What Makes a Good Dystopia?

I know, I know.  ‘Good dystopia’ is an oxymoron, but I think you know what I mean.  Dystopias, ever since the release of The Hunger Games, have exploded in popularity both in the teen and adult markets.  There are a lot of good ones out there, but there are a lot of bad ones too.  But what makes a dystopia good (read: interesting) for the reader?

Believability

1.  It has to be believable.

Many of you know my gripe about how the faction system in the Divergent trilogy would never, ever work because people are not like that.  If dystopian fiction doesn’t have a dystopia that makes sense or could really happen someday, readers are not going to like it.  Authors have to know enough about human nature and world politics in order to create dystopias that could really happen.  Sadly, a lot of authors just seem to skip this general knowledge requirement and jump in head first.

Why was Orwell’s 1984 so popular?  Because it really could happen.  It drew elements from the society of the day and predicted some things that are going on to this day.  Compare that to Divergent, where there are 5 factions that you pretty much have to join and fit completely into one category unless you’re Divergent.  Most people in Veronica Roth’s world are not Divergent, which tells you how much she really knows about human nature.

Scary

2.  It has to be scary.

It’s a dystopia people, not an utopia!  If a novel is supposed to be dystopic, it had better have the ability to scare the crap out of the reader.  Part of the reason why The Hunger Games was so popular was not only the fact that Suzanne Collins’ world was plausible, but because it was terrifying.  If you’re not a teenager picture yourself when you were, around age 15, possibly even younger since the reaping is for 12-18.  How would it feel if you were taken from your family for the first time in your life (since travel isn’t allowed) and forced to fight to the death on national television?  I don’t know about you, but I don’t think many adults, let alone teenagers would be able to do things like that.  The Hunger Games is a terrifying dystopia; but that’s the point.

Dystopias not only make us see the flaws in our current society, but also make us appreciate the good things we have in our society.  In Canada and the U. S. we don’t have to worry that if we speak out against the government that we will be arrested and imprisoned without trial.  Somehow I think free speech isn’t a big part of most dystopias.  We also have a charter that outlines our rights and we get to elect the people that represent us in government, despite the claims of some wingnuts.

Just think about all the rights we enjoy here in North America and Europe.  Now imagine if all those rights were taken away just like that.  Does that scare you?  It should.

Hope

3.  It generally has to get better.

As much as I want to see the good guys lose once, just once, I admit that a melancholy, if not entirely happy ending is much better.  If you’re a big dystopian fan you’ve probably realized that in most series, the main character will tear down the regime responsible for the dystopia.  Need proof?  Here are some of the more notable ones where dystopias are changed:

The Giver series, the Hunger Games Trilogy, the Matched Trilogy, Sapphique and its sequel, The Bar Code Trilogy, the Newsflesh Trilogy, Tomorrow Land, the Uglies Trilogy, Peeps and its sequel, FireSeed One and The Host.

Need I go on?  You’ll notice that out of all of the books listed here, many of them are popular YA novels.  That’s because people need hope and it’s hope that sells.  It’s nice to see a society go from terrible to better.  It’s nice to see good win over evil because it’s not always like that in real life.

So what makes a dystopia ‘good’ for you guys?  Do you even like dystopian fiction?  Why or why not?

8 comments

  1. Andy Szpuk

    ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess is a classic, but the ending isn’t necessarily ‘happy’ as such, but it is thought provoking, and there is hope that people caught up in negative cycles can change, but then the way its done by the state is quite brutal, so it’s quite a deep exploration of society and how politics can lead to darkness.

    • Carrie Slager

      You’re certainly right about A Clockwork Orange, but an ending like that seems to be the exception, not the rule these days. Especially in YA. Although I would love to read a book with an ending like that if it was done properly.

    • Carrie Slager

      That’s great! I don’t read as much dystopia as I used to, but when you find a good one, it’s certainly worth it. I may have to check out World of Shell and Bone now. 🙂

  2. John Nelson

    I think you have to see your own society reflected back in the pages of the dystopian fantasy society. Dystopia is a great genre for examining our own society and perhaps show us a few warning signs along the way.

    • Carrie Slager

      That’s also a good point and one of the reasons dystopias like 1984, The Hunger Games and The Giver were so successful. Both teens and adults can see today’s society in those dystopias.

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