Take a stroll down popularity lane, with me, for just a moment. Look at movies, books, music, etc. Watch what people read and watch and listen to for entertainment.
There’s a whole lot of diversity, thanks to humans being… well… human, but there ought to be one very, very noticeable trend. It’s most especially found among the teens and college-aged.
It’s a word most everyone will recognize, even if they don’t know what it means. The idea of a dystopia fascinates people. [As a side note, for those of you who didn’t recognize that word, have a definition.]
Another world you might hear and see is Utopia. It’s not as popular, but every Dystopian world has tinges of Utopia. I’d like us to examine these two genres (or world-types, if you want to be specific) and shed a light on their popularity.
Of the two, the idea of a world gone wrong seems to draw more attention. For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why people were so drawn to the idea of a world where everything went wrong and mankind is reduced to living in the ashes of technology. Then I actually read one. My introduction to Dystopian was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I’d like to circumvent discussion about the quality of these books* and get straight to the point: I fell in love with the idea of a broken world.
Dystopian has exploded in recent years, with the publishing of the aforementioned Hunger Games, the Divergent Trilogy (Veronica Roth), The Maze Runner (James Dashner), and more, such as The Rithmatist (Brandon Sanderson).
Having read many of them, I’ve come to a conclusion for why people love this genre: we fear it.
Look at how so many Dystopias come to be: nuclear wars, alternate histories, oppressive government, ‘what-ifs’, and so forth. Dystopias thrive on the fears of the masses. Everyone fears what might happen if nuclear warfare wiped out most of the planet, even if that threat is far less eminent than it was thirty/forty years ago. Closer to home strikes the idea that the government has become totalitarian and subjugated the people (or sometimes something more specific, like art, books, music, etc.).
Everyone is scared of something. Dystopian uses those common fears (the rational and irrational together) to make something we can’t help but be fascinated by.
The idea of a perfect world is hard to comprehend, which is perhaps why people read books written about them. However, they’re often less popular than Dystopias. The basic answer to that is this: no one pictures the same perfect world as the next person. What is your idea of a perfect world? If you could just snap your fingers and everything would be just right for you, what would it look like?
To the scientist, technology would be maximized, the universe explored, conflicts solved by science, and the human variable minimized.
To the politician, the world would be at peace, consolidated under one respective, benevolent power (probably themselves).
To the pacifist environmentalist, perfection would be mankind living at peace with everything, especially nature.
To me, perfection isn’t any of those things.
What about you? I doubt your view of perfection molds to something else’s ideas. Which is why writing a Utopia is hard. It’s coming up with a perfect world and sharing it with everything. Chances are, few people will agree with your utopia.
If you look once more at popular books with me, what do you notice about the Dystopias?
You might notice common trends in the plots (evil totalitarian government as the antagonist, with a rebel protagonist), the characters (strong female leads, dead or incapacitated parents, innocent younger siblings, rough friends and often weak allies), the themes (justice, diversity, freedom, individuality, optimism), and in the backstory of the world’s current decay.
I’d like to ignore the first several for the moment, and look at the last: the backstory of the world’s current decay. In so many Dystopias, what happens to the world before it crumbles?
Look at Hunger Games, for example. Before the Games, there is Panem, a country at peace with itself. Built in the ruins of America, it thrived. It’s a perfect society for the Capitol, prosperity for all. And then things go wrong. The Dystopian of the Games is built on what used to be the Capitol’s vision of Utopia. In fact, many of the rich citizens still fancy they are living in a Utopia.
Now let’s really quick glance at Divergent. It’s often called a Dystopian Utopian, for obvious reasons. In the first book, everything is perfect. The factions are thriving because they are the perfect way for everything to live together. It’s a Utopia built on the idea of categorization. Then everything starts falling apart.
Dystopian novels tackle the things we fear might happen in our future. The near future. Maybe even now. They point to things that could happen if we don’t fix our problems. They show what people used as solutions, and why those solutions didn’t work. Why technology, government, peace, war, categorization, and individualism, can’t or won’t work. Some of them are nihilistic. Many are clichéd. But all of them want us to keep hoping for something more.
Now it’s your turn. What do you like or dislike about Dystopias and Utopias?
*I am referring to the various arguments I’ve heard for or against the Hunger Games. As of yet, I’ve found neither side of the argument very convincing.
*I'd also like to note the pictures are not mine, and the copyright belongs to their respective owners. Found via Google.