A Rooted Culture
Dystopia: a world where things are as bad as they can be, often characterized by human misery and oppression.
Most people don’t go happily into the arms of oppression and misery. Our world has a long standing history of toppling empires and evil tyrants who try to pull that crap. To get to a dystopian world, you have to go through a lot of time, apathy, and despair. Big despair.
Despair that goes right down to the marrow of the world.
After a few generations of despair, you can’t take an ingrained ideal, a culture, a way of life, and change it over night. You can’t even convince a person that their way is wrong when it is the only way they’ve ever known. After a lifetime of being treated like they have no choice, like they can’t make their life better or they don’t deserve to have a better life in the first place, it’s not at all surprising when they don’t rise to action.
The Progression of Tension
Dystopians and post-apocalyptic stories are a singularly special beast. Most stories start out alright, there’s a rise in dramatic tension, some major crisis, life gets bad, bad, very bad, and then climax and the aftermath brings the characters back to a place a little better than where they started. Not so for dystopians and post-apocalyptics. These stories start out nightmarish and then get worse.
It’s not so surprising that the plot of the dystopian novel very rarely revolves around fixing the thing that makes it dystopian in the first place.
The Problem of Happily Ever Apocalyptic After
When it comes to dystopians, are happy endings relative?
Is it satisfying for a post-apocalyptic world to be tied up in a neat little fluffy bow at the end of the story?
Can an ending that is not particularly happy still be the perfect ending?
Can a dystopian book still be a dystopian book if everything is all better in the end?
You can’t bring down the big bad government or wander the empty wasteland of Midwestern America in search of a home or do battle with a water-controlling corporation and tomorrow everything will be good again. The Very Bad Things are usually a symptom of the disease, the rotting core of society. The totalitarian government is able to exert control because the people are starving, there’s no electricity, no free communication, no water, no work, no money, no medicine, no identity, no dignity.
Do you all remember what the real world actually looked like in The Matrix? Even with the villain gone, there’s still a dystopian world to face. If the people of the world have been behaving lawlessly for generations, with the villain gone they won’t suddenly go, “Man, I need to settle down. Maybe buy a suit, get a job.”
It’s the problem of dystopian endings. At the end of the day, just after the words “The End,” the characters still have this messed up world with no water and not enough food and thugs, cannibals, zombies, and robots on every corner. Even if everyone is safe and loved at the end of the story, there’s still the tedium of tomorrow to face.
The Great Dystopian Romance
I’m uncomfortable with the trend in dystopian books to be thinly veiled romances and no so much with the grim and the desperate. Don’t get me wrong, I love me a good romance. I mean, I’m not sure what I’m more excited about for the release of Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 – the chance to finally crush some aliens under my cute black boots or that I’ll finally be reunited with my love interest from the first game.
But I like my dystopians to be rough and mean and dangerous and hard and I like my characters, especially my strong girls, to stay focused and not get derailed for some make-outs just before the climax. There’s certainly nothing like danger to make a romance steamier, but when the world’s ending ladies, priorities!
Dystopian Cities (of the post-apocalyptic kind) are Death Traps
That’s the title of a blog post I wrote earlier this year over at Urban Psychopomp. Here’s an excerpt, read the whole thing here.
Or rather I should say when real cities stop functioning they become deathtraps, even if you aren’t writing a dystopian novel. See, cities are brilliantly designed to house lots of people in a very small space comfortably and safely. This has only been possible in the modern age because our engineers figured out ways to bring electricity and water in while flushing waste out. As long as everything is functioning, the system keeps us from swimming in filth and dodging disease, massive city eating fires, and squalor. And most people, from my experience, would very much like to avoid living in squalor.
Here’s the thing –we can live without electricity. We’d be miserable, but we can do it just fine. We can live without gas and we can live without waste removal.
What we can’t live without is water.
Depending on the temperature around you, the human body can only survive for as little as 2 days without water…. You can hope for ten days if it is very cold, but at those temperatures you have other things to worry about than running out of water.
So if a city has been destroyed and the world plunged into a dystopian landscape, where are people going to get their water? Cities are generally wall to wall concrete. There aren’t lakes in the middle of downtown Chicago. Once the standing water locations have been bled dry and all the bottled water ransacked from grocery stories, where will people go for water?
Who controls the water will ultimately always be a force to reckon with in dystopian fiction and this alone can provide an endless supply of conflicts for the writer. Will deals be struck? Will the water boss be neutral, good, or evil? What will it cost society for a glass of water and what will the characters do if they are cut off?
Water isn’t as sexy as zombie hordes or evil governments, but it can’t be ignored in survival fiction. It is the very essence of life, and two days of sitting still in the shade trying not to dehydrate is not a very exciting way for a character to die.
When faced with dehydration, what will your characters be willing to pay for one more glass of water ?
- Brave New Words: Young Adult Sci-Fi Authors Debuting 2012
- Dystopian Divas
- The League of Extraordinary Writers: Debut YA Dystopian Writers
- The Apocalypsies
Dystopian Author Blogs
- Beth Revis
- Julia Karr
- Marie Lu
- Megan Crewe
- Ally Condie
- Ilsa J. Bick
- Carrie Ryan
- Kristen Simmons
- Veronica Roth
- Kimberly Derting
- Jonathan Maberry
- Scott Westerfeld
- Gabrielle Zevin
- Isaac Marion
- James Dashner
- Daniel H. Wilson
- Caragh M. O’Brien
Advice for Dystopian Writers
- Dystopian Rites of Passage
- Dystopian vs. Science Fiction
- Using Fear to Create a Dystopian World
- How versus Why
- Technology: Imagine the Future
- Humans are humans…right?
- The Making of the World
- Let Me Countdown the Ways
- Predicting Futures
- The Worst is Yet to Come: Dystopias are grim, humorless, and hopeless – and incredibly appealing to today’s teens
- Dystopic landscapes all around us
- The Dystopian/Post Apocalyptic Hero
- A Look at Plausibility
- Could you survive a dystopian world?
- How to create a dystopia?
Great Dystopian Reads
Dystopians Coming Soon
What upcoming dystopian releases are you most excited for?