I happened upon a Goodreads group called ‘Play Book Tag’ which can be found here for the interested. In essence what they do is choose a theme each month and then share, discuss, recommend and review the books that fit that theme.
The group moves pretty fast and I am pretty slow so I’ve been watching from the sidelines like a cautious observer trying and failing to join in since I joined back in April. I actually have enjoyed the themes chosen so far (even if I don’t usually read them, that’s part of the challenge) and I’ve decided to jump in for July (ok, more like nervously step forward) but I also wanted to make a post about the topic here too.
Be gentle with me – remember, I never have any clue what I’m actually doing.
(I probably won’t be as wordy in future posts!)
This month’s theme is a little up my street and is…
First of all…
This is where Wikipedia comes in mightily handy to fill in the gaps and flesh out what I would try, and fail, to say eloquently.
Let’s take it back to language.
Dystopia appears to originally have been a Greek word meaning ‘not-good place’ and is often used to describe a society that is frankly, not at all pleasant. What this means very much depends on what wouldn’t be pleasant for the society or the members of that society. Are we talking high levels of crime? Are we talking violence? Poverty? A totalitarian government? A significant lack or decline in natural resources? Regimented bodily control? Eugenics? Extreme racism/ sexism/ homophobia? Government sanctioned genocide?
Honestly? I think it varies. It could be all of the above, some, one or none. Dystopian pieces of work that I have read either tend to pick a subject and focus on that to a great extent as their prime subject matter or they touch on many facets of a dystopian society to provide a picture of what it is like for our characters to exist in such a place.
All characters have struggles (or should do) but by adding in the setting of a dystopian society it means that the very place they live or the very timeline they live in has given them less of a chance to complete their goals. Sometimes those goals equate to simple survival.
One thing I would like to see, and I don’t know if there are any books that fit this bill, is a dystopian society from the perspective of someone who genuinely doesn’t view it as a dystopia.
One of my favourite books of all time is a dystopian piece of fiction and so I will borrow a quote from The Handmaid’s Tale.
Not in every case but in quite a fair few that I can think of – a dystopia isn’t a dystopia for everyone in that society. Some members of this society don’t only tend to do fairly well but thrive in this way of life and actively encourage (or are the enablers) of maintaining a status quo that benefits them. Some members of this society may not even realise that the overall place they live in isn’t good for everyone. Why? Well most people don’t look back when they are near the finish line of a race.
In some ways dystopian fiction works best when it takes what is currently not working with society or what the general perceptions are of those who are don’t fit the criteria of what society views as ‘elite’ (male, white, straight, able bodied and so on) and twists it to make it even worse. I find it works sadly and simply because the dystopia setting has a more solid foundation on which to build.
This is what makes dystopian fiction a sub-genre of speculative fiction, because we can take what currently exists and ask, ‘what if we make it worse?’ or ‘what if we make this worse?’
Phew. Now there’s a question. A quick glance at Goodreads and Wikipedia tell me that there are a lot. A lot. Clearly asking the horrible questions and exploring the answers is a compelling trait in writers and readers alike.
Wikipedia gives me some examples of dystopian books that stretch right back into the 18th Century beginning with Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ before gaining some speed with our most awesome sci-fi crew of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (dystopian fiction seems to be a specialty of Mr. Wells’) after which point the genre shows no sign of stopping. I have to mention George Orwell and Aldous Huxley here because how could I not?
There seems to be a boom in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s but if we look at what was happening or what had happened with the world just before and during this time period is it any surprise? There was a lot of world history occurring at those points and a lot of scientific and technical advances. We’re talking World War II and the Vietnam War, we’re talking the nuclear bomb, space travel, vaccinations, heart transplants, birth control pills. So much. So much that is good and so much to ask, ‘what are we doing and what if we get this wrong?’
The 1950’s – 1970’s gave us Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, a whole bunch of stuff by Philip. K. Dick and some more stuff by Ursula K. Le Guin. The more we do, the more we ask and the more we write and read about it.
It was around the 1990’s that writers realised that dystopian fiction could be marketed for the Young Adult audience and not just for adults. Themes and subject matters have to be adapted accordingly obviously and a lot of YA (but not all) seem to use dystopia as an overall setting for their characters to struggle against over picking out specific topics to focus on.
From this point on we got The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Maze Runner by James Dashner, Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness, Divergent by Veronica Roth and so on.
I must confess that I haven’t taken the time to look at all the back catalogue’s of book sales and am instead basing this off a ‘Popular Dystopian Books’ list on Goodreads so this is dependent on those who use that site.
The list contains 1,225 books and there is no hecking way I can go through all of them so I have picked the top 10! These are: –
- The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)
- Divergent (Veronica Roth)
- Mockingjay (Suzanne Collins)
- Insurgent (Veronica Roth)
- Allegiant (Veronica Roth)
- The Maze Runner (James Dashner)
- 1984 (George Orwell)
- The Giver (Lois Lowry)
- Matched (Ally Condie)
- The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
What do I think about that list? Well I’m not surprised. Out of the 10 on the list, 8 are YA. I have only read 4 of them (The Hunger Games, Mockingjay, 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale) and I have never heard of The Giver or Matched.
I’m also a little disappointed by it if I’m honest but that’s because some epic dystopian classics such as Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, The Time Machine and Animal Farm haven’t made it on.
I 100% enjoy The Hunger Games but it isn’t my favourite dystopian.
My personal Top 3 are:-
The Handmaid’s Tale – which I keep meaning to write a separate post on because that’s how much it has impacted me and I always bang on about how much it has impacted me
Lord of the Flies – I read this at school when I was 14 and I haven’t stopped thinking about Piggy since. Fun fact: there is talks to remake this book into a movie but with an all female cast and a lot of discussion is around how you just can’t do that because even William Golding said that females would not behave the same way.
1984 – I read on a warm, sunny day when I was a teenager in my garden and I have never felt so chilled. This book has (in my humble opinion) one of the most chilling and disturbing and impacting last lines of any book I’ve ever read.
Excuse the rambles but I hope you enjoyed. What do you think of dystopian fiction? Any favourites? What are your thoughts on the top 10 most popular?
I’d say happy reading but I suppose in this case… maybe not so happy 😉