’s overemphasis on needing a romantic relationship to be happy. And then I got to thinking.
“What if, in the future, there was a society where this obsession with relationships was mandated by law—or at least by strict cultural expectations? What if, for example, people were required on their 18th birthday, as soon as they hit adulthood, to choose a partner to spend the rest of their lives with? What if people who remained single were outcasts or exiles? And what if there was a teenage boy coming up on 18 who wasn’t that interested in relationships and didn’t want to be forced to choose a partner before he was ready?” Suddenly the central premise and conflict of the story began to fall into place.
I asked myself other questions about this society, too. If people are forced to choose their perfect soulmate at only 18, then does that system actually work to foster positive and healthy relationships? Or would there still be divorce, unfaithfulness, and unhappiness in relationships, despite society’s best efforts? I concluded that these negative elements would indeed still exist in this world. Often, that’s a hallmark of what makes a work dystopian rather than utopian: society tries something that is meant to keep everyone happy and in line, but ultimately the system still falls apart because flawed human nature keeps coming through.
Your challenge is to write a dystopian story, either a short story or the beginning of something longer. (Each presents its own set of challenges. In a short story, you have limited space in which do a lot of important worldbuilding for your society; in a novel, you have much more room, but it obviously takes much more time and effort to finish!) Either way, start by trying to pinpoint a few flaws in society or human nature that you’ve noticed, and then ask yourself what it would be like if those flaws were made law or taken to the extreme. Ask yourself what life would be like for people who didn’t go along with the values of this culture. If you can answer these questions and flesh out some more details, then you’re well on your way to writing a thought-provoking piece of dystopian fiction!