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The Future Sucks – A Visitor’s Guide to Dystopia

2011 March 9
by Maria Kramer
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1965 ... frigidare future!photo © 2010 James Vaughan | more info (via: Wylio)

We are in the midst of a dystopia revolution, and it is changing the landscape of YA literature. Suddenly sci-fi — the ancestral purview of nerds and geeks everywhere — is cool again, or at least mainstream. Even the writers of “serious” magazines like The New Yorker are writing about young adult dystopia books! What gives?

Keeping in mind that these days there is an ever-present danger that you will open a seemingly innocent book and be whisked away into a dangerous and unpleasant future, we present to you, for your own safety, a visitor’s guide to the various types of dystopia.

Dystopia Type 1 = ShinyHappyLand

At first glance, the world around you seems like a nice enough place. The people are happy and moderately prosperous. They seem to have fun, and they may even corner you at parties to tell you all about how much better this future is than that loser past you came from. But then you notice their smiles are a little fixed, their eyes a bit glassy. Could it be that this utopian future has a terrible secret?

The Type 1 Dystopia expresses deep skepticism about “bread-and-circuses” style capitalism that manipulates citizens by giving them everything they think they want, while stifling their ability to think for themselves. At first, these books make the world seem like it is actually a better place due to whatever government control program is going on — but over time, the dark horror at the core of the world is revealed.

The Original: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and potentially also Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
Modern Incarnations: Feed, XVI, The Giver and Matched.

What to Do: Agree with everything. Arguing with your hosts may cause them to become suspicious and defensive, or arouse the attention of the thought police. Just keep smiling and nodding as you mentally plan your run for the border.

Dystopia Type 2 = The Cure

Like a Type 1, this world may at first seem better than the one you left behind, although the people around you are …different. They may be more beautiful than the people you are used to, or more serene. You begin to notice they all have some small thing in common — maybe they all have a scar in the same place, or take a pill at the same time of day. These people have been cured, and if they find out you aren’t, they may react with pity, fear or disgust, wondering how you can bear to live with the terrible affliction that is emotion, mortality, physical unattractiveness, or something else you consider “normal.”

Type 2 Dystopias reflect the fear that medical and technological advances will fundamentally change the human condition, and make us something less than human. These dystopias are insidious in their appeal. Who wouldn’t want to be automatically made beautiful at 16? Or become immortal? But, like a Type 1, the true nature of the dystopia will reveal itself over time, once the cost of the “perfect” world is revealed.

The Original: These dystopias are very recent in origin. The movie Equilibrium (2002) might be the one of the earliest examples of the Type 2 Dystopia.
Modern Incarnations: The Declaration, Uglies, Delirium

What to Do: Do not under any circumstances let people know you have not actually been cured, or you’ll be whisked away to a lab and emerge a mere shell of yourself before you can say “frontal lobotomy.”

Type 3 = The Gauntlet

When you enter a Type 3 Dystopia, be ready to run for your life. The world around you is blasted by war and cordoned off into military dictatorships. Life is nasty, brutish and short. Technological development may actually have decreased and regressed due to the repression of the ruling regime. Famine and crime plague the streets. The people around you look hunted and fearful. Better watch your back, friend — say the wrong thing and you could end up in a gulag somewhere.

The original Type 3 Dystopia, 1984, expressed the fear of burgeoning totalitarianism in a world trapped between fascism and soviet-style communism. The continued popularity of these books prove that this fear is still alive and well. It is an uncomfortable truth that what has already happened too many times in history could happen to us at any time. As Orwell himself said “totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”

The Original: 1984 and potentially The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Modern Incarnations: The Hunger Games, The Roar, Little Brother and many more…

What to Do: Is it even a choice? Fight the power!

The one question we haven’t answered is, why is dystopia popular at all? As a writer/poet I know (hi Scott!) said, teens have a lot of people pushing them around. In high school — via college applications, SAT tests and part-time jobs — young people realize that they are cogs in a vast societal machine that they had no part in constructing. Dystopias are cathartic and empowering — the characters also feel powerless, oppressed and trapped in the system — but they fight against it, and, occasionally even prevail.

Oh, and for more dystopian, post-apocalyptic and speculative fiction worth reading, check out this list from PPYA, which we’ve mentioned before. Fun Stuff!

–Maria Kramer is currently reading 20th Century Boys, a dystopian manga by Naoki Urasawa.

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5 Responses
  1. Sarah Debraski permalink
    March 9, 2011

    I love dystopian novels and just finished reading Matched last week. I realized I like them because I always put myself into the book and find myself wondering “What would I do?” Would I recognize and stand up against the controlling government and rigid rules and comfort of uniformity and safety? Or would I rebel? (as the main character always does.) I like to think that I would rebel like the protagonist does, but sadly I think in real life I would not!

  2. Kristin permalink
    March 9, 2011

    Great post, Maria! I know a certain LIS grad school course that could use a nice, succinct explanation like this …bookmarking it for next year!

  3. deCarabas permalink
    March 10, 2011

    The first two types are Utopian in style, with the twist that the reader gets to see what happens to those who don’t fit in…
    Type 2 is actually preceeded by Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
    Type 3 is the “real” Dystopia, along with books like The Running Man by Richard Bachman and Metro 2033 by Dmitrij Gluchovskij.

    • Maria Kramer permalink
      March 10, 2011

      Interesting response, deCaberas…I have heard that, to a certain extent, all dystopias are “utopias gone wrong,” and many utopias are dystopias in disguise! Also, I never thought of Brave New World as a “Cure” dystopia, but I guess they have cured humanity of sexual scruples and family life.

      Great book suggestions, btw.

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