Written by: Camryn Johnson
When Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games began its launch as a series of feature films in 2012, it seemed that the ‘dystopian’ novel genre’s popularity as a whole took wing as well. But these tales of disjointed and controlled societies did not start with Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, not even with Big Brother in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The first dystopian novel, Yevgeni Zamyatin’s 1920’s novel We has all of our favorite markers of a controlled and corrupt society: an imperialistic, overly surveillant government, labeled “One State,”; the commodification and objectification of the human being; characters with names much like prison ID numbers; and invasive laws that dictate the every move of those subject to it. All of this sounds quite familiar when we consider the novels of our own time: Scott Westerfield’s Uglies, Emma Pass’s ACID, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and Kiera Cass’s The Selection are merely a few among myriad titles that discuss boundless injustices and inequalities integral to oppressive governing bodies. But why? It may unfortunately be a case of art imitating life.
According to Google, whose definitions are purportedly provided by Oxford Languages, ‘dystopia’ is defined to be “an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic” with ‘dystopian’ being a characteristic of such. If this definition is the end all be all as to why every dystopian novel seems to follow the same tropes, then the logic mainly tracks. But I think there’s a layer deeper. Namely, that the so-called “imagined” states presented to us in these works of literature aren’t so imagined at all.
If we consider the driving force of these stories we see that each involve some sort of grouping mechanism. Whether it be Panem’s twelve districts, Roth’s post-apocalyptic Chicago and it’s five factions of aptitude, or the social castes of Illea, all are subjugated by a ruling, usually corrupt and self-serving authority the narratives’ protagonists must displace. This can all be seen as a gross exaggeration of inequalities in our existing societies, and even more specifically of the social dynamic between individual human beings — think high school cliques. All of these novels touch on issues of class, race, various social discriminations such as our interests and hobbies, issues of conformity/non-conformity and the devaluing of the individual, and of course the dangers of a totalitarian state (a fear that is still very present in current society) that have been amped up to level 100. So, despite looking explicitly different from our own worlds, they reflect how our society functions implicitly — they expose the engrained inequitable (and sometimes unethical) processes by which many of our real world institutions, like education, employment, and economics, are founded.
But why are we even talking about this? Who cares? Well, if we really get into the nitty-gritty, what we live in now isn’t so far off from what these authors have cooked up. For example, the plot of The Selection, which involves a prince taking in contestants to be his wife, sounds much like The Bachelor to me. With rising concerns about AI facial and voice recognition devices, as well as targeted ads and location tracking software on our phones and laptops, the “Big Brother” that Orwell coined doesn’t seem so far fetched. As (un)surprising as it may seem, these dystopian narratives depicting broken governments and stringent societies aren’t so distant. In fact, they’re much closer to our own reality than many of us are inclined to admit.