After reading Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Game, I’ve been mulling over the notion of a Dystopian novel. Have had some online and off-line discussions and realized that my definition of a Dystopian novel is very narrow but still want to hold on to that view because I believe that if it is too broadly applied, the power of the genre will cease to be as effective as it has been. Here’s an IM chat transcript between me (F) and a former student who is now entering his senior year in high school (J). Slight edition was applied to the original format to make it more readable:
AIM IM with J.
J: Happy 4th!
F: You too You too
F: So. Asking you a quesiton.
F: What do you think is a Dystopia?
J: …Hmm. Well, WALL-E is dystopian.
F: how so?
J: It’s a vision of the world where everything’s gone to hell.
F: I have a very narrow definition of dystopia. That’s too broad. That’s just a BAD future
J: Alright. Well 1984 is dystopian. Yes?
F: Yes. Explain. Haha. This Is A Test!
J: Oh. So you subscribe to the theory that a dystopia must appear utopian.
F: I do.
J: I don’t.
F: Then why bother using the term?
J: A dystopia is a world where everything is wrong. Look at the Greek roots.
F: I know.. but the word did not exist until 1868 according to OED
J: War of the Worlds is dystopian.
F: An imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible. That’s the broad definition. I’m thinking of the literary tradition. The ‘dystopia’ or ‘inverted utopia’.I guess it can be so easily defined as a horrible future world (or current world.)
F: Then, to me, the word to define a genre is almost pointless. ’cause anyone writing about the future with a bad government is writing a dystopian novel. Argh. ugh too.
J: Hmm. Well. You have a point, that it broadens the definition…
F: and ceases to be truly meaningful.
J: Although a bad government would never a dystopia make. Go see WALL-E and we can have a more intelligent conversation about this – seriously.
F: For me, the power of a dystopia novel is the presentation and conflict between what’s SO GOOD on the surface with what’s SO BAD underneath.
F: hahah. I will have to wait for Lily to get back to the city.
J: From the standpoint of a librarian, I see why you’re right.
F: I promised not to see it until then.
J: From the standpoint of a student of Greek, I disagree with you.
J: Brave New World. Dystopian?
F: That’s MEANT to be a Dystopian novel. So was 1984.
J: Fahrenheit 451?
F: But not sure about Blade Runner. I think 451 is. So is The Giver.
J: But Fahrenheit 451 isn’t meant to be utopian. Giver – certainly. Well, Do Androids Dream is dystopian – haven’t seen bladerunner.
F: That’s why I said, “I think.” ’cause I am not sure.
J: The Giver is a very archetypical dystopia. What about The Diamond Age?
F: Not Dystopian by a LONG SHOT. Neither are the Ender’s series. The world is not perfect but nothing is so inverse. There has to be some form of “inversion”
J: I kind of thought the Chinese world in Xenocide was dystopian?
F: That’s that particular world, maybe, but the entire series is definitely not concerning itself singularly that way.
J: I agree.
F: Matrix is not dystopian.
J: Oh? Why not?
F: Even though it does portray a world that is under such control.
F: I dont know.
J: btw, this question is awesome.
F: Why don’t I think so?
F: Matrix — ’cause I guess in some way the people who made the movie did not really have much to say about our society
F: As a literary genre, it serves a fairly specific function. Here’s an example: Lord of the Flies. It’s a little society that is as BAD as it can be.
J: LotF isn’t a dystopia.
F: That’s THE example. How it is not.
J: Well, I’ve stolen your view.
F: If by your original definition…
J: No, I’ve switched, irritatingly!
F: YEAH. I WON.
F: I’m saving this convo for my blog.
J: Well, it’s poorly-conceived Greek by your definition.
J: But I concede that, from a literary standpoint, your definition makes more sense.
F: HAHAH. thank you. very much.
J: Have you read The Plot Against America?
F: Now I can go to bed and sleep well and be told by someone else tomorrow that my definition makes NO SENSE.
J: Phillip Roth?
J: Alright. lol, who’s going to tell you that?
F: is that one?
F: Don’t know yet.
F: I’ve been asking everyone I meet.
F: run into.
J: I think it’s my lone example of a non-futuristic dystopia.
F: talk to.
F: For some reason, in my mind, there has to be some form of superficial utopian view by the masses to set up the stage for a dystopian novel to work. Or at least, to be effective or powerful. Without the contrast, it does not really function well.
J: If you want to interpret it that way, it’s a perfectly legitimate view. So you would think the second half of WALL-E is dystopian, not the first half! ^_^
F: I just read a book for kids (or teens) where you see everything of a BAD society from the view point of a girl who ALWAYS thought of the society as bad and MANY others feel the same way ’cause they are on the BOTTOM of the society. And I simply couldn’t peg this book as a dystopia ’cause there is no disillusion.
F: k. I look forward to the movie.
J: Snow Crash is a dystopia. Even if Diamond Age isn’t.
F: Say if Brave New World is viewed through not an Alpha’s pov but someone really low on the spectrum….
F: Nah.. Snow Crash is set in a future that is both good and bad and people have no illusion about what their society is about. It’s a Cyper Punk
J: I disagree with that interpretation.
F: Already a sub-genre.
J: Cyber Punk can be dystopian!
F: I know *haha* Just want to yank your chains.
J: What’s-it-called! The book by Gibson! Such a dystopia!
F: Hm… disagree. It’s just very bleak world, like Blade Runner.
F: Bleak /= Dystopian
J: So you would think it’s dystopian only from a Tessier-Ashpool point of view. Fantastic wealth, technological advances, theoretical happiness, but bleak = dystopian.
F: I’m thinking maybe one can define the WORLD as a dystopia some times without the book as dystopian. ?
J: Or parts of it, even…
F: I do think it depends also partially on how the author treats that world. The focus. Dystopian stories tend to be cautionary tales.
J: Parts of LotR are almost dystopian.
F: Nah. It’s FANTASY.
J: Fantasy can be dystopian, silly!
F: Disagree re LotR.
J: Minas Tirith is totally dystopian.
F: If that is then Narnia is, too
F: Not at all.
J: The greatest city in the world, where everything’s perfect, rotting at its core?
F: Minas Tirith is just falling from grace, with one bad guardian.
J: A dystopia is a facade of perfection, yes?
F: That’s just faded glory.
J: Under which lies great misery?
F: You’re picking a small part of a grand picture to argue.
F: In MANY novels, you’ll find such settings to help move the plot along or to create conflict.
J: yes. I agree. And Narnia isn’t dystopia, just apocalyptic…
F: So, against the grand backdrop of LotR which is NOT a dystopian novel …
J: Do you mean to tell me you can’t have a utopian society in a non-utopian novel?
F: That’s important to distinguish and I agree with your assessment that Narnia isn’t dystopia (which was my point in the first place)
J: Lorien is a utopia. Yes?
F: Utopian is not a genre. We really don’t have a body of literary work that we can say, “Hey, look, a list of Utopian Novels.”
J: Sure we do. It’s just one book, and it’s by Sir Thomas More.
F: That’s why I don’t believe that simply defining the word DYSTOPIA is sufficient in thinking about the literary device/genre.
F: it’s not a BODY/LIST of books
F: You stand corrected!
J: Eh, fair point.
F: ‘k. thanks. it’s been fun.