What is dystopia?
Dystopia is a concept that portrays a dark future filled with havoc and destruction. It is the opposite of utopia, that is, a perfect society.
Dystopia can be majorly found in modern literature. With the rise of technology, wars, despair, and psychological alienation of individuals, the future seemed hopeless and offered no way out. Dystopian writings in English can be traced back to the French Revolution of 1789 and earlier.
With the Industrial Revolution, life became mechanical, disconnected, and far from nature. Alienation was seen in every home. Every individual was spiralling into themselves without any human warmth and trust. People were being controlled by structures larger than them and they were merely puppets in the hands of these structures.
This mood was captured by writers of the time. They wrote about the social conditions, the bleak future and the decay of society. It was a challenge to the utopian literature being written before this.
Writers who are prolific writers of dystopian stories are Margaret Atwood (A Handmaid's Tale), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), George Orwell (1984), Ionesco (Rhinocerous), and Suzzane Collins (The Hunger Games).
1984 by George Orwell
1984 was written by George Orwell in 1949. The story goes around a dark time under a totalitarian government, suppressive policies, and a Big Brother, watching over the civilians all the time.
1984 has brought about the term 'Orwellian', and has become a cult icon for dystopian fiction.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is another popular dystopian novel. It tells the story of a society with futuristic technology to breed humans as per the need and rules of society. Humans in this book are bred with advanced technology and are curated to suit the leading ideology, in this case, hinted at fascism.
The setting of Brave New World is a technological dystopian world where humans are used as mass-producing machines.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Like 1984, Fahrenheit 451 is also a cult in dystopian fiction. Fireman Guy Montag's job is to incinerate anything illegal- books, pamphlets, buildings which hold them. He continues to do his work without question until he meets Clarisse who gives him a different perception of life: a life without fear.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Lord of the Flies talks about a group of children being stranded on an island by themselves, that is, without any adult supervision. They fail to function like society expects people to function, and the whole novel is an allegory or a miniature of the adult society outside.
Lord of the Flies is also a satire on English society of the 20th century.
What are the 6 elements of dystopian literature?
Loss of Individuality
Under the strict eyes of the government, the individual becomes restricted to various parameters. The state uses different methods of controlling the movements of the citizens. Citizens are treated as mass machinery to advance the agenda of the totalitarian government. The laws are stricter, less space for creativity, lesser rights of the people, and zero tolerance for criticism.
In dystopian novels the characters are conflicted between what they want to do and what they should do. This can be a conflict between transgressing a law which in itself is a violation of personal space itself.
The system controls the mass by using several surveillance techniques. Surveillance cameras, audio devices that record conversations without permission, digital footprints, corrupt software systems, and so on. Surveillance helps the state capture sensitive information, as well as build regulatory systems to keep people in check.
Dystopian literature uses technology to keep an eye on the characters. Audio devicesfit inside bedrooms, public spaces, cameras in private spaces are outright violations of privacy and are used to control the movements of individuals on a deeper psychological level.
Mind control is employed using books and media. Television, books and other type of media that civilians consume to engage their mind are manipulated in such a way that it highlights the totalitarian system of the government as the best and above everything. This philosophy does not allow a space for a different thought or method.
Writing dystopian fiction where characters are mind-controlled makes the dystopian world believable. Ionesco writes about such characters in his play Rhinocerous.
The government is in control of everything, starting from economy to personal matters such as the relationship between spouses. Children are taught to see the government as the ultimate standard of everything - nothing it does can be wrong.
In dystopian novels we see children turning against parents to speak in favour of the government, or lovers spying on each other. The manipulation is so internalized that friends do not trust each other anymore, neither do parents trust their children.
In dystopian stories one sees characters who are alienated from society, and even their own selves. There is very little way an individual would get their way in a dystopian society without the approval of the state. Transgressions are severely punished, and capital punishment is very common in dystopian novels.
Amidst the suffocating dystopian society there would be few individuals who would harness enough power to break through the psychological control of the autocratic system. They would gather in secret, and find ways to dismantle the system.
How do you start a dystopian story?
Writing dystopian fiction requires hitting certain benchmarks. It can talk about a general future which faces challenges or a specific social cause like climate change or civil war.
Picking a topic is important for writing dystopian fiction. A believable dystopian world should have a reason, that is, an authentic fact as to why the society is decaying and what it would end up being. Will the civilization completely disintegrate like in Samuel Beckett's Endgame. In this play, the world has collapsed and the four withered characters are shut in a claustrophobic room.
Your social concern could be a world war, climate change, civil war, technological war, corruption, paranoia, and world collapse.
Before writing a dystopian novel the writer must fix the intent of the book. It is a warning? It is a speculation of what the future might look like, or both? What will the readers get out of it? Will it be a satire on the current government?
Dystopian fiction can also fall under science fiction where earth is captured by a new world. Set out for an intent an stick to it. Find similar dystopian novels for reference like , Orwell's Animal Farm, Brave New World and Slaughterhouse Five by Aldous Huxley, or Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess , and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.
Characters in dystopian genre are mainly three types: those who blindly follows the rules, those who are rebels, and those who are starting to question the dystopian society.
Dystopian setting can consist of bombed buildings, grim imagery of suffering, injury, claustrophobia, strict living conditions, and so on.
What is an example of a dystopia today?
Today we are living in a dystopian world that was foreseen many years ago by writers and philosophers. What was speculated may have come true. Wars, poverty, and disease still continue.
The writing journey of a dystopian story tarts with observing things around us. Find your area of interest, that is, what is it that you want to highlight in today's world. Contrast ordinary people and rich people, income inequality, racism, world war, gender bias, and anything that is a real concern.
To write a dystopian story is to take responsibility. The dystopia can be so powerful and grim that the readers think it is fantastical.