The Dystopian craze is going around like the flu, and the epidemic started with the Hunger Games—this time around, at least. The term “dystopia” goes all the way back to 1868, when John Stuart Mill gave a speech in front of the British House of Commons, saying:
It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable. (Mourby, 2003)
Mill characterized dystopia as a kind of anti-Utopia, and indeed they seem to be the flip side of the same coin. Utopia, which literally means “no place” in Greek, is an attempt to portray a perfect, ideal society—heaven on earth. Quite the opposite, dystopia portrays earth gone bad, society that is “too bad to be practicable.”
Either through an apocalypse, alien invasions, collapsing economies, or government/military control, dystopians show us a world where no one wants to live. Often, people have no real choice in key life decisions and are coerced into doing the government’s will. Picture electrified fences, military personnel patrolling the streets, abject poverty and no chance of escape. I can bet you’re thinking of the Hunger Games, right? It’s definitely the most popular right now, but it’s by far not the only one. In fact, it seems that the shelves in the bookstore are pushing away vampires and filling up with dystopia. So what does that say about us?
I think that dystopians act as a kind of literary foil to our lives. They portray society at its worst, where we hope we will never end up, but fear we one day will. Dystopians capture our attention as they ask, “What if our world one day got this bad?”
(If you haven’t read past the first book of The Hunger Games, there may be some slight spoilers ahead.)
Take the Capitol, for example, where the citizens go to parties and drink cocktails that make them throw up so they can eat more while the rest of the country is literally dying of starvation. In our world, someone starves to death every 3.6 seconds, and nearly 1 billion people suffer from hunger. We live in a world where there really is a stark contrast between the haves and have-nots, where a small group of people seem to own it all and everyone else is just getting by (or not at all).
Also think of the Games themselves. Citizens of Panem watch 24 children battle to the death each year and are entertained. They anxiously await the next year’s games as they thrive on the chaos and pain that seeps through the broadcast and touches their painless lives, making them feel something for just a moment.
Last year, I watched American Idol for the first time ever (I know, I think I’ve been living under a rock, too). It was right around when the Hunger Games came out in theaters, and Ryan Seacrest referenced it, saying to the contestants, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” It struck me right then how similar American Idol is to the Hunger Games, you know, minus the battle to the death. I watched as contestants fell of the stage, were hospitalized, fought with each other, cussed one another out, threw up from being sick, and on and on. American Idol makes its money off of the torment of the contestants, who were fighting for that chance of a record deal that would set them up for life. The only differences between it and the Hunger Games was that it was voluntary and it wasn’t a fight to the death.
Am I saying that we live in a world that isn’t too far off from the Hunger Games? Not really, not in America at least. What I am saying is that the Hunger Games and other popular dystopians reflect our society and explore our deep fear of the world actually becoming that bad, of us actually living surrounded by electrified fences, of us actually being under military occupation. (For some people, though, that is a reality.)
What’s more is that the characters in dystopians don’t just survive—they change the world and make it a better place despite being faced with the bleakest possible circumstances. Katniss doesn’t just make it through the Hunger Games; she one-ups the Establishment, refusing to let them control her, brings Peeta out of the games as well—something that’s never been done—and kindles rebellion just by the sheer force of her determination. It’s encouraging to read about a world that is the epitomization of our worst fears yet is overcome by love, hard work, and perseverance.
The best dystopians are so good and so addictive because they’re coated in truth and an essence of hope. They portray horrible worlds to live in, but they have an edge of familiarity, just enough so that we can relate. We understand the Hunger Games because we watch reality TV. We understand the striking gap between the Capitol and the Districts because we’re experiencing a large economic gap ourselves. We enjoy reading dystopian fiction because we can say, “Our economy may be flushing down the toilet, but at least it’s not that bad.” And we love it because it gives us hope—hope that even if it ever does get that bad, we can fight and overcome just like Katniss Everdeen, the girl on fire.
(Thank you to Sandra for helping me proof this post!)