The popularity of movies and television shows like The Hunger Games, Doctor Who and The Walking Dead reflect a renewed interest in dystopian themes. Even Orwell’s classic novel, 1984, has seen a spike in sales in recent months. The irony, of course, is how closely these dystopian societies reflect the world we live in.
Let’s begin by examining the meaning of dystopia. Often seen as the direct opposite of utopia, dystopia refers to an imaginary place in which everything is unpleasant or bad. It is typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded state in which the population is oppressed by corrupt leadership.
In literature, a dystopian society is usually characterized by those beliefs which are contrary to the author’s real feelings. For example, the author may portray a future society where mass poverty, public mistrust and suspicion, a police state or oppression are the norm. The author will then use the story to explore reasons why things are that way as an analogy for similar issues in the real world. Dystopian fiction is speculative in nature and provides a framework for mapping out the future. It extrapolates elements of contemporary society and thus can be read as political warnings.
In dystopian fiction, society itself is the antagonist. It is society that is actively working against the protagonist’s aims and desires. This oppression frequently is enacted by a totalitarian or authoritarian government, resulting in the loss of civil liberties and untenable living conditions, caused by a number of circumstances, such as world overpopulation, laws controlling a person’s sexual or reproductive freedom, and living under constant surveillance” (Adams, 2011). The interesting point is that some people within a dystopic society may not recognize or care about their loss of personal freedoms. They have been manipulated into passivity by the oppressive rules of the society in which they live.
In dystopian literature, the story is often unresolved. The oppression that is tantamount to maintaining control of society is not brought down. The hero may make a valiant stand against it, but he often fails. However, his attempt gives hope to others. Sometimes the climax is the hero’s escape from the dystopia (e.g. The Giver). Other times the hero fails to achieve anything and the dystopia continues as before.
One cannot help but draw certain parallels between the dystopian societies of literature and the events taking place in the world today. If we are to avoid the dire predictions presented in dystopian fiction, we must take heed of the warning signs present in real life. We cannot afford to be passive observers of the world around us and hope things will eventually work out for the best. We must take action to preserve those personal freedoms we hold most dear.
Wanda DeHaven Pyle is the award-winning author of Windborne, and the legacy trilogy available now on Amazon and Kindle.