We’ll be discussing dystopian fiction all week in anticipation of the final installment of The Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. Collins’ trilogy has increased exposure for an already popular sub-genre of YA literature, and it seems more writers than ever are now inventing their own dreary societies for us to discover. Here are some of the common elements of fictional dystopias.
The Fatal Flaw
A dystopia with a narrow focus is far more interesting than a society that’s messy all across the board. Since the point of a dystopian novel is usually to magnify a current flaw in society, it works best to create a world based on one main flaw. In M. T. Anderson’s Feed, the flaw is the feed itself–an internet connection implanted in the brain. The feed permits rampant consumerism by allowing constant impulse purchases and by blasting non-stop, personalized advertisements. The shallow nature of this society permits environmental and intellectual deterioration (for example, school is no longer for studying history and grammar but for learning new ways to use the feed.)
The Hunger Games has a laser-sharp focus: The problem with Katniss’ society is that it compels young people to fight to the death in annual, televised games. This one flaw rests on many others (the poverty of some districts, the tyranny of others), but we see all that is wrong in Katniss’ world through this one instance of oppression.
The Curious Individual
The protagonist of a dystopian novel must serve as a stand-in for the reader, exploring the fatal flaw of her society. She’s an insider who isn’t quite like everyone else, someone prone to questioning authority. In Lowry’s The Giver, Jonas is singled out right away as unique. He’s given an unusual assignment–to receive memories of past civilization–and it’s in this forum that he’s best able to question his society.
In Westerfield’s Uglies, Tally rebels against conformity after being influenced by a new friend who encourages her to see things differently. In Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go, Todd begins to question authority as he approaches his rite of passage, and after he stumbles upon an unusual spot of silence amidst the constant “Noise” that plagues his settlement. In Feed, Titus starts to view his rampant consumerism for what it is thanks to his new girlfriend, who had her “feed” installed too late in life to allow her to conform to her peers. (Also, Titus is apparently the only one of his friends to use metaphors, or so says the girlfriend.)
How did things get to be so bad? Unless readers can answer this question, they won’t buy into the story. It’s clear why Jonas’ society in The Giver has chosen uniformity and sacrificed passion: his people fear war. Captain Beatty gives us the explanation for book-burning in Fahrenheit 451: books contradict each other and create confusion. Also, the political race that takes place during the story gives a small glimpse into how the public has been controlled. In The Hunger Games, we’re told that a failed revolt led the Capitol to exert a public display of might via the Games. And The Knife of Never Letting Go is all about Todd’s quest to discover what has really made his society the way it is–was it the fault of an alien-created virus or something even more sinister?
Sometimes you can’t enjoy the story because you keep wondering why the people in the society allow themselves to be thus controlled. Some of our bloggers have said that they had a hard time believing in the profound misery of certain fictional dystopias. Joni has said that she doesn’t buy into the annual Hunger Games, that she thinks a rebellion against them would have come much sooner than it has. I personally am not convinced by the society Condie created for the upcoming Matched, which feels hollowly vindictive. Without a believable backstory, a dystopia doesn’t work.
The Tragic End
Dystopian novels generally have unhappy or unresolved endings so the point of the novel can be driven home–if society is allowed to develop into this, we’re all doomed! Protagonists rarely prevail against the dystopia, although they sometimes escape, as in The Giver and Fahrenheit 451. Often they are defeated and die, as in the stunning ending of Huxley’s Brave New World. Or else they survive but are deeply traumatized, as in Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. Dystopias in books for younger readers are the most likely to be conquered, as in Christopher’s Tripod trilogy and Patrick Carman’s Atherton trilogy (if I remember correctly).
It remains to be seen what will happen to Katniss in Mockingjay. Will she bring down the Capitol? Escape to a new, independent district? Die in one last round of Games? Of one thing I’m convinced–even if she succeeds in leading a revolt, she will have to lose something, whether it be her life or one (or both!) of her love interests.