Monday, January 3, 2011

A Short Discussion About Dystopian Lit

Margaret Atwood is one of those many authors who has flitted around the periphery of my reading consciousness, but who I've never made a serious effort to read. So, a few weeks ago, when Brenna at Literary Musings 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?


  1. I think there can be overlap between dystopian and science fiction and I consider 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 both genres. I think the question of "would anyone care of the setting was different" is a good question to ask of most books to determine if the story is more than just a gimmick.

    If you do decide you want to check out more dystopian lit, check out A Clockwork Orange or The Wanting Seed, both by Anthony Burgess.

  2. I haven't read Year of the Flood(or Onyx and Crake)but did enjoy Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale,which can be considered dystopian as well as feminist.

    Some genre lines can become hard to differentiate,which is why there are classifications such as urban fantasy(magical beings and occurrences placed in our modern day world)and paranormal romance(where being in love with an otherworldly person is the main focus of the plot),for example.

    Expanding your reading horizons is always a good notion,Greg,and I do recommend The Handmaid's Tale highly.

  3. Hm, I've never really thought about it before! I tend to think, though, that a dystopian novel is one in which something has gone horribly wrong and the future of humanity was changed entirely and for the worse because of it (much like you said). I don't think there's anything to stop one genre from crossing over a line into another, although this may just be because, like I said, I never really thought about it before.

    However, since you've read most of the dystopian novels I would recommend, the only addition I have for you is Anthem by Ayn Rand. It's very short, but very powerful.

  4. This whole post seems to be based on the fact that there is something inherently wrong or "less" about science fiction. Why does it matter if the book is dystopian AND science fiction? Why do we have to draw a line? Dystopian, as it is often set in the future, will often have elements of science fiction. And I think that's a wonderful thing!

  5. Dystopian literature?
    Greg, you literary snob!!!

    Good question though. Even though I often find myself pre-judge a book by it's genre, if a book gets many compliments and good reviews I'll pick it up (Twilight excepted) regardless. With so many books I'd like to read one has to have his or hers filters set firmly in place.

    But to answer your question, what I would consider a dystopian book is any book about a screwed up utopia. That does not necessarily have to be science-fiction/fantasy mind you. A good example would be "Lord of the Flies".

  6. @Red - You're right, there most certainly can be overlap - trying to cordon of things into sub-genres can be an exercise in futility a lot of the time, especially when sub-genres are so similar. But each does have some pretty defining characteristics, and those are the ones I was trying to get at. Good call on Burgess - never read A Clockwork Orange, but the movie is terrifying!

    @LadyT - Ah, yeah - another dystopian Atwood novel. Thanks for bringing that up. And you're right, that the lines between sub-genres are blurry.

    @Amy - Ayn Rand is another writer I've never read, but know I probably should to be a well-rounded reader. Anthem is appealing if it's short, 'cause Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead sure aren't!

    @Lu - From strictly a literary (and my personal taste) standpoint, there IS something "less" about science fiction - which is why it's widely considered genre fiction. Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick may be good storytellers, but they ain't winnin' any Pulitzers, is my point. Writers like Atwood, Orwell, Shteyngart have been able to bridge that dystopian literature / science fiction gap, which is why I was thinking about the line between them. But you're right, often times it's not a very clear line - and many novels could be considered both. Thanks for commenting!

    @Man - Hehe - snob, indeed! ;) Good point about Lord of the Flies, too - that's definitely dystopian without having to take place in some future science fictiony world.

  7. I agree with the above comment. Dystopian lit. and science fiction are really close cousins as genres go, because they fit extremely well together, but aren't necessarily interdependent. I think dystopian science fiction functions in an attempt toward a prophetic role; that is, a warning of where the author sees their culture going. Orwell was certainly correct is his larger view, and I found myself thinking that I could see how we get there from here after reading Oryx and Crake. I think that's what makes science fiction a natural companion for dystopian presentations, because it is easier to portray the extremes of the dystopia for metaphorical devices, some of which couldn't function nearly as well in realistic settings.

  8. Glad to see this post, since this is also the first year I will be getting to Atwood (Just started Blind Assassin, and O&C + Year of the Flood is on my list). Interesting thoughts on dystopian fiction. I think it is easy to get turned off by the genre by some of the more recently popular titles, but if I had to sit and list my favorite books, more then half would probably fall under 'dystopia'. Currently, my school is doing an interactive 'creative learning' event focused on dystopian ideas and philosophies in a variety of classes, not just English. It's been interesting to see everyones opinions.

  9. The Children of Men by PD James is my favorite dystopian novel. I have read and enjoyed the Handmaiden's Tale. I am with you on the need to have more than just a strange setting and dark cirsumstances, as always for me character development and plot complexity rule the day.

  10. I draw the line pretty much where you do. Tis is super simplistic but I think of dystopian fiction as being almost like an imagined future of where we are now. A possible version of our future.

    Science fiction is a bit more fantastic - the setting is not a particularly realistic imagining of what the future holds. Its not a possible version of a our future, even though its based in the future (like Space Ranger by Isaac Asimov.)

    Fantasy is completely make believe.

    For the record, I think that science fiction is a great under rated genre.

    People tend to dismiss it but I have made an effort toward the end of 2010 to read a lot more of it and I am being pleasantly surprised. I hope to learn more about science fiction in 2011.

    I read Oryx and Crake when it came out and Year of the Flood in 2010 and they are both amazing by the way. Especially Year of the Flood. Can't wait for the third

  11. On the comment about science fiction writers not winning awards (sorry, I can't remember who wrote it) I don't think that necessarily means anything about the genre.

    In all genres there are good writers and bad writers and I am not convinced you can dismiss a genre because of the number of literary award winners there are.

    Crime is oftena genre that is dismissed as being trashy (which largely I accept it is), but then you get wonderful literary crime writers like Peter Temple who won the Miles Franklin Literary Award last year.

    From a literary point of view I would say that there are many science fiction writers that deserve credit for wonderul work that is not only science fiction but it literary (in my view), John Wyndham for example.

    I think its a bit risky judging a genre based on award winners thats all. If we all did that I think we would miss out on some fabulous authors and books

  12. @Dave - Agree wholeheartedly that dystopian often serves as a cautionary tale. Not a coincidence that most dystopian fiction uses the totalitarian state motif, is it? Science fiction - as Atwood says - is "way out there, too weird to be possible."

    @Padfoot - Sounds like an interesting project! Hope you'll write about it on your blog - dystopian fiction is a subgenre I'm definitely not going to so easily dismiss, now that I've thought about it a lot more.

    @Kathy - Glad we agree, and thanks for the recommendations. That's the second vote for The Handmaid's Tale - may have to check that one out!

    @Becky - I know science fiction fans are generally very passionate about their genre, and I can certainly respect that. For me, it's a matter of taste that I generally don't read it. But I do disagree that awards are not a good gauge of literary value. Science fiction as a genre even has its own awards - like Hugo and Philip K. Dick - so clearly those authors are being recognized with awards too. It's not like Philip Roth or Don DeLillo will ever win those awards, so science fiction fans shouldn't complain that their favorite sci fi writers will never win a Pulitzer. But the difference is that Roth and DeLillo are automatically eliminated whereas the Pulitzer and other literary prizes recognizes outstanding fiction in any genre. It's not a coincidence, however, that no sci fi writer's ever won. (Western writers - Larry McMurtry - and even Crime writers - Norman Mailer for The Executioner's Song - have won.) At the end of the day, it does really come down to a matter of taste. I'm not a fan of sci fi, so it's easy for me to argue against it. But I respect those who do enjoy it and carry its flag. Cheers for initiating a good conversation!

  13. I love Atwood, even though I haven't gotten started on this soon-to-be trilogy. I would recommend Vonnegut's Player Piano as a superior (to me) dystopian novel. I call it superior because it has so much more TRUTH in it. My students really relate to it. I wish it were taught in high schools instead of 1984. Also, regarding Rand: Anthem is short, but it is inferior. I much preferred Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. It's kind of like comparing short Steinbeck to long Steinbeck. There just isn't much to recommend The Pearl over East of Eden.

  14. I can't remember where I've read it or heard it or who said it, but a quote immediately came to mind regarding genres being a creation of, and problem for, booksellers and has nothing to do with the work of writing stories. There's something to that I reckon. Obviously the lines are often blurred between genres, but it's also quite easy to delineate what is 'literature' vs 'genre fiction'. If you look historically at science fiction, it enabled people to write about their culture and critique it in ways that weren't otherwise acceptable, and some sci-fi still does that, and others just tell a great story. In my opinion, one isn't better than the other, they just serve different purposes. I read Daughters of Moab recently which was definitely what you'd call 'dystopian literature'. I've never had to use a dictionary more in my life. I'm sure it won the awards it did because the judges were wowed by all the words they never knew they didn't know! It was very good, but hard work. Apart from that the other dystopia I've read, by your definitions would be either sci-fi or genre fiction. If I had a million bucks I'd tell you I'd give you a million bucks if you'd read The Knife of Never Letting Go. I'm sure it's the book that would make you change your mind about sci-fi/fantasy. It's literature it tell you, literature!

  15. Atwood was clearly right to be concerned that literary snobs might classify The Year of the Flood as science fiction as an excuse to ignore it (have you heard the attempt at a more tony name, "speculative fiction"?).

    I would also classify Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale as good dystopian fiction.

    I tend to draw the line at YA fiction--there's lots of it, and I don't really need to read every little Hunger Games wanna-be.

  16. Dystopian literature is a favourite genre of mine. I 'know it when I read it' but am hard pressed to define it. I tend to think first of some science fiction, as seems to provide the most examples, with variations upon futures or alternative presents where things go (very) bad. My favourite author is Thomas Pynchon. I consider that his opus, 'Gravity's Rainbow' to be an example of dystopian fiction. It is hard to categorise, but contains includes themes of paranoia, occult warfare and misuse of technology, all set in the post-war wasteland of Europe. I have a list of some other favourite titles at John D

  17. The usage of the umbrella term "speculative fiction" has tried to make genres such as fantasy and science fiction more palatable for those who usually shun genres. Dystopian literature, science fiction, and fantasy all have their merits and their flaws, but are all worth reading for their originality and creativity. But there is plenty of bad scifi and fantasy, just as there is bad fiction.
    Of Atwood's I've only read The Blind Assassin, which has a story-within-a-story of a pulp science fiction novel in alternative chapters. It's a great book.

  18. I stumbled into your blog while searching for something entirely different, but I'm glad I did, and especially on this post. To begin with you need to understand that Dystopia is a direct opposite of Utopia (based on linguistics that is), so in order to define one you need to know the other. As to a boundary between dystopian literature and science fiction I'd say there really is none; some of the best science fiction I have read is dystopian in nature. In fact the three books you mention as the cornerstone of dystopian literature are first and foremost science fiction books, and you should consider really broadening your reading scope and try some other science fiction books with a dystopian motif, such as Neuromancer.

    I agree with Becky on the issue of awards. I personally feel that a prize such as the Nebula, which is awarded by the readers and not a panel of critics, has a greater merit in terms of the final goal of publishing a story; that is to tell a story that people will read, like, and identify with, no matter where it takes place. Identifying yourself with a twelfth century builder such as Tom Builder from The Pillars of the Earth is just as difficult as it is to identify with a physicist from another planet, like Shevek from Ursula K. Leguin's The Dispossessed.

  19. This is such an interesting topic I thought that everyone might be interested in this article

    I came across it this morning and I really enjoyed the writers passion - I especially like the quote along the lines of "90% of science fiction is crap, but 90% of almost everything is crap". Its quite a humourous article

  20. Greg! You're awesome! I'm so happy to see you posted about this. Anyhow, about the questions you pose, I am certainly not an expert on dystopian lit - and even less of an expert on fantasy and sci fi - but I do remember reading somewhere that Margaret Atwood gets upset when people call her work sci fi. Not because it denotes less literary merit, but because, according to her, a dystopian novel depicts something that could come true, whereas sci fi and fantasy focus more on events that aren't plausible. I suppose this makes the dystopian genre more of a social criticism in extreme times...

    But then again there are people who categorize dystopian lit as a subcategory of science fiction. I feel like my thoughts are everywhere... maybe I'll go track down that Atwood article.

  21. @Sara C - You've fit on one of the identifiers of good dystopian literature - TRUTH! That's what I was trying to explain, but sort of muddled it in setting the distinction. Dystopian fiction has an element of real that science fiction may not always have. Right? And thanks for the clarification on Rand.

    @mummazappa - You're right, I have read that novel, and so I'll consider it carefully, and I'll also look into Daughters of Moab. ;) I'd disagree though that genre is created only for booksellers. Yes, the lines are often blurred, but often they're not, too. Would anyone consider Star Trek dystopian? Probably not.

    @Jeanne - I've just now learned of the term "speculative fiction" - good way to catch-all, I suppose. Atwood not wanting to be classified as sci fi sort of reminds of Franzen not wanting to be classified as womens lit. Both legitimate concerns, in my mind! ;)

    @John D - Yeah, the idea of "know it when you see it" is a good way to think about the distinctions. The definitions are fluid and different for everyone. But I love the notion of GR as dystopian fiction - it's certainly NOT sci fi!

  22. @thezebracactus - Certainly agree that there is bad everything - which the article Becky posted below humorously alludes to. Again, whether folks want to read even really good sci fi or fantasy (or speculative fiction) is a matter of taste. I'm not a fan, so I tend to steer clear. But I can see more elements of the literary fiction I enjoy in the dystopian fiction I've read - elements that haven't existed in my limited exposure to sci fi.

    @Dadrocant - Yes, I'm aware of the utopian/dystopian dichotomy. I was trying to move a bit beyond a book definition here. But I disagree that there is zero boundary between dystopian and sci fi. Again, Star Trek isn't exactly dystopian - that seems like a universe I'd kind of like living in. Also, as commenters point out above, Lord of the Flies and Gravity's Rainbow could both be considered dystopian, but there's nothing sci fi about either of them. And I'd also disagree that the three cornerstones are first and foremost sci fi - Fahrenheit 451 is almost ANTI-sci if, I'd say. And the others have elements of sci fi, sure, but not enough to be confused with an Isaac Asimov novel. And I'll read Neuromancer, if you read Freedom, chief.

    @Becky - Fantastic article - thanks for posting it here!

    @Brenna - There's part of an article on the Amazon page for Year of the Flood where Atwood says she didn't want people to think of her novels as sci fi, which is "way out there, too weird to be possible." That's another good way to think about the dystopian/sci fi distinction in my mind. There's much more truth (or warning!) in dystopian. Cheers!

  23. Greg, I believe you are using a very simplistic definition of what is Sci-Fi. Fahrenheit is most definitely a science fiction novel. In fact it was first published a short story called "The Fireman" in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine in 1951. Science fiction is not confined solely to the use of spaceships and other planets and the like, otherwise the foundations of the genre itself would not be considered sci-fi, such as Frankenstein and 20.000 leagues under the sea.

    As to there not being boundaries I maintain my position, all Dystopian lit is sci-fi, while not all sci-fi is Dystopian lit. If you look at it closely the Lord of the Flies has enough elements to make it a sci-fi book, albeit more easily seen if you read it under the guise of Speculative-Fiction. It takes place in a near future (to the author's time of writing), in the midst of a nuclear war, which is definitely not a motif from traditional fiction.

    As a side note into the Pulitzer award, take a look at this note: "On April 16, 2007, Bradbury received a special citation from The Pulitzer Board, "for his distinguished, prolific, and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy."

    Also, Fahrenheit 451 received the Prometheus Award for libertarian science fiction novels.

    As to reading Freedom, give me the name of the author and I'll certainly look into it. I not only read science Fiction.

  24. haha star trek might not be dystopian, but when I'm forced to watch it I feel like I'm in my own personal dystopia :-) Yep I get your point and agree there are distinct genres that sometimes blur, I think the quote was in reference to writers whose work isn't easily categorised and the headache that causes for booksellers.

  25. I love fantasy novels - Robert Jordan especially - but I take no offense at your argument. I appreciate the attempt to define dystopian vs. scifi/fantasy, and I agree with the arguments about scifi books not winning awards, especially (as you point out) because Pulitzers are open cross-genre.

    And not that no one above has already commented, but I think that genres can be blurred, so something can dystopian (or utopian for that matter) or scifi or fantasy or both or all of the above.

  26. Since the last comment I made for some reason didn't appear I'll post it again.

    Fisrt off, all dystopias are sci-fi, but not all sci-fi is dystopian; you seem to be limiting sci-fi to the spaceship/robot kind of story, and there are many more kinds of it. As to Fahrenheit 451 being ANTI-Scifi as you say, let me remind you that it was first published as a short story called "The Fireman" in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine in 1951, and later on as a novel it won the Prometheus award for Libertarian science fiction; and this brings me to another issue which has been stated in this conversation but apparently without really looking into the matter, the Pulitzer Prize.

    As the following link shows, Ray Bradbury won a Pulitzer "special citation to Ray Bradbury for his distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy." in 2007

    I have not yet read Gravity's Rainbow, but the fact that it was nominated for the Nebula Award, given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America says something of it being Scifi. And Lord of the Flies has two elements which could place it under the speculative fiction (AKA Science Fiction)Genre: the story takes place in a close future (to the time of its writing), and in with a Nuclear War as backdrop, and that is certainly not a motif from mainstream, or realist, fiction.

  27. This discussion has prompted me to start a new blog on certain issues of Science Fiction, and I believe the following post might be useful to some of you:

  28. @mummazappa - Ha - me too, actually! Yeah, I understand that not everything fits into its neat little pigeonhole.

    @Kerry - Thanks for not taking offense. ;) And, you're right on the money that lines are often blurred, but there still is a line!

    @Dadrocant - But I thought you didn't put any stock on those literary awards? So, using them to further your argument is a bit specious, no? Besides, anyone can nominate any novel for anything - but I'd guess Pynchon would take quite a bit of umbrage to classifying his novel as sci fi. In fact, I'm almost positive he'd be furious. It seems to me that because you seem to love sci fi so much, you want it to cover just about any type of novel out there - and therefore grant it more credibility. You accused me of lacking perspective, but I think you're looking at this too much of a one-track mind. I have to believe any reasonable literary mind would consider it a huuuuge stretch to consider Lord of the Flies as sci fi. It also seems to me that this "speculative fiction" moniker is a smoke-and-mirrors trick to try to rebrand sci fi as something more serious or literary - again to give it more credibility. I appreciate your passion though, but still disagree that all dystopian fiction must be sci fi. We do, however, agree that all sci fi is not necessarily dystopian. (Freedom is Jonathan Franzen.)

  29. I only used the awards as a reference, since you mentioned them as a means of distinguishing good literature from bad. I And I'm not trying to make SF encompass everything out there, just trying to show you that SF goes beyond what you have called the Isaac Aasimov stories. I will definitely look into Freedom.

  30. Oh and I forgot to say that I didn't say the Lord of the Flies HAS to be SF, just that some of the elements in it COULD make it out to be included in the SF genre