According to a large portion of the world’s population, humankind is already living in a dystopia.
The fun part about living right now is we get to see how it ends.
Dystopia and The Bible
Ever since God punished Adam, Eve and the serpent for eating from that tree we have been banished from Paradise. Compared to Paradise, this toiling, this painful childbirth, these thistles and weeds growing up through our crops are considered part of this Earthly dystopia — a temporary punishment before taking up residence in Paradise once more in the after life.
If not taken literally by so many today, Earth as a dystopian setting was certainly literal for earlier peoples from the major religious traditions (and I’m guessing we’ll get there again).
Although dystopia seems to be the opposite of idyll, it has in fact the same purpose: to conserve the children—as well as adults—in an innocent, unchanging state, comfortably freed from memories, emotions, affections, responsibilities—and from natural death. Breaking away from a safe and secluded dystopian society, children break out into linearity.Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
Nikolajeva goes on to explain that quite a few authors depict a reverse process, and offers A Cry from the Jungle by Norwegian author Tormod Haugen as an example of an ‘extremely complicated and equivocal novel.’
Features Of Dystopian Fiction
In dystopian novels, the main character usually rebels against the status quo by exposing its flaws, escaping the world entirely, attempting to take it over, or initiating a new set of rules.
Dystopian stories often take place after a large societal restructuring, usually because of a global event. In this way they might seem post-apocalyptic, but when the conflict of a story focuses on the oppression of a government or set of ideas, rather than on the direct consequences of a wide-spread tragedy, it is dystopian.
Dystopian novels often focus on societies and cultures that appear stable and well established, whereas post-apocalyptic cultures are more imbalanced or volatile.
A Brief History Of Dystopia
The first public usage of the word ‘dystopia’ goes all the way back to John Stuart Mill in 1868. In a speech to the House of Commons, Mill said, “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians” (‘cacotopia’ was relegated to the Wastepaper Basket of History). But it wasn’t until about 50 years afterward, when authors made the word their own, that the idea of dystopia began to actually take root in the public consciousness.Electric Literature
The Dystopia and Young Readers
According to a new report, Australian kids are feeling pessimistic about their own futures, and this goes against all evidence. Australian kids should be feeling pretty good about the future, according to one expert.
Key points from the radio interview:
- Youth unemployment has been higher in the past, and is reflecting that it takes time to find their way into the job market, as unemployment goes down as job seekers get older. This is reflected in other countries. Southern European unemployment rates for youth (especially Southern Italy and Spain) is much more bleak.
- Why are young Australian people pessimistic? It is thought that young Australians have unrealistic expectations about what to expect from a first job. In Brazil, China and countries like that have youth with lower expectations and are therefore more optimistic.
- Older people need to tell young people what their own paths to success have been.
- The media also has a part to play. We’ve seen processing plants closing down, but we don’t see the steady flow of new job opportunities coming through the news. The small trickle more than offsets the big closures. (Audiences are after bad news, and the media cater to that.)
- The number of law graduates each year far exceeds the number of places available. Law is ‘the new arts degree’. It’s true that law graduates are still useful in the workplace even if they are not practising law, but are young law students given a realistic idea about what percentage of graduates will find jobs as lawyers? Law graduates are not expensive to produce for universities. It’s book learning so they are cheap to train. Universities are following a good economic pattern, but at what cost for the 18 year olds enrolling in these degrees, which are quite expensive for them? (Or perhaps law students are more expensive to train than we assume.)
- IT students are equally pessimistic as law students. Private providers are competing with the universities in IT, moving into computer science, which is quite distinct from being able to program. The ability to successfully adapt different technologies in work environments, they are the crucial skills. Just being able to code in a particular language isn’t much use. Australia is good at having the bright idea and being able to adapt the bright idea in a business context.
- Where is the pessimism coming from? The negativity from politicians doesn’t help. Universities haven’t been very good at making their graduates work-ready.
- We need to change the nature of internships and cadetships, which currently accept large numbers of graduates but at the end of that period only one in sixty (for example in finance) will be offered a job at the end of it. This turns the whole thing into a bit of a waste of time for the other 59. Internships need to go hand-in-hand with study. Companies need to work more closely with degree programs to prepare students for the workforce.
Where else might youth pessimism be coming from? Is it limited to ‘pessimism about work’ or pessimism about the environment, politics and society in general? Could youth pessimism also be to do with the stories that are popular for young people? Today’s young people have grown up in the Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature, and this is an age rife with dystopias. There have been so many dystopias in fiction that if you listen to what agents and publishers are looking for in the kidlit-o-sphere you’ll hear a lot of publishing professionals say they are sick to death of them and are looking for something completely different.
Here in Australia, parallel importing and the Hollywood trend of adapting best-selling YA books to film has changed the Australian reading landscape over the past 15 years to point where the top-selling books are mainly from America.
Insofar as best-selling books corresponds to library lending rates (which are very easy to find), here are Australia’s library lending stats for YA last year:
The most borrowed young adult fiction titles were:
- Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (American/science fiction adventure)
- Divergent series by Veronica Roth (American/science fiction adventure)
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (American/romance)
- The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak (Australian/Holocaust)
- Looking for Alaska by John Green (American/romance)
- Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan (American/fantasy adventure)
- The Maze Runner by James Dashner (American/science fiction)
- Every Breath by Ellie Marney (Australian/thriller)
- An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (American/romance)
- Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare (American/fantasy adventure)
Teen borrowers from Australian libraries [are] looking for a blend of escapism and realism. Gritty romances, fantasy and adventure were the main themes, with all but two of the list coming from American writers.Australia’s Favourite Library Books
American Apocalyptic Fiction
Lee Quinby wrote an essay called “Demurring to Doom: The Geopolitics of Prevailing” about a particularly American view of end-of-times, dividing evil broadly into:
- Human e.g. Dr Octopus in Spider-man. These stories tend to be about one man’s evil. This story is entrenched in American narrative.
- Social — Evil exists within a human-made framework of social injustice. Far less explored.
- Cosmic/apocalyptic e.g. Terminator. Entrenched.
Revenge and doom loom large in categories one and three.
Quinby advocates for a shift in how American stories present evil, hoping to shift audiences towards a vision of themselves as global citizens, ‘interconnected with all of humanity and interdependent in the world we live in together.’
An apocalyptic novel tells the story of the end of the world, which occurs during the timeline of the story. The novels Outbreak and World War Z, or the movie Contagion, are good examples. In almost all apocalyptic stories life is threatened on a global scale: disease, natural disaster, war, or alien invasion, for example. The characters facing an apocalypse must try to outlive, outlast, or outsmart the hazards of a crumbling world, which is made increasingly unlikely when the majority of the population has fallen victim. It is common for apocalyptic novels to classify as “genre,” because the survival conflict is at the forefront of the story, making apocalyptic stories more plot driven than character based.
After the zombies or super flu or nuclear war, the characters left to deal with the consequences are in a post-apocalyptic story. There are numerous examples: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I Am Legend, and the recent Station Eleven, The Dog Stars, and The Dead Lands all tell stories about people navigating a new and hostile world. The central conflict for characters in a post-apocalyptic story is managing the new physical, social, and cultural landscape left behind by a recent disaster. There are often fewer people and less established societies in post-apocalyptic novels, so the central conflict in these stories surrounds characters who are often fighting for resources or searching for other survivors.
What Is Cli-fi?
It wasn’t until I’d got to the end of writing and illustrating Midnight Feast that this article appeared in The Guardian: Global Warming And The Rise Of Cli-Fi. I realised that what I’d written was a picturebook contribution to cli-fi.
- a sub-genre of sci-fi in which the earth’s systems are ‘off-kilter’
- sci-fi takes place in a dystopian future, whereas cli-fi is set in a dystopian present
- Describes works which set out to warn readers of possible environmental nightmares to come
- The best cli-fi novels allow us to be briefly but intensely frightened: climate chaos is closer, more immediate, hovering over our shoulder like that murderer wielding his knife.
- Unlike sci-fi, cli-fi writing comes primarily from a place of warning rather than discovery.
See Also: So Hot Right Now: Has climate change created a new literary genre, from NPR
What do you think would happen in a globally warmed Earth? Do you envision a Cormac McCarthy sort of apocalypse with bands of humans turning evil? In fiction, this is pretty much a given. Could there be a brighter view?
Some people think there is still not enough cli-fi.
- Why Teens Find The End Of The World So Appealing from NPR
- Why do literary novelists love dystopia? from Salon
- The Dystopian Timeline to The Hunger Games [INFOGRAPHIC] via Goodreads
- A flowchart which will help you decode dystopia from eBook Friendly
- A LibraryThing list of YA Dystopia
- Fear of a Feminist Dystopia by Laurie Penny
- For a different setting altogether, see my post on utopias.
- Sometimes a setting appears to be a utopia, but there is a snail under the leaf.
Header painting: Thomas Benjamin Kennington – Homeless