Dystopia's Umbrella

In September of 2010 I wrote a post called The Problem with Dystopia where I addressed some of the issues with the term as a definition and a literary term. In it I said,
"Dystopian literature is gaining momentum, especially in the young adult market, yet no one seems to have a grasp on what words to you use to define, understand, and categorize dystopia."
And the interesting thing is that nothing much has changed. People are still struggling to pin down what makes dystopia dystopian. Yet, we have also come to accept the word into our speech patterns. We use it without being overly concerned with definitions. The more we try to pin down our understanding of the term and concept the more variations of it emerge. This is both confusing and amazing.

I am curious if and why people feel they have a firmer grasp on understanding dystopia than they did in the past. What has changed? I guess we all have that moment when dystopia is defined for us and whatever words were used in that moment sort of stick. It is interesting how in the past I spent a lot of time on Twitter and blog posts defining dystopia and now I rarely ever get asked. The term has become part of the contemporary reading lexicon.

It is easy to point to The Hunger Games as the book that turned a lot of things around. But it was more than one book that created an awareness. People read The Hunger Games then when they went to find more books like it they may have found the term dystopia along with a list of other enjoyable books. Does the dystopian explosion exist without The Hunger Games?

One of the consequences/results of the reaction to dystopian books is a surge in books that aren't exactly dystopian but get the tag just because someone knows it is a selling point right now. The unfortunate thing is that people have started finding books that didn't represent what they were looking for under this classification and have started to become weary of the term. And while I can TOTALLY understand that (I have definitely faced disappointment) I am okay with using the term dystopia as a general umbrella term. Maybe we would be better served to use a term like "hard dystopia" for those books most fitting of the classic understanding of the term. But post apocalyptic and apocalyptic books have fallen under this heading along with other strays. Some readers and fans really resent that, but at the end of the day the term dystopia still brings me to the type of stories I want to be reading.

I am not entirely sure any of us know what dystopia means any better than we did a few years ago. I think trying to pin down an understanding has only lead to more confusion.  Even though we are often faced with what Pam from bookalicio.us called a "branding" problem, genre exists for a reason beyond selling books. It helps us talk about what we read with a common language and find other readers who like the same books as us.

But Dystopia is inherently subjective. It can hinge on the world building, the psychology of the characters, or the quality of action. We all have different levels of enjoyment from different elements of any book, but it seem particularly prevalent in dystopian literature. From readers I have seen an expectation from the term "dystopia" that seems higher, more rigid, and more personal than readers seem to have from other genre fiction.  I think author Elana Johnson put the reason for this very well, "Because, really, one person’s idea of a perfect, ideal existence is often another person’s nightmare." And that very concept of perfection verses nightmare is at the core of dystopian fiction and the core of the varying reactions we can have to it.

What do you think about the term and branding of dystopia? Has it more often disappointed you or helped you find the types of books you want to read? I think that a shift in thinking can really change the whole experience when reading young adult dystopian literature. This is particularly hard for me since I have been dedicated to an academic understanding of dystopia for many years now. The dictionary definition of dystopia as "a bad place" lends itself to including more types of books and types of world building that are not traditionally dystopian.

One of the interesting experiences I will have over the next month is seeing how dystopian books work and don't work for me. And how this contrast with possibly unrealistic expectations from a misunderstanding between dystopia as an umbrella term and dystopia as an academic one.


  1. Interesting post. I really like that Elana Johnson quote - it's true. Say there's a community filled with consistent music. I mean, all the time, 24/7, never quiet. Some people would love that because their brains work with music, while others wouldn't be able to get anything done and find it too distracting/irritating. Obviously, dystopia takes that to a much more impacting extent, but it's a very great point. Like the world in Divergent - some would like the exclusivity, the dividing of people like cliques, while others would hate the monotony. It's a very interesting point to make.

    And Megan, you so smart. You use big words in this post. You sound kind of like a professor - maybe you should teach dystopian to the masses.

    Anyway, about your view on the labels. I actually asked you what dystopian meant a long long time ago, pre-Hunger Games. And I think, if I'm right, that you said it's the opposite of a utopia and I told you you were no help until you told me that a utopia was a seemingly perfect world, even though that's impossible (so essentially utopia is nonexistant) and dystopia is when that world goes to shit. You used much bigger words, you scholar, but I agree with you, now that I've had the time to read dystopian with the growth of it. But apocalyptic books are definitely grouped in the same genre often, and I usually don't give it much thought, but you're right: it's something to think about. Apocalyptic books generally take place in our world, our culture. But a true dystopian has to be a completely different culture view, I think, like in The Hunger Games or Divergent. When I think of reading dystopian, I don't think of it as a current time period. But with the addition of apocalyptic books, that changes. I'm still interested in both of those genres, and I think most readers who are interested in dystopia and the destruction of a society (sadists,) might also be interested in apocalyptic lit, so it's a good marketing idea but not always right.

    Great post! It gave me a lot of thoughts. Like I needed more of those at two in the morning.

  2. I read pretty much every book with a grain of salt. I don't worry too much about what genre(s) a book might be tagged with until I've read it myself. Like you, I see them as umbrella terms -- a "this will be like that" type thing.

  3. I am one of those readers whose introduction to dystopia was THG. As such, I have a very vague understanding of what it means, and I'm susceptible to whatever branding tells me it is.

  4. I think genre terms are both helpful and harmful, but I'd rather have them than not. I like having at least a basic idea of what kind of book something might be. Dystopian to me can easily include apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic books and even just futuristic books. Definitely I'm using it as an umbrella term.

  5. I think it largely depends on the reader and their expectations. As an informed reader who has quite a strong background in this area, I feel slightly cheated if I read something marketed as a dystopian novel that is patently something else.

    I don't mind it being marketed as having "dystopian elements" or a "dystopian feel", but to be a dystopia, in my mind, there need to be the elements of a) an oppressive government impinging on civil liberties b) the dislocation of humanity and nature and c) the uprising of an individual against the wider society.

    Dystopian fiction to me is inherently political, so I feel cheated when I read about a "dystopia" that has nothing to do with politics, but is based on a simple "what if" premise that's utterly divorced from the present day.

    I also feel that dystopian fiction should arise from the politics of today--after all, that's what it's supposed to be a reaction to! But I completely agree with Johnson's quite about dystopian societies being in the mind of the beholder. That's what makes them so utterly chilling, and it's what makes the word the perfect counterpoint to "utopia", a place that exists nowhere.

    After all, some may love the idea of living a life where decisions are removed and safety is provided by the government in exchange for the loss of personal freedoms, while to others this is utter anathema.

    I do believe that dystopian fiction and postapocalyptic fiction share themes and elements, but one is not necessarily the other.

    And the fact that something is depressing does not necessarily make it a dystopia! :)

  6. Here is some more Dystopia Novels if anyone is looking for some more ideas:

  7. I totally agree with both Melanie and Megan. I am currently researching Dystopian Literature for a project at school,and everytime I try to talk abut my research, all I get is a bunch of blank faces. Not a single person knew what a dystopia was. I tried to explain to them the sinplified version, something along the lines of "Its the oppostie of a utopia." "Huh?" "A perfect world..." "Oh."

    I was pretty embarressed for the rest of the students in my class that could not understand. Like you said, I think that right now, dystopia is put under a general umbrella term, which hurts, because by doing so, people begin to lose the definition of dystopia.

    To me, the fact that practically nobody knows what dystopia even is, truly shows that we are living in one currently.

  8. This rasies a good question for me. I know the origin of the term dystopia and the original application, but when did it first truly become a categorisation of books? It seems to be the "buzz word" for a certain high level genre with little or no specificity. Does anyone know when it became and actual genre?

  9. In answer to anonymous, dystopian is actually a sub-genre of science fiction. Many people mistake it with post-apocalyptic science fiction but there're actually quite different. I'm a lover of science fiction, specifically dystopian and I just finished my first dystopian novel. I love reading posts like this one because its good to know I'm not the only science fiction lover out there.


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