This was a rather rambly thought response piece.
On the prominence of dystopias
The word dystopia, per the Oxford English Dictionary, wasn’t used until 1952. There’s a use of “dystopian” in 1868 that appears to be describing someone who is the opposite of a utopian, but “dystopia” itself has been in use for less than a century.
Utopia, on the other hand, has been in use since 1533 per OED. Since Sir Thomas More published Utopia in 1516, we can assume this work led to the word. Looking at definition B, we can see that briefly there was a time that utopia meant simply “an imaginary or hypothetical place” but for the most part, the word utopia has had the connotations of perfection.
So since dystopias have barely been around a fraction of the time utopias have, how come dystopian literature is so much more prominent?
In a utopia, everything is perfect. If everything was perfect, there would be no conflicts, and without a conflict, there can’t be a plot. Utopias are more prominent in articles as an ideal state to aspire towards. People are often inclined to read articles about how they can make their life into some ideal state, and a lot of self improvement articles advance ideas of perfection and utopian worlds that one can live in if one follows the given recipes. However, while we may want to live in an ideal world, we couldn’t read an entire novel about such a world. There’s a reason novels end with happily ever after and go no further. There’s a reason novels don’t tell about Jane and Joe’s everyday life as a married couple once they overcome the hurdles required to get there. It’s boring.
A lot of dystopias feature kids; dystopian literature is more commonly young adult literature. This may be because younger people tend to have more imagination. Harry Potter, for example, faces very real challenges and issues such as the “rampant slavery” of house elves, classism, racism, etc. However, since it has magic and people casting spells, it’s classified as children’s literature. The publishers could very well have chosen to market the series to adults, but they didn’t. Magic is a kids thing. Adults don’t believe in magic. Adults don’t even believe in Santa Claus; how could they be expected to believe in a world of magic? (This is also, of course, partially because the main character is 11 at the beginning. But why is he 11 and not 21? Because children are more receptive to this world.) In general, children have more imagination and can more easily accept worlds dissimilar to their own. That’s why ghost stories scare small children, why fantasy worlds envelop small children, why a novel that draws a small child in can bore an adult to sleep. I used to love babysitting because I got to read to the kids and see their unfiltered reactions. They have no preconceived notions and they aren’t afraid or ashamed to lose themselves in an unreal world.
But if you were to read them More’s Utopia, they’d probably fall asleep.
On dystopias arguably being utopias
I think dystopias tend to be utopias for some people involved–they tend to be societies created by people who expect them to become perfect for everyone involved. Dystopian literature is probably my favourite genre of fiction. I am a shameless young adult novel addict and many of the best YA books are set in dystopias.
For some reason, I find that authors tend to do better jobs creating dystopian worlds than entirely fantastical worlds–or maybe I’m just more inclined to find them believable. They’re generally more similar to our own worlds now, but with important changes. We don’t have to use our imaginations to see mystical creatures or strange lands.
Nonetheless, most of the dystopian worlds I can think of are perfect for one group of people–the main group, normally encompassing most of society or at least the governing forces–but are dystopian normally because the main character knows how to think and thus questions the way society is run. This is true of a lot of dystopian lit. 1984. Uglies. Inside Out. Matched. Divergent. Delirium. Children of Men. Handmaid’s Tale. I could keep going. For example, the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld. (If you haven’t read it, read it. Ignore the fact that I love pretty much all YA dystopias. Just read it.) In this society, everyone is given an operation on their 16th birthday that makes them pretty. This creates ultimate equality. People are of all races and are all equally beautiful in their own ways. Most of them then get to sit around all day and party and do basically whatever they want. The ones who show rebellion are put into positions like doctors or police forces that require independent thinking and keep them adequately busy. Perfect, right? If the story was told by one of 99% of people living in this world, the world would be a utopia. However, our main character realizes that the surgery also makes the people a little bit stupid and more inclined to follow leaders and be peaceful. Similarly, in 1984, for all we know, most people are happy living their thoughtless worlds without going much deeper than their day to day happiness, not ever wanting more. However, our main character realizes the discrepancies in day to day life and starts to question life. If the story had been told from one of the zombie-like humans or from one of the people in power, we would see a utopia. Since it’s from Winston’s perspective, it’s a dystopia. I recently read a book, Across the Universe by Beth Revis, in which everyone in the society had interbred so that everyone had an olive skin colour and relatively similar features. Everyone was happy for the most part (again partially due to drugs that subdued most of their independent thoughts) until (long and complicated backstory short) a redhead shows up in their society. In Divergent, most people are happy because most people fit into the system–it’s just our main character that doesn’t fit into natural categories and hence begins to question things.
I could write an essay here on the topic (dystopian literature is just so fascinating!) but I’ll stop; I think I’ve made my point. Dystopias in today’s literature tend to be utopias for most of the people involved. It’s just those darn people who want to think freely and have their own independent minds and their own opinions who come and screw everything up.
“Dystopia.” Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.
“Utopia.” Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.