What makes a dystopia?

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CharleeVale
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What makes a dystopia?

Post by CharleeVale » August 29th, 2012, 1:01 pm

Ok, I'm admitting right away that this question comes out of frustration.

The book I'm currently working on (Working title Bet Her Life, or BHL) is a YA Sci-fi Thriller. But I've had some problems, when I've posted excerpts, potential queries, etc. A lot have people have said 'Ooh, that sounds very dystopic to me.'

Honestly? This makes me want to kick and scream all over the internet because this book is SO not a dystopia. It's very far from it. The last straw came this morning.

I'm a Finalist in a contest, and agents are looking at the 5 500 word winners. I got a comment from an agent, (this particular agent actual has a partial from my ACTUAL dystopian novel at the moment) that said 'the dystopic topic makes it an automatic shut-down for me' Trust me, I was tempted to correct her in the comments. I didn't because I refuse to succumb to bad author syndrome.

But what is that one thing that makes you go 'Oh, that's a dystopia'? If I gather some opinions, maybe I can figure out what it is that's making people say that, and fix it.

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Re: What makes a dystopia?

Post by trixie » August 29th, 2012, 3:35 pm

Hey Charlee,

I read the 500 word sample and I have to agree: it feels more dystopian than sf. Personally, the reference to the dome over Manhattan and nuclear activity helped shape (incorrectly, I understand) a dystopian world. A bit later, you reference some technology for a sf world with the eye scanner. I wonder if there's a way to put more sf elements sooner?

Also, the premise of betting on war feels dystopian. I have NOTHING to back that up with, except I see sf as "off this world" and dystopian as "on this world."

Alas, I'm not well read enough in YA dystop or YA scifi to give solid information either way. But those are my initial thoughts.

Good luck, though! That's exciting to see your work in a big competition like that!

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Re: What makes a dystopia?

Post by LizV » August 29th, 2012, 3:40 pm

I don't know that there is one specific thing that spells "dystopia". Sucky living conditions, a sense of things getting worse rather than better, and some kind of apocalypse or upheaval in the backstory are likely components, but I can think of scenarios where those wouldn't mean dystopia at all.

Charlee, have you been able to ask any of these responders why they thought it was dystopian? (And keep on asking -- sometimes it takes a lot of drilling to get to the source of someone's impression.)

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Re: What makes a dystopia?

Post by Mark.W.Carson » August 29th, 2012, 4:16 pm

I hate to say this, Charlee, because your writing is so good, but it does stand out with dystopic elements. Sci Fi and Dystopian are often hand in hand. The Hunger games has loads of cool technology, but it is dystopian because of the world they live in.

In general, if the world is in hopelessness, and it is not directly related to a war "being bombed, killed, afraid of invasion" it is dystopian.

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Re: What makes a dystopia?

Post by Sanderling » August 29th, 2012, 4:30 pm

I think somewhere along the way "dystopia" somehow became equated with "war and chaos". I'm not sure why this should be, because the two aren't necessarily correlated. Consider accepted dystopias such as Matched, Divergent, Delirium, even The Hunger Games. Prior to the start of the conflict, which comes at the end of the first book, there is no war. Things are peaceful. But the societies are still dystopic societies.

I think "dystopia" comes into play when you have a society that places some restrictions on its residents in the name of making life better for everyone. Matched: free will is taken away; Divergent: a strict division/group system to make sure people can't survive on their own; Delirium: removal of love and emotions so no one notices they're being opressed; The Hunger Games: pitting the districts' youths among themselves as a reminder that the Capitol is in charge.

The level of happiness of society's members varies from one to the next, but the people in Matched, in Divergent, in Delirium - except for a handful of rebels, by and large everyone's content. Life's pretty good for the folks in Matched and Delirium, they want for nothing, really. So conflict and poor living conditions have nothing to do with what defines a dystopia.

Meanwhile, there're lots of books out there that have war and aren't considered dystopic. Code Name Verity, for instance - pretty miserable living conditions in the middle of a war, but it's not a dystopia. Leviathan - the story is all about the war, but not a dystopia. Ender's Game - kids being used, so the adults can win a war; considered sci-fi, not dystopia. Game of Thrones - awful living conditions for so many people, and the story's all about war; but not a dystopia.

I've read Charlee's book. It's not a dystopia. It's a thriller, with light sci-fi elements in the form of envisioning what technology might exist in a few decades' time. Yes, there's war, and in the future I think a shield against nuclear fallout is just a sensible precaution. It has nothing to do with a dystopic society. Perhaps betting on soldiers feels dystopic, but if you consider the sort of content we have in our current entertainment (especially video games, but also books and movies), is it that much of a stretch to think that once organized sports and the movie industry shut down people wouldn't turn to the war for entertainment? It's not like they're on the front lines betting; they're just watching blips on a screen. It's really easy to distance ourselves from unpleasant things when we're buffered by technology. Like the nuclear shield, I think it's just a futuristic vision of what war could become.

I'm not sure, therefore, if the trouble is in how the query/pitch/etc is worded, or in the perception of the people reading it on what makes a dystopian. Either way, it seems the query needs to be reworded to make it clearer that this isn't a dystopian story.
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Re: What makes a dystopia?

Post by Mark.W.Carson » August 29th, 2012, 5:00 pm

I agree that the war/chaos doesn't make it dystopian. If I wasn't clear in my previous post, I was saying those things can actually remove dystopian feels. A lot of sci fi, even stuff like Blade Runner, etc paints a future that does not look better than our own. I think that the "Not better than our own" is what is often causing the dystopian flag to be raised up the pole

You can be dystopian thriller, and that should be the hook, the thriller. It sounds like your story IS that. There can be dystopian romance, dystopian erotica, dystopian sci fic, and loads more. I hate the genre killers that come around because people think that everybody will compare book X to book Y.

Keep querying/writing it. Don't worry so much. By the time a book hits the shelves, there will be tons more books with similar themes. Not everything is peaches and sunshine.

My earlier point was one of "If people think that it is something, it is... at least to them. Their reality ends at their senses" Maybe it is not the story, but the way it is being sold to them. You can do this. You have the chops. You're good :).

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Re: What makes a dystopia?

Post by wilderness » August 29th, 2012, 8:03 pm

I feel your pain Charlee! I too am working on a YA sci-fi that is NOT dystopian. Yet people think that any sci-fi where there are problems in the future, and it doesn't take place in space == dystopia. Which is a bummer because several agents are saying dystopia is tough to sell right now. I don't have an answer except I don't think sci-fi == dystopia. Obviously, there are problems in my future world, otherwise it wouldn't be interesting. But guess what, there are problems in today's world and we don't consider it a dystopia (well, most of us).

If I were you, I would emphasize the thriller aspects in your query as opposed to references to the government or politics (if that is possible). Just hope your concept and your writing stand out. That's my plan.

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Re: What makes a dystopia?

Post by polymath » August 29th, 2012, 10:18 pm

Dystopia, like Utopia, relates to a soft or social science fiction premise that connects most closely to a narrative's dramatic complication. Simply put, the dystopian society causes a problem wanting satisfaction. A dystopia is a society that imposes high-magnitude hardships on foreground characters.

Soft or social science fiction relates to fantastical social science premises. Where hard or physical science fiction relates to fantastical physical science premises, fantastical science or technology. Or as a simpler category division, culture (soft) or technology (hard) influences, where the influence is like a character pushing and pulling foreground characters' actions and reactions. For soft or dystopia fiction, the society is the stimuli. How characters observe, are influenced by, and respond to the stimuli drives the plot.

Since a dystopia is a large order social construct, subject to a great degree of resistance to change, transforming the society is a tall order; therefore, character transformation tends to be at the center of the plot and the outcome.

A taxonomy or table of organization, so to speak, for soft science fiction;
Life: Social beings (humans)
Domain: Entertainments
Kingdom: Creative performance arts (versus static media like graphic depictions and sculptures)
Phylum: Literature (written word)
Class: Drama (versus anecdote, vignette, sketch, etc.)
Order: Fiction
Family: Science fiction
Genus: Socio-cultural science fiction (soft)
Species: Dystopia
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Re: What makes a dystopia?

Post by Sommer Leigh » August 29th, 2012, 11:03 pm

The term "dystopian" is usually used incorrectly to define a book, but to be fair it's used more because that's what a lot of people are aiming at these days and until you actually read a book, you won't know for sure where it fits. The details are important when determining if a crummy situation is dystopian or not and there's a LOT of grey area here because there can be a lot of crossover. I actually wrote a great, very long post about this on my blog last summer and I'll post pieces of it below, but the most important thing about dystopians is that they are not about chaos and destruction.

Sorry, this might get a little long. I am not good at brevity.

Dystopians look like a normal, functioning society and that's what's so great (err, scary) about them. The one thing (always social) that makes them terrifying is usually something that makes sense. On paper. For certain members of society, things are very bad in some specific way but there was probably a reason they got that way. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, for example, is a purely dystopian story. It looks like a functioning society, unless you're a handmaid. But there's a reason things got the way they were - not everyone could have babies and in a society with a class structure, the rich found something they could buy and the poor found something they could sell.

Science fiction. Dystopian. Post-Apocalyptic. There IS overlap and that's what makes the discussion more complicated. There are some stories you can make honest arguments about going one way or another.


Science fiction features technology beyond what we have today, and generally speaking, the technology is common and embedded into the society – it isn’t reserved just for the Batmans of the world.
Dystopia is society characterized by human misery and oppression – an “as bad as it could be” society. What’s important to note, however, is that dystopians still have some recognizable society. It’s not scavengers in the wasteland, contrary to popular belief. Characters still know their place in the world, it’s just usually not any place anyone would want to be.
Post-apocalyptics are characterized by an event that decimated society as a whole. There is usually a general lack of overall society, an every man for himself paradigm. There might be small scale dystopian communities within the post-apocalyptic world, but it lacks a governing structure as a whole.

Purely Dystopian

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
XVI by Julia Karr

A purely dystopian setting is one that looks just like our regular world, no fancy technology, no big society changing event. The thing that makes it dystopian was usually cultural in nature and so there was no fighting back against it because it takes an entire society to make a cultural change – so it would have been welcomed. Maybe the change happened as a result of some other event.

Purely Science Fiction

Star Trek

Traditional science fiction is characterized by a big, recognizable jump in technology/science from what we have today. But, for whatever reason, society managed to continue progressing in socially and politically acceptable ways. There are probably still poor, hungry, miserable people, but as a society we’re doing ok.

Purely Post-Apocalyptic

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Book of Eli
Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien
Jericho
The Walking Dead

Purely post-apocalyptic settings will be the absolute end of days. Something very bad has happened and our days on this earth are numbered. There is no society, there is no hope. Humans dehumanize themselves in order to survive, because how can you do what you must if you’ve got to face your own conscious? Survival is the best anyone can hope for.

Science Fiction/Dystopian Overlap
Gattica
Enders Game
Never Let Me Go

These societies are characterized by totalitarian governments or central control divisions like corporations or individual races. Technology and science are outstanding, so for pieces of the community, life is probably pretty luxurious and easy. The technology does not, usually, trickle down to the poor and the working class except as means of control and pieces of every day city life. A large part of the population probably see no human or worker rights, hunger, poverty, abuse, and a severe dehumanization of the Have Nots.

Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic Overlap
Children of Men
Fallout 3
Feed by Mira Grant

Always characterized by an apocalyptic event, the dystopian/post-apocalyptic crossover usually zeroes in on Life After. This could be small communities or big patchwork cities, but it lacks the comforts of traditional science fiction. There is, however, a form of society and law, even if it isn’t a very pleasant one (like in Mad Max.) Life in the post-apocalyptic dystopia can be pretty hard, dangerous, and miserable. The governing person/group are usually characterized as power hungry, sociopathic, and fanatical.

Science Fiction/Post-Apocolyptic Overlap
Titan A.E.
Robopocolypse
Brave New World

This crossover also has an establishing apocalyptic event that destroys life as we know it, but society has not completely crumbled, it’s just changed. This crossover often takes place generations after the establishing event, so they’ve moved passed the warring factions of survivors to work as a whole on some fundamental level. The technology is often disjointed, scavenged, and often looks nothing like its original source. Sometimes it’s our technology that caused the apocalypse in the first place.

Science Fiction/Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic Overlap
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
City of Ember
Battlestar Galactica

The establishing apocalyptic event didn’t destroy the world entirely, but it probably decimated the population, destroyed the governing system, and left people wandering and in need of assistance. The apocalyptic event usually teaches the society something about not repeating ones mistakes which establishes the dystopian governing body. And maybe in the beginning the people embraced the ideals of this governing body because they needed the control to provide order, food, work, and protection from a hostile environment and from people who might do worse things to them than their over controlling government. Eventually the governing body gets out of hand and people are dehumanized in a whole new scary way. They may have jumped forward in technology and science to prevent or protect the people from the previous apocalyptic conditions, but they might have just scavenged old technology and pieced it together. Society might still exist, but after enough paranoia, widespread fear, and distrust, you wouldn’t want to live there.
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Re: What makes a dystopia?

Post by CharleeVale » August 29th, 2012, 11:34 pm

I actually asked one of the commenters, and finally got an answer!

I wasn't far enough away from the material to see this, but I guess some of my phrasing, and the way I described the villain (Crime Boss/Ganster/Gambling lord) made it seem like the US government had collapsed and that he had risen in it's place as a dictator. That's not the case. In my story the US exists much as it does today, with the exception that World War 3 is occurring, and people bet live on the war.

I can see how if they thought that the government had collapsed that it would look dystopian. But my book has nothing to do with the government, or politics.

I can't say I know exactly how to fix it yet, but at least I have a starting place.

CV

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Re: What makes a dystopia?

Post by Sanderling » August 29th, 2012, 11:44 pm

Sommer Leigh wrote:I actually wrote a great, very long post about this on my blog last summer and I'll post pieces of it below, but the most important thing about dystopians is that they are not about chaos and destruction.

Sorry, this might get a little long. I am not good at brevity.
This was a really good summary of it, Sommer. It's basically what I was thinking, but you did a much better job of explaining it than I did. Plus I'd completely forgotten about post-apocalyptic as a third confusing/overlapping genre. Thanks for sharing!
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Re: What makes a dystopia?

Post by LurkingVirologist » August 29th, 2012, 11:46 pm

Echoing what Mark said, for me the dystopian tag gets affixed to modern or sci-fi settings where our attempts to make things better (through technology or social engineering) have actually done the opposite. A society in which everyone privately acknowledges that it would have been better if the genie had stayed in the bottle. While there is certainly a lot of overlap with post-apocalyptic settings (since nukes are such a potent example of twisting science into something monstrous), I think the key is a feeling of we did this to ourselves. So elements like pollution or a poisoned environment, economic collapse, broken caste system, bollocks'ed up bio-engineering, political corruption, etc. This in comparison to external threats like aliens or monsters or asteroids or anything else that was done to us. Though I suppose there's also some cross-pollination there too.

Also - what Sommer said ;) .

My 2 cents anyway.
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Re: What makes a dystopia?

Post by Sommer Leigh » August 30th, 2012, 12:26 am

Sanderling wrote:
Sommer Leigh wrote:I actually wrote a great, very long post about this on my blog last summer and I'll post pieces of it below, but the most important thing about dystopians is that they are not about chaos and destruction.

Sorry, this might get a little long. I am not good at brevity.
This was a really good summary of it, Sommer. It's basically what I was thinking, but you did a much better job of explaining it than I did. Plus I'd completely forgotten about post-apocalyptic as a third confusing/overlapping genre. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks! I was writing a post-apocalyptic horror at the time I wrote this that contained a small story piece that made it questionably a dystopian. I was obsessed with breaking the subgenres down and understanding them.
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Re: What makes a dystopia?

Post by LizV » August 30th, 2012, 10:42 am

CharleeVale wrote:I can't say I know exactly how to fix it yet, but at least I have a starting place.
Yay to that! Knowing where to aim is half of hitting the target.

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