I’ve been a fan of dystopian novels ever since I read The Handmaid’s Tale as a teenager. That was over twenty years ago. Back then, reading dystopian meant picking up the old classics like 1984 and Brave New World. But in recent times, books like The Hunger Games have sparked a revival of the genre and made it popular.
What are Dystopian novels?
Dystopia is classified as part of the science fiction genre. Now, I normally talk about fantasy on this blog, but dystopian often overlaps with elements of paranormal or fantasy, and always involves a very specific world set up. So it has traits in common with other fantasy genres.
A dystopia is a fictional place in which everything is unpleasant. Typically these places are run by dictatorships, totalitarian governments or oligarchies. Often, the environment and living conditions will be poor.
A dystopian novel takes a dystopian system as its setting and introduces the protagonist as a character living and developing within the constraints of this world.
Examples of dystopian settings
In 1984, the country (a futuristic fictionalised Britain) is run by Big Brother, a dictator. The Party enforces the will of Big Brother. Continual warfare keeps living conditions poor. There is no privacy, and the thought police will eventually capture any Party member who rebels.
In The Hunger Games, the Capitol controls the surrounding 13 districts by forcing them to provide children to fight to the death in an annual competition. Living conditions are poor and communication is not allowed between districts.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, fertile woman involved in so called ‘illicit relationships’ are forced by a religious state to provide children for married women rendered infertile by radiation. The Handmaids are kept under strict control and spend a lot of time in isolation.
Common Elements and Tropes of Dystopian Novels
- A main character who hates the system and wishes it were different.
- Outward conformity to the system by the character’s friends and family, serving to isolate the main character.
- A chance encounter with something that makes the character think the society is not all it seems to be.
- The character then explores this opportunity – and finds a fellow dissenter and/or a mentor figure.
- The remainder of the novel then explores the character either escaping the dystopian system, or bringing the system down, or finding it futile to attempt to bring the system down.
- Some novels also explore the breakdown of the dystopia and the aftermath.
Aren’t dystopian novels really depressing?
I’ll admit there’s an element of truth to this. Reading about people living in a miserable society can bring you down. However, as with all speculative fiction books, dystopia is about escapism and immersing yourself in another world. Many dystopian novels carry a theme of hope or change in them – they show it is possible to break a system, it is possible for the little guy to win, and it’s good to stand up for what’s right.
However, on the flip side, dystopian novels act as a warning. For example, if public privacy is compromised by government surveillance, you will hear people refer to ‘Big Brother’ – straight out of 1984. These books show us situations that are wrong, and excess of control that is wrong, and helps us to identify when things may be going wrong in the real world. Perhaps they will help us improve our sense of social justice and our awareness of the effect of certain styles of government.
I’ve read an awful lot of dystopians over the years, many different styles and from many different eras. So here are my personal favourites:
In a ruined and toxic future, a community exists in a giant silo underground, hundreds of stories deep. There, men and women live in a society full of regulations they believe are meant to protect them. Sheriff Holston, who has unwaveringly upheld the silo’s rules for years, unexpectedly breaks the greatest taboo of all: He asks to go outside.
When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his name. He’s surrounded by strangers–boys whose memories are also gone. Outside the towering stone walls that surround them is a limitless, ever-changing maze. It’s the only way out–and no one’s ever made it through alive.
1984 has come and gone, but George Orwell’s prophetic, nightmare vision in 1949 of the world we were becoming is timelier than ever. “1984” is still the great modern classic “negative Utopia” – a startling original and haunting novel that creates an imaginary world that is completely convincing from the first sentence to the last four words. No one can deny this novel’s power, its hold on the imagination of whole generations, or the power of its admonitions – a power that seems to grow, not lessen, with the passage of time.
Set in a dark vision of the near future, a terrifying reality TV show is taking place. Twelve boys and twelve girls are forced to appear in a live event called The Hunger Games. There is only one rule: kill or be killed. When sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen steps forward to take her younger sister’s place in the games, she sees it as a death sentence. But Katniss has been close to death before. For her, survival is second nature.
A devastating new novel of innocence, knowledge, and loss. As children Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were. Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special–and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together.
The story is set in a seemingly perfect global society. Uniformity is the defining feature; there is only one language and all ethnic groups have been eugenically merged into one race called “The Family.” The world is ruled by a central computer called UniComp that has been programmed to keep every single human on the surface of the earth in check. People are continually drugged by means of regular injections so that they can never realize their potential as human beings, but will remain satisfied and cooperative. They are told where to live, when to eat, whom to marry, when to reproduce. even the basic facts of nature are subject to the UniComp’s will–men do not grow facial hair, women do not develop breasts, and it only rains at night.
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now….
Imagine a world where everyone knows everything about everybody. Where ‘sharing’ is valued above all, and privacy is considered a dangerous perversion. Trafford wouldn’t call himself a rebel, but he’s daring to be different, to stand out from the crowd. In his own small ways, he wants to push against the system. But in this world, uniformity is everything. And even tiny defiances won’t go unnoticed.
Let me know in the comments what your favourite dystopian novel is!