Behind the Rise of Dystopias

Dystopian Novels

I fell in love with “The Giver” in sixth grade. While the rest of my class hated it, I found myself intrigued by the concept it portrayed—everyone was treated the same and was colorblind, and everything was chosen for them by The Elders. The lack of freedom should’ve killed the libertarian side of me, but, oddly enough, I gravitated toward the fictional, imperfect world. Shortly after reading about Jonas’s struggle, I discovered “The Hunger Games” and fell in love with its famous gray-eyed heroine.

Modern dystopias portray a totalitarian government in which the people are blatantly oppressed but remain oblivious to that fact. Usually, this follows a civil war, a natural disaster, or even something as simple as societal norm changes. A powerful corporation or a strong dictator takes over, imposing his or her idea of a perfect world onto the society, which typically benefits the elite rather than the people. These ideas defy our beliefs of freedom and liberty and should be the bane of our existences. We should be dreading the idea of dystopian novels rather than embracing them, yet we soak them up like a sponge.

The genre itself seems quite modern, but it actually started in the 17th century as a result of the politics and ideals of that time. One of the earliest examples is “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726), where Gulliver meets the Yahoos, a species of primitive human-like creatures. He grows to admire the species’ hospitality and lifestyle while realizing that the world he lives in is deformed and filled with corruption—a common theme throughout dystopian novels. Over time, the genre has evolved into a medium to express controversial opinions against a backdrop of rebellion.

The recent spike of interest in dystopian novels can be attributed to their adolescent protagonists. From Jonas in “The Giver” to Katniss in “The Hunger Games,” we find in ourselves a unique sort of sympathy toward these characters because they are around our age. As teenagers going through the awkward, not-so-pretty stages of puberty, we believe that we are fully capable of making our own decisions while adults still see and treat us as children. We gravitate towards the dystopian genre because we empathize with the protagonists who share our experience of oppression. Once the heroes rebel against their totalitarian governments, euphoria washes through us. We want them to succeed because, intrinsically, they are us.

Still, the settings painted in dystopias are often extreme, to the point that we are often reminded of the fantasy aspect common in dystopian literature. While this should act to distance us from the concept of dystopias, it actually intrigues us more. We are sucked into a world nothing like ours, where a futuristic, radical government takes control of the people’s destinies. Through the eyes of the rebellion, they are given the opportunity to escape from a totalitarian reign or even wage a civil war against it. Literature is often used as an escape from reality, and the dystopian genre embodies this mantra, allowing us to momentarily forget what’s rattling inside our minds. And, if ever reminded of our world, we are appreciative of the fact that we are not living in a society as dark as a dystopia.

Even so, dystopian novels often highlight the human features of the characters. The characters are teenagers, and despite being thrown into a dystopian society, they still have to deal with things teens often worry about: body image, love interests, and being different. Instead of being manufactured as perfect individuals who have done no wrong, they are human. They don’t hesitate to cry, to scream, to smile, and to hate. The way these characters are portrayed makes it easy for us to relate to them; we want to laugh, to sob, and to fight by their sides.

Even though dystopias are often depicted as visionary, never-going-to-happen societies, they often portray what is going on in the real world. Dystopian novels were, and still are, used to voice opinions on society. Many dystopian novels describe corrupt governments, which are still prevalent today. Topics that particularly pertain to young adults, such as suicide and forced prostitution, also pervade these novels. Unfortunately, these ideas aren’t far from the truth. Despite the fantasy aspect of a dystopia, reality seeps through the cracks of the far-from-perfect world. All dystopias end up telling the same message: no world will ever be perfect, including ours.

The web tying the dystopian society to the real world in contradictory yet understandable ways is the reason for my undeniable love toward the genre. When I found out that “Mockingjay, Part 2” was coming out in theaters shortly, I immediately turned to my copy of the book and reread it, still a bit sour over some of the deaths. The end of the hyped dystopian trilogy will be bittersweet for me because my escape from reality will start disappearing. But I know that I’ll immerse myself in yet another dystopian series, already fully aware that another cycle of obsession will start over again.

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