Someone asked me the other day if my current work in progress is set in a dystopia. My knee-jerk response was that dystopias aren’t my thing. In fact, I think I unconsciously viewed the term as somewhat of a pejorative.
Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy classic novels like 1984 and Brave New World. But I see them as rich and interesting thought experiments, a brilliant way to convey particular ideas. But to me, dystopian settings are necessarily hyperbolic caricatures. The author pushes the extreme beyond the point where disbelief can be suspended.
In Fahrenheit 451, firemen start fires instead of putting them out. The entire setting is built around this concept, with fireproof material dominating the homes and businesses as a way to excise the necessity of fire departments as we know them. In 1984, a single party dominates all aspects of life – words and news and history, making crimes of thought itself. In Atlas Shrugged, the overreaching regulatory state seeks to freeze the economy in place, outlawing any increase or reductions of production, employment, or prices.
These situations are extreme by design. Orwell, Bradbury, and Rand were seeking to make a point about their own societies by building fun house mirror versions of them. What they were not doing was immersing the readers into rich, extensive and believable worlds of their own creations. When I write my settings, I want to explore the trade-offs, the realistic pros and cons that might arise in the challenges of my settings.
In my view of dystopia, the thought experiment overrides that.
But then I looked into all of the stories that have been given the the label “dystopian.”
These include titles such as Snow Crash and Ender’s Game – stories that could hardly be seen as mere* backdrop for thought experiment. There is some good and some bad about each of these settings, and neither push their premises into absurdity. (*Note that each of the dystopias I mention holds more prestige than either Snow Crash or Ender’s Game.)
The entire category is apparently something of a debate. There is even a popular hashtag asking the question: #IsItDystopia
So what do you think? Does any sufficiently grim future count as “dystopian”? Or does it require something more extreme?