A short while ago ‘dystopia’ was the big buzzword of the moment. Arguably it still is, although rather than being seen as an exciting new genre it’s now more likely to be thought of as a tired cliché associated with an array of bland teen books and films.
However, the genre is in fact neither new nor overused and its potential has been barely tapped into. After the huge success of Nineteen Eighty-Four the concept of a Hitler-esque totalitarian leader has been the most popular form of dystopian novel, which was of course also recently recaptured in the The Hunger Games series, but there is much more inspiration that can be taken from this area of science fiction. When one considers that Lord of the Flies, Planet of the Apes and High-Rise are also deemed dystopian literature you can begin to see that the perception of the genre has been greatly narrowed in recent years.
So how exactly is this genre defined? What are the recognisable features of the dystopian genre?
The word itself loosely means the opposite of a utopia, which is a community or society that is perfect or very close to being so. Therefore a dystopia can essentially be deemed as an imperfect or undesirable society.
This term is incredibly vague and subjective. A society can be ideal or horrific depending on your status and position within it, which is why totalitarian states are such a prominent and interesting feature within the genre. Our society today could even be defined as a dystopia by some as well as prisons or school systems.
But what about a world that has been ravaged by a natural disaster or nuclear war? Is the damaged remains of humanity after an apocalypse not an undesirable and unpleasant state to live in and so could be classed as a dystopia?
To determine whether a novel is post-apocalyptic or dystopian the answer can be found in the focal point of the plot, even though there can be dystopian themes within a post-apocalyptic novel and vice versa. The Hunger Games for instance was the result of a devastating war, but the plot of the series is concerned with the oppression and injustice post-war and so is dystopian. The aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, although could instigate a dystopian state, will predominately be about survival and the zombie outbreak itself and would be classified as post-apocalyptic.
There are many differences and similarities between dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. Ultimately the usual confines and specifications of a genre do not particularly work well within science fiction as a whole. A crime novel is easily defined, as is a romance or a horror, for the outcome is easy to determine. Do you want to laugh? Scream? Cry? Well, you can do that and more with science fiction. I tell people I mostly review dystopian fiction because the novels within the genre tend to challenge human nature, the restrictions of modern society and the idea of power, which interests me, but to say that this is all the genre has to offer or that other genres do not offer such themes would be incorrect.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that genre is a means of finding something of interest and a way of organising a library, not to segregate oneself from other forms of literature. After all, novels often take around 100,000 words to define, not one or two.