Thursday, May 19, 2016

Discussion: Lesser-Known Dystopias, Or What The Heck Is A Dystopia, Anyway?

Today I’m teaming up with Cornerfolds and Books, Movies, Reviews! Oh My for the 2016 dystopia reading challenge. This month’s discussion prompt is “Five dystopias I want to read.” This prompt made me wonder what the heck a dystopia is, anyway. Tracy @ Cornerfolds did a brilliant job of answering this question a few months ago, but I wanted to take a stab at answering it myself. 

Way back in the olden days, when I was a teenage book nerd, a wannabe writer told me that horror isn’t a genre. It’s a template that can be applied to other genres. Common horror elements (such as serial killers, the supernatural, or high suspense) can be paired with any genre. Horror goes very well with mystery, fantasy, thriller, or sci-fi. Some horror elements even work with contemporary/literary books. The wannabe writer said that most readers wouldn’t consider these horror hybrid books “horror” because “horror” is hard to define. Readers might call the books “mystery/suspense” or “dark fantasy” because those terms are easier to define. A “mystery” is about solving a mystery, and “fantasy” has some kind of magic. But, what is horror exactly?


I highly doubt that the wannabe writer came up with all of this stuff himself. (He wasn’t that clever and spent far more time talking about writing than actually doing it.) But wherever it came from, it has stuck with me.

Maybe “dystopia” can also be thought of as a template instead of a genre. According to the infinitely wise Internet, a dystopia is “An imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.” I think this “unpleasant or bad” template can be applied to many different genres. There are obviously a lot of sci-fi dystopias. I’ve also seen quite a few fantasy dystopias (unpleasant or bad + magic).

Black London, anyone?

Do you think a dystopia can be contemporary or historical? There are—and have been—real-life dysfunctional governments that we don’t know much about. If an author is going to write about these governments, a lot of imagination will be required, so the book would fit the “imagined place” part of the definition. Have you read The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson? It’s literary fiction set in North Korea and definitely seems dystopian to me.

I started looking through my book wish list and finding some lesser-known books that had elements of the dystopia definition. These are books about “an imagined place,” places where everything is “unpleasant or bad,” and places that are “totalitarian or environmentally degraded.” I haven’t read any of these, so I guess you’ll have to decide how dystopian they are. 

The Gigantic Beard that was Evil – Stephen Collins

On the buttoned-down island of Here, all is well. By which we mean: orderly, neat, contained and, moreover, beardless. 
Or at least it is until one famous day, when Dave, bald but for a single hair, finds himself assailed by a terrifying, unstoppable . . . monster*! 
Where did it come from? How should the islanders deal with it? And what, most importantly, are they going to do with Dave? 
(*We mean a gigantic beard, basically.)

Vivian Apple at the End of the World – Katie Coyle

Seventeen-year-old Vivian Apple never believed in the evangelical Church of America, unlike her recently devout parents. But when Vivian returns home the night after the supposed "Rapture," all that’s left of her parents are two holes in the roof. Suddenly, she doesn't know who or what to believe. With her best friend Harp and a mysterious ally, Peter, Vivian embarks on a desperate cross-country roadtrip through a paranoid and panic-stricken America to find answers. Because at the end of the world, Vivian Apple isn't looking for a savior. She's looking for the truth.

The Book of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling. Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter. 
Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable. While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer, Bea is struggling for survival.

Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten – Kate Brown

In Dispatches from Dystopia, Brown wanders the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation, first on the Internet and then in person, to figure out which version—the real or the virtual—is the actual forgery. She also takes us to the basement of a hotel in Seattle to examine the personal possessions left in storage by Japanese-Americans on their way to internment camps in 1942. In Uman, Ukraine, we hide with Brown in a tree in order to witness the annual male-only Rosh Hashanah celebration of Hasidic Jews. In the Russian southern Urals, she speaks with the citizens of the small city of Kyshtym, where invisible radioactive pollutants have mysteriously blighted lives. Finally, Brown returns home to Elgin, Illinois, in the Midwestern industrial rust belt to investigate the rise of “rustalgia” and the ways her formative experiences have inspired her obsession with modernist wastelands.

The New and Improved Romie Futch – Julia Elliott

Meet the South’s newest antihero: Romie Futch. Down on his luck and pining for his ex-wife, the forty-something taxidermist spends his evenings drunkenly surfing the Internet, then passing out on his couch. In a last-ditch attempt to pay his mortgage, he becomes a research subject at the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, where “scientists” download humanities disciplines into his brain. Suddenly, Romie and his fellow guinea pigs are speaking in hifalutin SAT words and hashing out the intricacies of postmodern subjectivity. With his new and improved brain, Romie hopes to reclaim his marriage, revolutionize his life, and revive his artistic aspirations. While tracking down specimens for elaborate animatronic taxidermy dioramas, he learns of “Hogzilla,” a thousand-pound feral hog with supernatural traits that has been terrorizing the locals. As his Ahab-caliber obsession with bagging the beast brings him closer and closer to this lab-spawned monster, Romie gets pulled into an absurd and murky underworld of biotech operatives, FDA agents, and environmental activists.

After reading these summaries, I’m starting to think that a dystopia is any book about people who are struggling against a powerful government or environment.

What about you? How do you define “dystopia”? Which dystopias are on your wish list?


  1. I define dystopia like futuristic settings that are mostly implying the worst case scenario. I guess some fantastic elements are okay, but if it's historical, it's high fantasy to me. Like, there are so many ways you can define genres, I think it's all up to your own interpretation.
    - Jen from The Bookavid

  2. I love the whole end of the world, read. It could be written any way and it will probably intrigue me. The only issue I have with dystopian is that it tends to be written the same way, with the same "kinds" of characters far too much. I definitely still have a few I want to try but I'm wary.

  3. I love A Darker Shade of Magic! Dystopia for me is when the government works against the main character or a whole community and imposes them unethical rules or keeps them isolated. It's hard to define, I find. Anyway, I enjoyed this post. Good job!! :)

  4. I still need to read vivian apple at the end of the world. Most dystopia's I know of have a different set of rules for society or their community which is usually oppressive. I love dystopias I will give most a chance

  5. I love that you decided to tackle this topic! I'll admit I'm still not totally sure if I know what a dystopia means. I definitely think that a dystopian book can be set now or in the past, especially given the loose(ish) definition that's usually applied to it and I think you've given a great example with North Korea. I haven't read any of the books you listed, but The Book of Strange New Things looks really interesting! Great post :D

    Tracy @ Cornerfolds

  6. I just noticed I have a dystopia shelf on Goodreads, which consists of a whopping nine books:

    The Long Walk - Richard Bachman (Stephen King)
    The Running Man - Richard Bachman
    Animal Farm - George Orwell
    1984 - George Orwell
    Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
    Invitation to a Beheading - Vladimir Nabokov
    Bend Sinister - Vladimir Nabokov
    The Trial - Franz Kafka
    Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

    The Long Walk is my favorite of these.

  7. I like what you've said here about dystopia being a template rather than a genre. To me, dystopia implies a broken, miserable world. Before, I associated dystopia most closely with YA like Hunger Games and The 5th Wave, but like your examples, dystopia can definitely be found in contemporary fiction. I don't have any in particular on my wish list, but The Book of Strange New Things sounds intriguing!

  8. Interesting topic and thoughts! I think of dystopia being in contrast to utopia, or more specifically, being a failed or false utopia. 1984 and The Giver being early examples--describing a society that either attempt perfection or calls itself perfect, despite having fatal flaws.

  9. for sure it can be used as a template in other genres. Just like horror. I think they can be a genre on their own too. Genres get to complicated at times. They don't make it easy for us. most of the time i find that one book can fit at least two if not more genre catagories.