Friday, March 8, 2013

Thoughts on Dystopian Fiction - "Book Review" #2

Last night, as I was wasting away the time I was supposed to be using to come up with and write a blog post by looking at cats and watching videos on YouTube, it occurred to me that there was a post I had been putting off writing since before I had even begun blogging.  It was that or take up a friend on their suggestion and write a blog post about the effects of sleep deprivation on the mind and body... but a few minutes' research on the subject had me very interested in going to bed.


I discovered the Hunger Games trilogy fairly late in the game - all three books had already been published and the first film was only a few months from release.  The fact that I knew literally nothing about them when I opened a copy of the first book can thus be considered a miracle or possibly an embarrassment.  Either way, I read through the first, and the second and the third quickly followed suit.

Let's get the typical book review material out of the way first - the series was very well written, if a little overly fond of ending chapters with cliffhangers. It was such a big hang up for me that I actually debated calling this post "and then the fire nation attacked". I eventually decided against it as it's from a different series and, while potentially funny, won't make any sense to anyone who doesn't know its origin.  Also, it's a misquote.

Moving on, the characters are generally well-defined, and the story is gripping, if grim, but the overarching themes of sacrificial love throughout help balance it out so it's not too bone-crushingly depressing.  Some may find the series' content to be disturbing but I would otherwise recommend this to anyone look for a thrilling read.

Now that that's out of the way, let's get to the part that I actually find interesting.

If you've somehow managed to completely avoid any spoilers as I did before reading the books, then you should know that the story takes place in a dystopian future America that little resembles the nation we now live in.  Dystopian literature (which I'm going to call DysLit from here on) is nothing new, stretching back as far as the late 19th century when H.G. Wells' Time Machine was published.  It's entirely plausible there are earlier examples, but I was unable to find anything as well-known.  Thanks to Hollywood, we often associate the term with recycled 80's bullies, complete anarchy, or choking dark cities.  However, the term is far more complex and embraces other possibilities as well, some arguably worse.

Hunger Games presents one of these - a future where the majority of the people are crushed under an uncaring, brutal elite.  Used for the entertainment of these privileged few, the best the common people can hope for is a monotonous life, without even the most base freedoms that we take for granted.  Whether we are discussing this type of or one of the many others, all  the variations of DysLit share one common, overarching aspect - however it takes shape, it represents a failure of humanity.  It may be due to disease - we weren't smart enough to keep ourselves from being disease, or climate change - we weren't able to stop ourselves from destroying the planet, or the most common - we simply weren't able to stop ourselves from tearing each other apart.

All of these are entirely plausible futures for us - we've seen examples of massive epidemics, I spent my college years living alongside a river so polluted we were advised not to drink the tap water, and you needn't look very far to find examples of human beings killing each other in massive numbers.  We obviously wouldn't want any of these to be our future, but they certainly could.

So this raises the question - why would you write stories about it?

Wrapped up in its propensity for darkness is DysLit's saving grace - its potential for hope.  When things have simply become so bad that there doesn't seem to be a point to sink lower to, the only way to go is up.  Further, DysLit typically carries this out through the actions of people - there's no deus ex machina, no miraculous deliverance from the problems of the here and now.  Be it the actions of one person (Time Machine, Equilibrium) or a few (That Hideous Strength, V for Vendetta), the choice to do what's right can have consequences far greater than the initial decision may appear capable of causing. Those consequences may not be immediately apparent, and may come at a great price to the person making the decision (and others), but DysLit can show that doing what's right is worth it no matter the price in a way that other genres often cannot due to its extreme nature.

I do feel there is an over-saturation of DysLit on the market today.  It's possible that this series is somewhat responsible, but a look at Wikipedia's list of DysLit books shows as many have published since 2000 as were published in the previous 100 years, and it started well before Hunger Games came on the scene. So, if you're looking for something in this genre to read, I'd recommend this series, for all the reasons I listed above.  You could do far worse.

And frankly, one series is enough for me - I'm not going to read more just so I can have a more informed opinion on the genre.  That's for the professionals, and my semi(not)professional opinion has been made.

That being said, I'm going to go write a story to share with you all next Tuesday. I'm not giving away anything, so you'll just have to wait.  May the odds be ever in your favour, ciao!


  1. I think the other reason people write Dystopian novels is as a warning. They realize what direction our society could be headed, and they're hoping to perhaps stop or postpone a future no one wants to be a part of.

    Anytime something gains a little popularity, the market is flooded with it. Harry Potter brought tons of magic-related books, Twilight brought on vampires, and the Hunger Games has been at the forefront of a Dystopian boom. Now Dystopian is dying down to be taken over by the zombie craze. Genre popularity goes in cycles. Dystopian will fade out, only to have another boom somewhere down the road.

    And there are plenty of other Dystopian novels and series worth reading. There are some even that should be read. Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and/or Brave New World are all examples of great, thought-provoking Dystopian novels that should be required reading.

  2. Along similar lines, the more stressed and unhappy America is, the more we like to focus on darker subject matters that reflect our overall mood - e.g. DysLit and Post-Apocalyptic scenarios such as zombie outbreaks, nuclear war, "Big Brother", etc. Hence the success Boris Karloff had in the 30's during the Great Depression; followed by the many giant bug and space monster films of the late 50's and early 60's, leading up to the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests; and now with the "Great Recession" or whatever they're calling it at the moment.

    Because of this, you can predict the general mood of the public at any given time with a fair degree of accuracy by observing the literature they're reading (required readings excluded). Unfortunately, so can the publishers, which is why there's now a section in many bookstores called "Teen Paranormal Romance".

    As for my statement about not reading further series in the genre, I did not intend for that to be read as a dismissal of those works which are considered classics. The problem with market saturation is what the market is saturated /with/. Those publishers who are more concerned with a quick profit than with printing quality literature release these as quickly as possible in order to take advantage of the popularity boom before it peters out. As a result, much of what's on the market consists of poorly formed, badly written, and deplorably unedited works, little better than glorified fanfiction of the genre itself, if not a specific work. There are good examples of fanfiction, but there are far more BAD examples, and I'd rather wait to see what sticks after the public's fascination has moved to another genre. I do plan to read the classics as I do see value in them, I'm just not going to hop on the "doom wagon".