Tuesday 29 April 2014

Dystopian Fiction: a user's guide

by Marie Victoria Robertson


While browsing a bookstore recently, I overheard a conversation between two young people. “This is a great book!” one gushed. “It’s, like, a dystopian story, but everything works really well!”

Which had me thinking, like, that’s rather the opposite of dystopia. Maybe the label “dystopian fiction” is being applied a little too liberally these days, because it is the new “hot item”, but as a lover of dystopian fiction, I don’t mind it at all.

Dystopian novels traditionally include the same basic elements:

1.      A post-war/plague/apocalyptic/etc world that is already established when the story begins;
2.      A society that is in some way frightening and physically/mentally dangerous (more on this point in a moment);
3.      A hero/heroine who was born to this society (it’s rarely an outsider, you’ll notice) who attempts to subvert the system, with mixed results.

The most popular dystopian novels are popular precisely because they strike a very raw, visceral chord in us: the societies in these stories are usually based on legitimate fears we have of our current society, pushed to their extreme, making them seem frighteningly plausible. What happens if religious fundamentalism continues to strip women’s rights? Read The Handmaid’s Tale. What happens if callous love for bloody sport and reality entertainment goes too far? Read The Hunger Games.

It seems like we can split dystopian fiction into two categories: the ‘first generation’ of dystopian novels, usually one-shot stories published decades ago such as Brave New World and Logan’s Run, and the modern-day young adult dystopias that usually contain a strong focus on romance. I think it’s a great thing that dystopian fiction has experienced a renewed surge in popularity; hopefully, this means a new generation of readers will seek out the classics.

On that note, let’s look over a few titles in each era of dystopia.


1984 by George Orwell
The quintessential dystopian novel. Big Brother (aka the Government) oversees and controls every aspect of the citizens’ lives. The protagonist, Winston, works for the Ministry of Truth but secretly hates the system, and meets a fellow dissenter, Julia. 

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
In which our modern-day fears of censorship and book banning are explored in a story where books are outlawed and burned on sight, requiring a rebellious population to memorize books to preserve the knowledge they contain.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
A religious fundamentalist group overthrows the democratic US government and instills a regime in which women are devoid of any rights and freedoms. The title character, Offred, tells her story of being a “handmaid”, a fertile woman who is forced to bear children.


The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Arguably the best and most famous young adult dystopian novel, in which Katniss Everdeen, a young girl from an impoverished district, is forced to compete in a televised fight to the death against other young people.

Firstborn by Lorie Ann Grover
In this dystopian look at womanhood, gender roles, and gendercide, a young girl named Tiadone is forced by her father to be raised as a boy to save her life and give her a place in society.

Divergent by Veronica Roth
In a world where society is divided into five factions, determined by a person’s character, a young girl named Tris discovers she is Divergent—someone who does not squarely fit into a single faction, and who mysterious forces want dead.

Marie Victoria Robertson is a published speculative fiction writer and playwright, as well as the board president of Jer’s Vision: Canada’s Youth Diversity Initiative (www.jersvision.org). When all the other girls wanted to marry Johnny Depp, she wanted to run away with Worf on the Enterprise. She enjoys giant robots, time-travel paradoxes, and forcing her son to watch Futurama.

1 comment:

  1. Nice list! In current fiction, I'd also recommend Scott Westerfeld's "Uglies" series. Even though Extras is my favourite book, the earlier ones do have some interesting thoughts on beauty and identity in society.


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