posted a review of Atwood's The Year of the Flood, I asked her if she thought I'd like Flood and its prequel, Oryx and Crake. She responded by asking if I like "dystopian literature." My snobby literary defenses immediately went up, and I thought, "Uh, no. Isn't dystopian literature akin to science fiction, and only a baby step away from fantasy?"
But I thought about it a little more, and realized that Infinite Jest, one of my favorite novels of all time, could actually be considered dystopian literature. And, I've also greatly enjoyed the three novels that dystopian experts would probably consider the cornerstones: 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. And furthermore, I'm currently reading Gary Shteyngart's dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story, which isn't my favorite book ever, but I don't hate it simply because it's dystopian.
So, maybe I am interested in broadening my horizons a little and trying some more dystopian lit — but with some parameters. To me, a good dystopian novel is one in which the dystopia is just another exotic setting (like contemporary Uzbekistan or 18th century South Africa) for a good story with innately human, recognizable characters. One of the cynical questions you often hear about "immigrant fiction," like that written by Jhumpa Lahiri or Daniyal Mueenuddin, is "Would anyone care about this story if it wasn't about exotic people doing exotic customs in exotic lands?" There's some legitimacy to that question, in my mind. In other words, a novel's "exotic quotient" cannot be the only, or maybe even the major, strategy on which the story hang its hat.
And that idea also applies to what I would consider good dystopian fiction. Sure, the parameters of the dystopia (Big Brother, Soma, "firemen" burn books, etc.) will set the rules for the novel, and in many cases, the conflict, too — but the characters negotiating that conflict and the plot the writer creates for them to do so must still be interesting, intriguing, riveting on its own accord. The story is still king, right? This is why Infinite Jest is such a brilliant novel. Despite the kooky dystopian America in which it takes place, the characters and plot of this novel are easy to recognize, easy to understand and easy to root for or not.
But all this has still made me wonder: Where exactly is that line between literary dystopian fiction and science fiction and fantasy? Is the Hunger Games trilogy dystopian or fantasy? Or is it both? Let me take a stab: Obviously, by definition, dystopian implies that something really bad has happened and the story takes place in that altered future that isn't nearly rosy as the present. For science fiction (like the novels of Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov) or fantasy (like The Lord of the Rings or the novels of George R.R. Martin), the setting is imaginary, but not necessarily unpleasant. Furthermore: In science fiction and fantasy, the setting is the defining characteristic of the novel. That's why these two are often labeled genre fiction. Dystopian fiction, though, for the reasons described above, only works if the setting is only one of a number of literary strategies that add up to a complete novel.
Too simplistic? Maybe. But I'm interested to hear your take. Where do you draw the line between dystopian literature and genre science fiction or fantasy? What are some of your favorite literary dystopian novels?