A Light in the Darkness: Why We Love Dystopian Fiction

Sophie Playle

We can’t know the future, but it can be thrilling to speculate about it.

Expanding population, climate change, technological advancement, corrupt governments, divided social classes … Follow the trajectory of any one of these current issues and it’s not hard to imagine a possible dark future.

We all want to live in a better world, but utopias can never exist.

There are too many variables. People want different things. Even with the same goals, people will disagree about the best way to achieve those goals. Can we ever create a world without war, disease, poverty, oppression, discrimination, inequality? A perfect society can’t be made of imperfect people – and we are imperfect by nature.

Depending on the interpretation of the Greek origins of the word, utopia can either mean ‘good place’ or ‘no place’, which is kind of telling. We don’t write about utopian societies because they lack a sense of realism. What’s more, they’d contain no conflict – which is a key ingredient of storytelling.

Dystopias, on the other hand, are ripe with hard truths and dramatic conflict.

A dystopia is the opposite of a utopia. In a dystopian society, nothing is perfect and everything is corrupt. A dystopian society is often born from an attempted utopia. The ruling forces believe they’re acting for the greater good. Alternatively, they make the masses believe they’re in a utopia while deliberately hiding a more sinister agenda.

So why do we love to read and write dystopian fiction?

Dystopian fiction contains powerful truths.

Dystopian fiction takes an issue, usually one we downplay in current society, and blows it up top epic proportions, forcing us to look at it.

In Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, everyone is made beautiful by cosmetic surgery. In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood, woman are dehumanised and reduced to baby-making machines. In 1984 by George Orwell, history and fact are rewritten and our thoughts are monitored.

It’s not difficult to see the roots of these societies in the world we currently live in, and that gives dystopian fiction a sense of honesty, gravitas and importance. Look at what might be if we carry on this way, the dystopian author says.

Dystopian fiction makes us feel strong.

Most Young Adult dystopian fiction follows a teenage protagonist who manages to destroy a corrupt government – or they at least manage to break or escape the system in some way.

For example, in The Giver by Lois Lowry, Jonas lives in a society that has eradicated pain and suffering by making everything and everyone the same – at the expense of freedom and emotion. Though Jonas doesn’t manage to bring down the system, he does manage to escape it.

On the other hand, Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of The Hunger Games series by Susanne Collins, is the current quintessential YA dystopian hero. She is strong and defiant and breaks the dystopian system though initiating a revolution.

Most of us (especially teenagers, who feel a lack of agency and power in their own adult-ruled lives) love reading about characters that triumph in this way.

Dystopian fiction shows a light in the darkness.

On the one hand, dystopian fiction reminds us that our lives aren’t that bad. We aren’t being pitched against one another in a televised fight to the death (The Hunger Games). We’re not killed when we turn twenty-one in an effort to keep population levels under control (Logan’s Run). We aren’t subjugated to face-eating rats if we show emotion or original thought (1984).

As well as that, contrast is a powerful storytelling tool. When life feels as dark, the smallest of lights can seem impossibly bright. When a character is shown kindness in an unkind world, we’re starkly reminded of the good in people.

Dystopian fiction reminds us of our innate humanity. It gives us hope.

That’s why we love it.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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