Dystopia is huge right now, especially in YA. This is probably due to the fact that we live in one–or, more correctly, this is due to the fact that YA readers are finally paying close enough attention to realize that we live in one. The last time American teens were politically savvy enough to care about the condition of our country was in the 60s, with the Vietnam war, and I think that has a lot of parallels to today: regardless of how the war may actually be going (and you can find the full range of opinions on the net if you search for at least five minutes), I think we can all agree that the war in the Middle East has been very long, and with very little perceived progress. This kind of thing bothers people, and starts them thinking about other things, and what I find really interesting here is that most of our political and governmental complaints these days have very little to do with the war; I think you can point to the war as the source of our unease, but the target of that unease is almost entirely domestic.

We don’t like the government’s lax position on immigration–but we don’t like the strict immigrations laws they’re passing now, either. We hated our last president, and now we hate our current one for completely different reasons. Our economy sucks, and the methods our government is using to pull us out of recession tend to suck even more than the recession. We’re upset and angry and–this is the key here–we don’t trust our leaders. I think that, more than anything, is the reason I label this a dystopia. If you don’t trust the people who hold all the power, the entire system breaks.

A dystopia, for those who don’t know, is loosely defined as a “bad society.” The word technically translates as “terrible place,” and exists as an opposite of the word eutopia, or “wonderful place.” More specifically, eutopia is a common science fiction concept of a perfect place, where our dreams of the future have all come true, and thus a dystopia is considered to the opposite of perfect–a place, or a time, when our dreams have very distinctly failed to come true. We have arrived at the future, and it’s exactly what we didn’t want it to be.

Part of me, frankly, is kind of excited about this. You go back six or seven years and I would have said our biggest societal problem was apathy–we were a nation of heedless consumers, getting and spending our money as fast as we could on every stupid piece of junk they could throw at us. We didn’t care about what was happening in the world because the world was boring. I feel kind of indebted to people like George W. Bush and Barack Obama for forcing us to a crisis of political mistrust so great we can’t help but take notice. Our world is worse now, and scarier, but at least we’re aware of how scary it is. In the interest of full disclosure I should say that I voted for Obama, excited about all the changes he was going to make, but I’ve grown pretty disillusioned now that he’s made so few of them. A friend asked me recently if I was happy with my choice, and I am–I’m just not happy with any of his subsequent choices.

But I’m getting off topic, and way too political, and I know I’m going to get slammed in the comments, and on Facebook, and on Twitter, by people demanding that I explain/justify/change my political statements. Let me cut that all short by stating right now that my political beliefs, and yours for that matter, are beside the point of this discussion, which is that nobody, regardless of their political beliefs, is happy with our political situation. There is not a single person, anywhere in America, who can look out and say “yes, everything is as it should be.” None of our ideals are being met; all of our choices are impossible. We’ve hit a crux of our societal development, I think, and that’s a very hard, painful place to be. It’s got us thinking about our future, and our past, and why our present is exactly what we didn’t want. It’s the textbook definition of a dystopia.

Dystopia in fiction, of course, is usually more pronounced. We replace our current problems with wild exaggerations of them. Are you worried that the people you used to like and trust are getting brainwashed into mindless enemies–like, say, socialism or its enemy the Tea Party movement? Then our massive bounty of zombie fiction will resonate very strongly with you. Do you think that our mishandling of a seemingly unwinnable war will destroy our way of life? Then step right up to the post-apocalypse fiction shelf, more full now than it’s probably ever been. Do you think our growing preference for online connectivity over personal interaction will break our society in unpredictable and unrecoverable ways? Then lucky for you that cyberpunk is back. Everything we’re afraid of, everything we’re living through every day, is reflected in our literature. My only hope, at this point, is that these disillusioned YA readers will learn something from our fiction and do their best to make tomorrow better.

21 Responses to “Dystopia”

  1. Wendy Swore says:

    I’ve never thought of it that way before, but you hit it right on. We are dissatisfied, and our youth feel that. Maybe Gen X Y …whatever comes after that can fix things. In the meantime, our writing will continue to reflect the society in which we live.

  2. Solid discussion.

    I did a write in for the vote. Still happy with my choice too.

  3. Rob Wells says:

    One of the aspects that I love about dystopia is the trade off between a great good and a horrible cost. In a lot of the books it’s a totalitarian situation: we’ve alleviated poverty or crime or whatever, but we do it by controlling all your actions, or thoughts, or by constant monitoring. Or, it could be a consumerism situation, where we get everything we could possibly want and it destroys us. Or, in The Giver, where they eliminate pain and sorrow, and therefore destroy happiness and joy along with it.

    Dystopia looks at the future almost like a cautionary tale, warning us to be careful what we wish for.

  4. Guerry Semones says:

    Hey Dan,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The novel I’m researching / outlining is YA dystopia. Your comments bring back Bradbury’s counsel to write about the things that scare you the most and bring you the most joy. Thanks for the kick in the pants, I think it will help with the story. And, I hope your right that regardless of where we are on the political spectrum, folks will wake up enough to make changes for the better, and find some common ground.

  5. Interesting take. dystopian novels have really struck a chord with me in the last few years but it wasn’t until you defined it in this way that I really understand. I wonder, then, if the topic will get old and worn out in a few years time, as genre’s tend to do, or our awareness and enjoyment of these books will only be heightened as things get worse. For now it’s nice to be able to live through our fears in a safe way, such as in novels with happy endings, or at least conclusions and all that.

  6. Excellent, thought-provoking post. Key word: Trust. As in, we don’t trust our leaders, regardless of party. You are absolutely onto something.

    On the other hand, someone needs to start poking around and finding the things we can build on for the future. If we want to have one. As you say, time to wake up and make changes for the better.

  7. I am a lot happier with his choices than I would have been any of McCain’s and Palin’s choices…

  8. Robert says:

    Interesting idea (and, I learned a new word today; I don’t know that I’ve ever seen eutopia before).

    The follow-up question that comes to mind is whether such a place (a eutopia, that is) could actually exist.

    I think you may be overstating your case slightly – the assertion that ‘There is not a single person, anywhere in America, who can look out and say “yes, everything is as it should be.”’ is a bit strong; though I don’t doubt that the number would be small, I doubt it would be zero – but I agree with the general premise: the vast majority of the population of the US would prefer significant changes from the current system. And, of course, there are several large groups with mutually exclusive ideal end-points of change.

    So, is it possible for a society of humans to form a eutopia? And, if so, what is the largest possible eutopic society?

    I can easily see a tiny eutopia – one person in isolation could have a perfectly functional and agreeable society (admittedly, it’s a stretch for the term “society” at that point). Similarly, two people can live on a desert island eutopia for the rest of their days. As the number of people in the group increases, however, it seems less and less plausible that a eutopia can continue: two members of society, it seems, must eventually have diametrically opposed on some topic, and (warning: slippery slope argument ahead) that argument would eventually lead to the eutopia’s fall from perfection to mere acceptability (or, depending on the strength of the disagreement or disagreers, may fall all the way into distopia).

    The third and final (if for no other reason than I’ll stop typing) question is whether distopia is the inevitable end point for a society.

  9. Thanks Dan,
    For the first time I think I finally understand dystopian literature, thanks to your explanation. And it’s okay that we didn’t agree on who to vote for. I still like you.

  10. stacer says:

    You didn’t learn a new word, Robert. You learned that Dan can’t spell “utopia.” Spelling problems aside, he’s right on with the ideas. :)

  11. Nate Hatfield says:

    I think labeling today’s society as dystopia is a wild exaggeration. While dystopia may be much more probable than utopia, I imagine real-world dystopias to be more like Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia, or some other unfortunate example. Not modern U.S. democracy. People are hacked, and it’s mostly because lots of people don’t have jobs. The rest is politics as usual, which is rough going in a nation of 300 million opinions. But dystopia it is definitely not.

  12. Erin says:

    I really enjoy reading about dystopias in children, teen and adult literature. Perhaps I find them cathartic- acknowledging and expressing the part of me that is saddened by the things I see in the world around me. However, I don’t see our current world as a dystopia. Instead, these novels represent the things we are afraid of happening, but the expression of these fears through text helps probe, warn, and hopefully prevent the exaggeration of an issue that can create a dystopia.

    For fun, here is a “Dystopia Prevention Pamphlet” and accompanying powerpoint that looks at science fiction in children’s literature that may be of interest if you are looking for books to explore or ways to think about dystopias in literature.

    The “Dystopia Prevention Guide”-
    It’s meant to be printed front and back, open to top so that you can fold it in half and have a little booklet.

    The PowerPoint presentation-

    I also saved it as the older version of powerpoint at

  13. […] when it might as easily be picked up by a 12-year-old as a 15-year-old. (Then again, given that we live in a dystopia and modern teens know it, perhaps they’d be just fine with it.) Public library, no problem. But it’s the kind of […]

  14. Sean - Texas says:

    I have always been a fan of distopia, perhaps because I was so unhappy with the world when I was growing up. I agree with your proposition that our literature reflects our current social problems. It is cathartic that way. We experience–from a distance–the things that upset us most, and in doing so we can vent our frustration in the safe confines of a book.

    As to our current political situation, it is and always will be a dystopia, but then again, I’m a cynic. The system is broken, but not broken enough to cease functioning. The only thing that anyone can really hope for is that it keeps weazing along while your days last and that the particular cogs that keep your life and values running smoothly aren’t the next things to go.

  15. SaintEhlers says:

    To be fair, you never see it “eutopia” because it’s never used. However, if you want to make it a strict, technical opposite of “dystopia” you have to spell it that way. The Greek “Eu” is good. When you spell it “utopia” it means, literally, “NO place.” Which goes into the term’s coiner’s opinion on the possibility of a “eutopia.” Thomas More’s fictional account, Utopia had a eutopia, but he deliberately used the phrase utopia to point out that it WASN’T real, and further, COULDN’T be real.

    Which all goes to point out why I find it utterly hilarious when in Ever After Drew Barrymore’s character uses the book to base her actual political beliefs. In retrospect, for all her fancy talk and vehemence, she really wasn’t all that bright.

  16. stacy says:

    StE, you never see “eutopia” used because it’s not in the dictionary. It’s not even in the etymology of the word (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=utopia).

  17. stacy says:

    And now that I say that, I have to take that back, because it’s not in the dictionaries *I* looked in, but on Dictionary.com, I just found it in the Random House dictionary. 😛

  18. SaintEhlers says:

    It’s on Wikipedia too, for all the authority that’s worth. I’d wager it’s in the OED, but I don’t have a sub there so…

  19. Ben Godby says:

    You know what the problem with the ideas of utopia and dystopia is? I will tell you. It is this:

    What is an opia?

    Think about it. Crumble.


  20. anja says:

    Haha, beautifully explained. My friend and I had a similar discussion about politic, war and hollywood: like the themes in blockbusters reflect the current system.
    The time of the great depression: Musicals. The time of the World War II: patriotic films, western and musicals, the time of the Cold War: Science Fiction with dangerous aliens …

  21. In a lot of the books it’s a totalitarian situation: we’ve alleviated poverty or crime or whatever

Leave a Reply