Tuesday, August 23, 2011

SPARK: Dystopia

The Spark blogfest continues! See past posts here and here.

I have two manuscripts that I consider active novel WIPs (as opposed to abandoned false starts). One is YA dystopian and the other is dark YA fantasy (hopefully reminiscent of The Magicians that I mentioned yesterday, actually) that happens to have a rather dystopian village tucked into it.

The dystopian obsession might not seem surprising, because everyone seems to be talking and writing about them these days. Schools regularly assign classics like Brave New World and Farenheit 451, and with awesome recent releases like Hunger Games and Incarceron, YA dystopias are SoHotRightNow.

But when I was growing up, I felt like dystopias were my own odd and secret thing. I never had to read them for school and I was the only person I knew devouring them for fun. In college when I talked to people about my thesis on 1984, Brave New World, and We, most of them had never heard the word dystopian before. Obviously I wasn’t the only person my age obsessed with these books, but it always felt that way. 

Today it’s very clear that dystopians are not just my thing, but that’s actually pretty awesome. It means there are more of them being published for me to read and more potential readers for my potential future books.

But back to that initial *spark.* I don’t remember what was technically my first dystopian read, but I encountered the following three pretty early on, and all of them inspired me in important and different ways. 
Fahrenheit 451
 Simply put, this is the one that showed me how dystopian was done: designing the controlled society with its carefully planned distractions, placing the seeds of doubt in a once faithful citizen and watching him struggle with his dawning realizations, and finding a bittersweet ending that leaves the system in place but reveals a hopeful kink in its armor.
And the language! The opening draws me in every time:

It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous keroscene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.

And as an added bonus, I could pretend that I wasn’t memorizing Poe poems and passages from Hamlet because I was a crazy nerd… I was clearly preparing for a possible dystopian future. It was for posterity, I tell you!

The Running Man
If you love The Hunger Games, if you cringe with disgust and fascination at each shocking new reality show, or if you think Wheel of Fortune would be better if a contestant got beheaded by the wheel every once in a while, then you should read the novellas The Running Man and The Long Walk. I didn’t watch a ton of game shows as a child, but I was an overly competitive and aggressive athlete, which is probably why these stories gripped me initially. 

The best dystopias take an aspect of current society and extend it to a much darker but still terrifyingly believable future. King accomplished that even though controversial reality television didn’t even exist when he was writing these stories. He saw where society’s love of entertainment, voyeurism, and bloodlust could take us, and it seems like we get closer to his vision every new TV season. 

Another interesting aspect is that (unlike the structure of the Hunger Games) all of the contestants choose to enter these competitions in which death is virtually guaranteed, so piecing apart what could motivate someone to volunteer – and making that psychology believable to the reader – becomes a critical and fascinating part of these stories.

As a related sidenote, if you want to watch a fascinating, disturbing, ready-made-for-a-dystopian-short-story reality show, may I suggest Solitary. In pursuit of a monetary prize, contestants spend weeks isolated in tiny cells, completing painful challenges and suffering through torture interrogation tactics (extreme temperatures, starvation, sleep deprivation) and psychological games of the creepy computer voice running the whole thing. 

And yes, it’s on Fox Reality.

Lord of the Flies
Lord of the Flies taught me that you don’t need to build a typical dystopian society – the overbearing government, the generations of brainwashed citizens, the absence or total takeover of technology, etc. – to express dystopian themes. And you don’t have to kill off most of the world’s population with nuclear war or epidemics to create a post-apocalyptic environment. All you need is a small group of boys on a deserted island and an impressive understanding of human psychology. 

I reread Lord of the Flies recently and it was just as good as I remembered, maybe better. The emotion Golding wields in every conflict among the boys and between their old world and their new one…it’s heart-wrenching and gut-wrenching and feels utterly and terribly real.

The framing device is genius too. The boys’ plane could have easily crashed because of random mechanical failure, but instead Golding makes it a casualty of a world war that’s casually referenced every now and again when the boys remember the world outside their island. Even if they escape the corrupted society they’ve created, they’ll only be entering another corrupted society bent on destroying itself. 

Writing in the dystopian genre is taking what you know and what you fear and combining the two to create a nightmare that you hope your book can help to prevent. I can't help but be drawn to the importance and paradox of that goal, and in awe of the writers who manage to accomplish it.

What are your inspirations, dystopian or otherwise?


  1. F451 remains one of my all-time favorite reads. I loved all of Bradbury's books.

  2. Anything Bradbury turned me on to reading and writing. I loved his stories and F. 451 was among my favorites.
    I'm here from sparkfest and hope you'll stop by the Write Game to share the spark there.

  3. Definitely. I actually just bought a collection of Bradbury's short stories in the F451 universe called _A Pleasure to Burn_, and I'm really excited to read them.

  4. Oooh, the dystopian! I have to say I wasn't able to really get into the genre (I read Brave New World in high school) but one I really liked was Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

  5. Crystal - I LOVE the Handmaid's Tale! It didn't make this blog post because I discovered it much later than the rest, but it absolutely blew me away.