Friday, January 29, 2016

So what is dystopia, really?

It has recently come to my attention that either I am really confused about what qualifies as "dystopia" or a lot of other people are. Here's what I think of when I picture dystopian fiction:

Each of these books is sci-fi(ish), about people in the future dealing with crazy governments and dire situations, which is the loose definition I had in my mind. But there are so many seemingly random books tagged as dystopia on Goodreads that, as one of the hosts of the 2016 Dystopia Reading Challenge, I felt I had to dig into this a little further.

Google defines dystopia as "an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one." That sounded pretty accurate as far as what I generally think of when I'm searching for a new book to read.

But then I took it a step further and looked up "dystopian fiction" on Wikipedia and found this: "Dystopia is defined as an alternate society characterized by a focus on negatives, usually frightening, such as mass poverty, public mistrust and suspicion, police state, squalor, suffering, and/or oppression, that society has most often brought upon itself." Okay, still not bad. It was starting to seem like my idea about what makes a dystopian book was actually pretty on point.

So why is it that, when dystopian fiction seems to be such a well understood genre, does there seem to be such confusion over what qualifies? Here are some example of books I've seen tagged as dystopia that seemed a little off to me:

Let me just put this right out there in the open: I tagged An Ember in the Ashes and The Winner's Curse as dystopia. Why? Because everybody else did! But are they really? Yes, they have unfortunate governments and some dire circumstances. But how exactly do they fit into the definition of dystopia?! And that was when I realized... It was possible I had been projecting my own preconceptions onto the genre.

I went to what I considered to be the source on the matter,, and I found this: "'Dystopia' is not a synonym for 'post-apocalyptic'; it also is not a synonym for a bleak, or darkly imagined future. In a dystopian story, society itself is typically the antagonist; it is society that is actively working against the protagonist’s aims and desires."

Nowhere in any of these definitions did it say anything about a "future" society. I felt like I had been living a lie!! Who told me that dystopia went hand in hand with science fiction and the future of the human race? By these definitions, An Ember in the Ashes and The Winner's Curse WOULD qualify as dystopia! But then where is the line between simple fantasy and dystopian fantasy?

After all this digging and soul searching, I am even more confused than before. I went into this thinking I knew what I was talking about and I've come out having my preconceptions stomped all over. Did you already know this about dystopian fiction? Like me, did you think dystopia was an offshoot of science fiction? Even Amazon has it categorized that way! I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you decide whether to tag something as dystopia or not! Let me know in the comments!