TU Reblog: What makes a book dystopian?

Since I read Golden Son, I’ve been thinking about it A TON. It’s really been on my mind almost every day. Its writing, its major cliffhanger, but also, its structure. The way it functions in the literary world. I’ve been having a hard time discerning where it should fall – is it YA? Definitely SciFi, but fantasy? Maybe. What about dystopian? These are questions, particularly the last one, that have pretty much taken over my mind the last few days.

So I decided to write about them over on the Times Union Book Blog. I haven’t done nearly enough TU blogging recently, so I hope you’ll check this one out.

Full text below!

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a dystopia as “an imaginary place where people live dehumanized and often fearful lives” and “an imaginary place where people are unhappy and usually afraid because they are not treated fairly.”

When you do a Google Image search, most of the pictures look like this:

In literature, dystopian societies are extremely popular, and examples can be found in classics like George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as well as in contemporary series like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy, Veronica Roth’s Divergent Series, and Allie Condie’s Matched Series.

Dystopian societies are so popular, I even took a class in college titled Post-Apocalyptic Literature (E310). In that class, we read books that ranged from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake to David Berne’s The Stand and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Now, I know Post-Apocalyptic doesn’t always mean dystopian, but if you look, most dystopian is post-apocalyptic.

But what is it, really, that separates the two? Well, it all goes back to that definition: that people become dehumanized, and often live fearfully, because they are not treated well.

That’s the kicker. The Road is post-apocalyptic, but not dystopian, because the only reason people are dehumanized is because of themselves – not a power structure.

I just recently finished a book called Golden Son, by Pierce Brown. The second in a trilogy, I spent so much of this book, and its predecessor, Red Rising, trying to decide if it was dystopian, or simply just science fiction.

Set 500 or so years in the future, humans have colonized space and now live among the planets in a hierarchy decided by Colors. The super intelligent and brutal Golds rule, while the lowly Reds toil beneath the surface of Mars still believing they are preparing the planet for human’s future colonization. (More on this caste system can be found here). Darrow, a 16-year-old Red, learns the truth about the world on the surface only after he has lost what is most precious to him. Realizing the lies he’s been told, he understands it’s time for him to live for more.

It sounds dystopian, right? Even typing it out I think, ‘of course it’s dystopian!’ But reading the first novel, I wasn’t so sure. Reading the second novel, well, I still couldn’t decide. Truly, these books are wonderful, exciting works of contemporary science fiction, there’s no question to that. But I couldn’t decide if I thought it was truly dystopian. The series is so often compared to The Hunger Games – and while I see the comparison, truly I think it’s much better. (And I loved The Hunger Games!)

I grappled with this question because most people in the novel didn’t seem to believe that they were being treated poorly. LowColors like Pinks (bred to be sex workers), Grays (bred to be police and military) and Reds (bred for unskilled manual labor), especially Reds, didn’t really know that they were being mistreated necessarily. And ultimately, I came to the conclusion that that was why it WAS dystopian. These lowColors all lived in fear of the brutal rulers the Golds, even if they didn’t necessarily think they were worthy of being treated fairly. The idea that a hierarchy was created and developed through genetics and surgical manipulation (as Brown himself puts it), is exactly why it’s dystopian. When I thought about it in that way – the careful planning and execution of setting up this hierarchy – it became a simple answer: Duh, it’s a dystopia.

(Needless to say, Golden Son was a book that gave me a lot to think about, not even including its insanely clever and surprising plot twists. It’s a book with heart, fear, and a war in space. (Who doesn’t love a war in space?!) You all should probably go out and read both before the final in the trilogy, Morning Star, comes out in January.)

So, what really makes a book dystopian? It’s more than what Merriam-Webster would have you believe. A dystopian society is found when there’s a belief in using brutal measures to develop and preserve a power structure. When certain people create a society where others are deliberately kept in the dark to ensure they’re atop power structure – like in 1984The Hunger Games, Red Rising, and Brave New World, -THAT’S a dystopia. Otherwise? It’s probably just damn good (often times science) fiction.


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