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Saturday, 14 March 2015

Editorial: Four Rules for Good Dystopias.

My planned review for today was a no-go, so here's an editorial I had in the works for next week, rather hurriedly brushed up to put it in post-able condition.

Editorial: Four Rules for Good Dystopias.

Earlier this week, I lamented problems in young adult fiction, with one of them (although not the chief amongst them) being that I'm exhausted of dystopias. I'm exhausted of good and bad dystopias, but a lot of young adult novels have terribly poorly written dystopias, and since this is a topic of significant enough interest to me that I chose to write an entire editorial about whether the USA is a dystopia, it seems like a not-terrible idea to talk about it today.

So, here are five simple rules to follow to produce a good dystopia - or at least one that isn't terrible.

1. A dystopia should represent the logical continuation of a trend that already exists in society.

The Bioshock games are very good for this.

The key feature of your dystopia shouldn't be coming out of the blue. Dystopian fiction is meant to be a warning, a kind of stern finger-wagging at the audience to change the direction that soicety is going in, or this could be them. That doesn't really work if your main dystopian element is conjured out of pure fantasy - instead, it needs to be the evolution of a problem that already exists in society.

Bioshock Infinite looked at the USA's strong tendency towards being hyper-religious, American exceptionalism, jingoism, and the combination of all three leading to glorifying or outright worshipping the USA. Psycho-Pass looks at paranoia over mental illness and increasing crackdowns on crime despite plummeting crime rates and extrapolates from that a world where the mentally ill are persecuted as 'latent criminals'. 1984 reflected George Orwell's belief that World War II would inevitably lead to Britain's destruction, either from above by fascists or from below by socialists.

All three extrapolate a dark vision of the future from problems that they saw facing current society, and at least two of the above offended people because of it. 

2. A dystopia must still function as a coherent government, and be believable to its audience.

This one is a no-brainer, really, and is true of any fictional government.

Any government that shows up in fiction must be able to function. It must be coherent, effective enough to at least keep the country somewhat running, and well thought out. Most of all, an audience must be able to believe in it. 

That means asking questions like 'How does this government present itself to its people?' 'How do they deal with issues of economy? How strong is their economy and why?' 'How does this government keep its power?' and so on, so forth. These questions need to be not just answered, but explored thoroughly: If, for example, your government keeps power via a strong military, how does it recruit to this military, how does it keep them loyal, how does it supply them with clothing and weapons and food? 

There are a lot of issues to consider when making a fictional government, and the most important thing is to not make a government like the one in Divergent, which makes no sense whatsoever.

3. A dystopia should echo a utopia.

A dystopia is the dark shadow of a utopia, and in many ways it should echo one, either by having the initial seeming of a utopia (Bioshock Infinite's stunning, sunny beauty) or by representing itself as a utopia (the insistence of the world of Psycho-Pass that it's a world without crime where people can want for nothing). 

There's a reason for this, and it ties back to the first item on this list, and the idea that all politics boils down to the push towards a utopia. In utopian fiction, this push succeeds, and the right formula for a perfect society is found. Dystopian fiction takes a darker view: In it, the push for a utopia backfires, and the desperate scramble for a perfect society leads to a society whose appearance of perfection only thinly conceals how awful it is. 

That cynicism, that idea that any attempt at perfection must necessarily end in something vile, is key to dystopias. But the other reason that dystopias echo utopias is because it is, in a way, more effective storytelling: Something that seems beautiful and turns out not to be is a lot more unpleasant for a reader than something that looks as horrible as it is.

4. A dystopia should be unique and original. 

By which I mean 'good god, we keep seeing dystopias that grew out of a post-apocalyptic USA, when will it stop.' 

Let's face it, the US is not the most interesting place to set any piece of fiction, but if you're writing the twentieth iteration of 'the world was devastated by nuclear war, and a dystopian government took over the US in the aftermath', then you need to go back to the drawing board and start again. It has been done to death.

But that's not the only example of this. 'Everyone is divided up into four to seven sects based on their personality' is now an increasingly common trope in dystopian fiction, and it too stinks of laziness and unoriginality. 'An older, powerful ruling class commodifies youth, idolising it while simultaneously destroying it for their own ends' is certainly a trope that has a strong basis in real life, but is at this point getting exhausting to see everywhere.

A good writer should be widely read, and if your dystopian fiction resembles every other dystopian story you've ever read, that is a problem.

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