Human drama hides behind science fiction's settings

Dystopia - What did you say that was?

Over the past couple of days I have come across several blogs dealing with the issue of Dystopia. In fact it was one such post that led me to start this blog, and every time I read an article on the topic I start to comment, only to realize that that comment is in fact a part of a post on Dystopia that I plan to write, so to address this issue I have decided to jump ahead a bit and write the damn post, way before its time in the scheme of the blog, but here it seems the issue can't wait any more.

The original blog post I came across was "A Short Discussion About Dystopian Lit" and this week I ran across this question: "How do you define Dystopian?". Both of them deal with the question of What is Dystopia, so here goes my attempt at, not defining, but rather characterizing it.

In a purely grammatical sense Dystopia is the opposite of Utopia, so first we need a definition of Utopia, to find what it's opposite is. After reading several dictionary definitions of Utopia, the summary can be that a Utopia is an idealized place or state with a perfect social and political system. Therefore a Dystopia is an flawed or imperfect social and political system (but that defines the current state of affairs anywhere in the world); then we have to add another adjective to our imperfect system, and I propose that to be Extremely Imperfect; and I choose imperfect over flawed for reasons that I will explain further down in this post.

This first approach at the definition of dystopia gives us three important characteristics, first of all we need to have a basis on which to define perfection (and therefore its opposite), the second is that it has to deal with social and political systems, and lastly it gives us a quantitative adjective, Extremely.

The first characteristics, that of perfection, can best be analyzed in perspective. Take for example Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth: this story has all the makings of a Dystopian novel, the socio-political system is repressive, unjust and unfair, most of the liberties we take for granted today are non-existent, not to mention our creature comforts, but since its taking place in the 11th century AD the story classifies as historic fiction, and this brings up a new attribute to Dystopia: it lies somewhere in the author's future (the point of reference has to be the author, or 1984 would no longer be in the future).

Also, this time frame issue is crucial for the Dystopia to work, as it provides the basis for the alteration. If a 19th century woman read The Handmaiden's Tale by Margaret Atwood she would probably not see it with the same fright as we do today, and in fact some women might have agreed with it; it can even be argued that somewhere in the world there is a group of people for whom any Dystopia is in fact a Utopia (radical members of the politburo might have loved a society like Orwell's 1984). Therefore perfection is in the eye of the beholder.

The second characteristic derived from the initial definition out of which I am working helps us to differentiate post-apocalyptic from dystopian novels. If the focus of the story lies in the survival/action elements derived from the catastrophic events, then it is not a Dystopia, just a byproduct of the apocalypse, but if the focus is on the socio-political development, and this development can be considered (or is presented as) an evolution from our own society, then it is definitely a Dystopia.

And finally the characteristic of it it being Extremely Imperfect, gives us a magnitude. It is not sufficient for the socio-political changes to be superficial, or minor, they have to be extreme; in this post from The League of Extraordinary Writers a case was made for Dystopia to be about the fear (of the reader) of a lack of things we take for granted and love, but as I said in a comment to that post, a true dystopia has to be more than just the lack of "Hot Showers", as was the example used by Elana, it has to be a sum of so many deprivations, of so many fearful things happening, that the whole experience is not only scary, but downright terrifying and something we want to avoid at all costs.

Notice that I am not going into some of the things most people refer to when confronted with the question of defining Dystopia, and that is the specific instances used in the stories we know, like the totalitarian government, and such, for as I have said before it all depends on the idea we have of perfection and while that might be dystopian for us westerners, it is always possible to find societies for whom a non totalitarian regime would be the Dystopia. Since I'm a democratic kind of guy I can't really think of one from the top of my head, but that does not rule out the possibility of them existing, now or in a not too distant future, and a definition of a literary genre (or sub-genre as I have treated it so far in this blog), must be broad enough to allow the inclusion of new works, without too many constraints, but at the same time specific enough to serve as a tool for categorization.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this issue.