I don’t like the label ‘dystopia’. And there’s a lot of it going around. I can’t decide if people are writing more of them, or if publishers and readers are labelling them that way because it’s an easy tag. Probably it is true that people are writing more fiction that looks critically at different kinds of societies, which is a good thing, I think. It’s probably also related to the way genres are bleeding into each other, as the boundaries of realism vs. non-realism (let alone SF vs. Literary) break down a bit. This is good. None of those rules should exist for writers, anyway.
It does still annoy me if someone suggests I’ve written one, though. Mainly because I think what we commonly think of as ‘dystopia’ – an awful situation in which terrible, bad things happen basically to everyone – doesn’t really exist. Wikipedia thinks that a dystopia is “a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening”, which is pretty uncontroversial, but what comes to mind is 1984 or The Hunger Games or Never Let Me Go. Total fascism; children forced to kill each other for fun; clones harvested for organs. Not to mention how often ‘dystopian’ is used to mean ‘post-apocalyptic’.
My problem with the idea of dystopia is that every dystopia depends on whose perspective you see it from. And once you agree with that, you have to admit that there is no society which is not ‘in some important way undesirable or frightening’, to someone. For that reason, the only difference between a dystopia and every other book is that a dystopian story is actually looking for those cracks. In fact if you decide to write a book about society or that contains any political perspective, it is inevitably going to address the problems. This is because the problems are where the drama comes from.
If you turn that on its head, it’s worth remembering that every dystopia serves someone. It has to, otherwise it’s just a random, meaningless vision of hell that has no bearing on the real world at all. In the real world, horrific unjust situations continue because they suit someone. They serve someone’s purpose – generally someone with more power than the person being hurt. But it’s vital to remember that from those comfortable people’s perspective, life is good. The world is fine. Yes, something bad might be going on somewhere, but if so it’s a necessary evil.
We also call it a dystopia when everyone seems to be happy, but we as readers (sometimes through an outside character) get to see that the people of that society have in the process of gaining contentment lost something important and human. The obvious example is Brave New World, but another great one is the short story The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi. The people in that world have gained a great deal but, from our perspective, become monsters. The best thing about the story is that they’re happy. It’s a horror story to us, but it’s just life to them. This is always how science fiction should be, because people are judged by the standards of their time.
You can write dystopic fiction either from the point of view of the people who are being damaged by that society, or alternatively from the perspective of the lucky ones. If you write it from the perspective of the lucky ones, then you’re obliged to show the cracks in the facade, the dark recesses under the riches or the contentment. Even if you only hint at them very vaguely, your smart readers will be looking for the catch. Of course they are. Fiction needs drama, and what’s the point of writing about a fictional society if you don’t show up its contradictions and inconsistencies and injustice?
The reason I don’t like the word ‘dystopia’ is that I worry that if we can call anything futuristic that points out the cracks in a society a ‘dystopia’, then we’re missing the point. We live in a dystopia.
In fact, if you apply Wikipedia’s definition of ‘dystopia’ to fiction that isn’t commonly bracketed as SF, you notice that anything with political concerns, or concerns about societies, is eligible for the label. What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe. Five-Star Billionaire by Tash Aw. Most of Dickens. In the end, ‘dystopia’ is only the label we use for any non-contemporary-realist fiction that addresses political concerns.* It’s a pity. It’s simplifying, it’s narcotising, and it pretends that the world we’re in is not as bad as the worlds we depict. I don’t think anyone should write a dystopia – instead, write a book where enough people are happy or well off for the system to survive. Then go ahead and show all the nastiness under it. And don’t call it a dystopia. Be honest and call it politics. Or call it life.
*I’m leaving utopia for another time.