Five Features of a Dystopian Text

As we head into the New Year, it means the start of another new topic for my Writer’s Club. This term, we move onto the fascinatingly frightful world of dystopia. But what is dystopia all about? One of the reasons I find it fascinating is that whilst it may be set in the future, in reality it has far more to say about our present society. Here are five key features to look out for!

Totalitarian government 

This is a core feature of any dystopian text. There will be a ruling authority that has often seized power by questionable means, who seek to control and dominate every aspect of the lives of its citizens. In The Hunger Games, all the citizens of the districts are ruled by the Capitol, who control them through the terrifying Hunger Games, a constant reminder that they are only alive because of the “mercy” of those in power. The districts live in poverty and starvation, whilst citizens of the Capitol live in excess and luxury. Or in The Handmaid’s Tale, where the ruling authorities in Gilead have imposed an archaic and barbaric set of laws, designed to return women to their “natural” role as mothers and housekeepers, in order to combat the steep decline in the population growth rate. Again, the Commanders and their wives live in wealth, whilst others are stripped of all liberties and rights. 

The individual versus the collective

Developing the role of the totalitarian government, there is also a core battle between the individual and the collective that goes deeper than just telling people what to do. For example, in 1984, citizens are not merely controlled by rules, but instead through a process of psychological manipulation, overseen by the Thought Police. Children are indoctrinated and led to believe they have a duty to report their parents for Thought Crime. In Oceania, even your mind does not belong to you. Similarly, in Divergent, the state seeks to obliterate any individuals who do not fit securely into the different categories of the faction system, labelling them divergent and therefore dangerous. 

The dangers of science 

This is a key theme that is explored in dystopian fiction, offering up a warning about what could happen if scientific knowledge got into the wrong hands. For example, in Never Let Me Go, the cloning process has been perfected to the point where children are created to be organ donors. However, these clones have their own consciousness, and therefore the use of the harvesting of their organs is essentially a state-sponsored murder. In Brave New World, scientists have been able to create humans with differing levels of intelligence, meaning that their life’s work is predetermined before they are even born.

The hero 

The main character in a dystopian novel is usually able to recognise what the state is doing, and the novel tracks their attempts to challenge and undermine the government. For example, in 1984, we follow Winston’s journey, as he thinks he is associating with like-minded individuals who want to bring down the government. By the end of the novel however, the state has taken control of him mentally, and rather than triumphing, he ends the novel by reaffirming his love for Big Brother, the figurehead of the government. Interestingly, in more recent dystopian novels, there has been more of a trend of female protagonists, such as Katniss Everdeen, Triss Prior or Offred/June(as she is known in the TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale). It is very important that we relate to the main character, as they need to embody humanity in a society that has either forgotten or been robbed of it. For example, our connection with Katniss relies upon the fact that we know she is willing to risk death in order to protect her sister. This act of love creates a sense of empathy for the reader. 

Entropy 

Being set in the future, you would expect society to have taken major strides forward, and yet in many a dystopian society, things have gone backward and society seems to have regressed. For example, in Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road, the characters are moving through a post-apocalyptic landscape, where America now lies in ruins. Similarly, in The Hunger Games, with the exception of the Capitol, the districts are broken down and citizens live in poverty. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead has deliberately turned its back on modern advances in order to restore proper values to society. In 1984, Oceania is purposely kept run down, in order to keep its citizens in a permanent state of wartime, as this makes them more willing to accept demands without question. 
Sounding interesting? In The Writer’s Club, we will be spending more time diving into this genre, before having a go at creating our own dystopian stories. The club meets on Sundays at 11 am and there is currently a very limited number of spaces remaining. To find out more, get in touch at jo@brightskytutoring.com.

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