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Tropes: Dystopia

The trope of dystopia is a fascinating and often chilling exploration of imagined societies characterized by oppression, suffering, and societal decay. Dystopian narratives typically serve as cautionary tales, warning against the potential consequences of unchecked power, technological advancement, or societal trends.

Here is my personal problem with it. Too many people think we already live in one, and we don’t. We really, really don’t. A well written dystopian fantasy or science fiction can teach us about how to avoid them, but I have felt with all of them that I have read of late, they are instead something more of a “We are already here and I want to complain about it.” Dystopian fiction has to be more than this.

What does your dystopia look like?

I think most dystopian fiction falls into five categories:

Totalitarian Control: Dystopian societies are often ruled by authoritarian regimes or oppressive governments that maintain control through surveillance, propaganda, and suppression of dissent. Citizens may have limited freedoms and be subject to strict regulations enforced by a powerful elite. This is North Korea. In many cases people are so controlled they don’t even know how bad it is, or what reality anywhere else is like.

Social Stratification: In many dystopias, there is a stark divide between the privileged few and the oppressed masses. Social classes are often rigidly defined, with inequality and injustice built into the fabric of society. The wealthy and powerful live in luxury while the majority struggle to survive. Even if you have an eighth or a sixteenth of the wrong background, you will have no privileges.  There is no social mobility for a group or groups in the society.

Technological Domination: Technology is frequently a central theme in dystopian narratives, often portrayed as both a tool of control and a force for societal disruption. Advances in technology may lead to increased surveillance, loss of privacy, or even the dehumanization of individuals. This is not usually a stand-alone item but it typically merged with one of the two above items as the tool by which the ruling elite maintain the control. I have seen a handful of books where the technology is its own end and serves it own negative cycle, usually for reasons lost to history.

Environmental Decline: Dystopian worlds often suffer from environmental degradation, whether due to pollution, climate change, or resource depletion. This degradation may exacerbate social inequalities and lead to widespread suffering as resources become scarce. This one is one I personally will no longer deliberately read. Our news is filled with enough of the doom and gloom already, whether true or not, that I don’t personally feel the need to continue it in my own reading. That is something any author of this kind of dystopia will have to contend with. Are you trying to out gloom reality? Offer hope? You would be hard pressed to offer a true cautionary tale at this point, so this is a hard sell for me.

Loss of Individuality: Dystopian societies often suppress individuality and creativity in favor of conformity and obedience. Citizens may be indoctrinated from a young age to adhere to strict societal norms, and deviation from these norms may be met with punishment or social ostracism. I think this is one where there is a very good opportunity for stories of the conflict of self versus society, where there does not need to be a single antagonist, only a system everyone has bought into.  


I think the genre has the potential for four major failure points:

Societal Desensitization: With the proliferation of dystopian narratives in popular culture, there's a risk of desensitization to the themes of oppression, violence, and suffering portrayed in these stories. This can undermine the impact of dystopian fiction as a vehicle for social critique and reflection, especially when the problems selected hit to close to reality and are not able to be taken as art, but instead characters become spokespeople for a cause of the author. Literature must be more than this.

Escapism vs. Engagement: While dystopian fiction can serve as a powerful tool for engaging with pressing societal issues, it can also become a form of escapism, offering audiences a thrilling but ultimately superficial distraction from real-world problems. This can lead to a passive consumption of dystopian narratives rather than active reflection and engagement with the underlying themes. In other words, people won’t go fix the real problems if your narrative doesn’t offer them a real way to go do something. As authors we must be socially responsible for what we write. Including this next one:

Failure to Offer Solutions: Some dystopian narratives focus primarily on depicting the problems of society without offering meaningful solutions or avenues for change. While highlighting societal issues is important, it's equally crucial to explore potential paths toward a better future and inspire hope for positive change.

Potential for Misinterpretation: Dystopian fiction, particularly when consumed by younger audiences, runs the risk of being misinterpreted as a glorification of violence, rebellion, or authoritarianism. It's important for creators to provide context and critical commentary to ensure that audiences understand the intended message of the narrative. Be sure your medicine isn’t worse than your disease.


The most important part of this or any other genre however is… keep on writing.  

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