Last week, I was listening to Books and Authors podcast and one of the co-hostesses mentioned 1984 by George Orwell. She was saying that she didn’t like dystopias but that Orwell’s 1984 was read, back in the day, as a literary fiction, which is true. Although the term ‘dystopia’ was coined by John Stuart Mill in 1868, it became vastly used only in the past few decades.
So why don’t people like dystopias?
Basically, dystopias say that we’re doomed to fail in the future. Something in our ways is going to put us in regression. The Handmaid tale (the original book published in 1985) opens up to a collapsing US. In one of the initial scenes, the female protagonist goes to the bank to find out that she no longer has access to her bank account and that she no longer has a job, as jobs and earning a living will only be for men from now on. Although the plot doesn’t really give us the best answer as to how this came to be, it shows a world of women’s oppression built on the ruins of one the strongest democracies in the world today. People get to question the sustainability of such a democracy and the fate of the Bill of rights that guarantees gender equality.
Another reason maybe the ease with which the regime in some dystopias are toppled in fiction. In many dystopias, it takes one person to pose the right questions at the right moment or undergo an inciting incident that triggers a series of events leading the hero to the Achilles’ heel of the system. Some people don’t simply like such plots, as in Oryx and Crake, where the novel ends with a wiping-off almost all of the human race and emergence of the man-made race.
Another good reason may be an ominous feeling to it. Some dystopias show our realities in a distorted way, which is something some people hate to see. A perfect example for this would be the futuristic Chinese dystopian novels. I read one of them and have others on my TBR list, like The Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan. (Here is an interview with the author on his writings and views as a Chinese science-fiction writer).
I like stories that investigate the future of technology and how we will deal with it. I have that theme in one of my science fiction stories, one that had started as a short story, became a novella and now, hopefully, will become a novel. It’s one of my very few writing projects that had undergone several rewrites.
A good portion of dystopias magnify human flaws and render them too visible to their audience. Some people don’t like that magnification and prefer to remain optimistic about the human condition and our ability to sustain ourselves as a species.
Dystopias show brutality in a blunt way and there is violence on and off scene. Some people are disturbed by that. I personally prefer to be spared the gory details, but I don’t mind reading about harsh dystopian futures. Some readers prefer to have faith that humanity will be able to eradicate violence altogether from its future. That can also apply to readers of dystopia. In fact, by showing that in literature, it can be taken as a way to show warning signs and to learn from bad models, not to pursue them. Again, it depends on how a reader perceives the book.
Dystopia, although might mingle with other subgenres that depict supernatural beings of all kinds, such as urban fantasy and science-fantasy, still show, on its own, humanoid forms that might scare some people away from reading those books. In Species Technica (2002), a novel by the Belgian writer, Gilbert Hottois, humans change their skin, change what makes them homo sapiens and become a hybrid of humans and animals in that technological scientific experiment that crosses many lines. The purpose here in that novel was to conquer human fragilities and death.
Different social structures and disappearance or severe alterations to family unit deter many readers from dystopias. They don’t like the socio-economic setting. My Dystopia, Inline, shows such a disruption. The system in the Labyrinth is not based on any family structure. Men and women have sex, not for pleasure or to seek short or long term relationships, but it’s mandatory as a way to control them and to be consistent with a socio-economical system based on conditioning human behavior to perpetuate work servitude. There are no friendships either, except whatever people will randomly come in contact with, in terms of emotions and feelings, which will defy the system’s imposing conditioning.
We know now that we perceive our physical attributes in a way that shifts us towards a perfection our bodies are not made for. It’s one of my favorite themes, although it might be a turnoff for some readers/viewers, as, for them, it might be like looking in the mirror and see how bad we would become. In that movie by Bruce Willis, Surrogates (2009), people replace themselves with robots. In search of beauty and perfection, they choose to remain imprisoned indoor and send robots to fulfill their roles in life and work. They do this to eliminate risks and dodge dangers. But it’s also about the isolation of members of society from one another. The movie shows us a glimpse of what we would do to avoid facing the world, by actively choosing to be replaced by perfect-looking robots.
The ninth reason can be as simple as ‘it’s been overdone’. The tropes in the YA subgenre might be really overdone: the young hero or heroine who shakes the dystopian system, the desperate love affair and the harsh isolated world. The literary scene is oversaturated with YA dystopias. One of the main premises of Dystopia is to shock. If there are too many of them, the shock/awe effect will be diluted.
Finally, I think these reasons can also be read as 9 reasons why people like dystopias, if you take people’s tastes into consideration.
Now, I’d like to hear from you. Do you like dystopias, if not, why? Did you find the reasons why you dislike them in the post? In your opinion, are there other reasons?