I was talking to someone the other day about my newest project (yes, I’m a writing multi-tasker), a dystopian novel, and they asked me an interesting question.
“Why, what?” Was my oh-so-intelligent response.
“Why write dystopian? What the hell is it, really? Isn’t it all depressing and bleak?”
Those questions were rather revealing and interesting at the same time.
Dystopian fiction has been characterized thusly,
‘Dystopian literature is a genre of fictional writing used to explore social and political structures in ‘a dark, nightmare world.’ The term dystopia is defined as a society characterized by poverty, squalor or oppression and the theme is most commonly used in science fiction and speculative fiction genres.The most popular definition of dystopian literature is that it is anti-Utopian.’
I’m not sure I agree with all of that.
These days, the dystopian genre has more facets than it did in George Orwell’s day. A number of authors have taken it in directions uniquely their own, thereby opening the genre for all kinds of interpretation. Dystopian fiction is no longer just about Big Brother, oppression, and totalitarianism. These days it can be about a facet of life after some radical planet-changing event. Dys usually denotes something bad, so right off, we know we aren’t headed for a romance story.
But even that presumption can be turned on its ear because more and more, we can read dystopian fiction that includes romance.
I think a more accurate description of the genre might be ‘a genre of fictional writing used to explore a world that the reader would consider worse off than his or her own, socially, politically or environmentally.’
Sure, there are heavy elements, and I have read a few where I came away depressed and worried about the future.
But not all dystopian novels and short stories are like that. I’ve read many where I was left with hope for the future. I’ve read some, where the main characters fell in love and forged a new life together in their radically-changed world.
See? Lots more options than what Orwell had to work with in his day.
As for the first part of that question, I write it because I’m fascinated by it. I’ve been a fan of dystopian literature for over twenty years, and it’s been interesting watching the genre grow and stretch its boundaries. Once, it was the domain of white men focused on doom and gloom. Now, some of the best dystopian novels and short stories include women of colour, lesbians just trying to survive in a radical world, self-affirming A.I, rabbits looking for a new home…and the list goes on. We’re not in post-war Kansas anymore, Dear Reader.
For me, the dystopian genre offers a new way to look at the world. What it can be, what it looks like to some people, and where we’re going if we aren’t careful. Advisory, cautious, revelatory, and hopefully entertaining.
But the greatest reason for me to write dystopian fiction can be summed up by this quote,
“Write the book you want to read, the one you cannot find.” Carol Shields