Mon
Apr 11 2011 1:19pm

Where does dystopia fit as a genre?

Dystopias have been written by mainstream writers—they are the form of science fiction mainstream writers are most likely to attempt, and most likely to succeed at. The more I think about this the more I wonder if it makes sense to think of dystopias as a subgenre of science fiction, rather than a mode of mainstream fiction that science fiction writers use from time to time, similar to noir. Dystopia was forged outside of SF, by Huxley and Zamyatin and Orwell. It’s largely been writers outside of SF like Atwood and Levin who have carried it forward. This recent burst of young adult dystopias are mostly written by YA writers and not by SF writers. Dystopias existed when SF was a still very young genre. And when I think of canonical dystopias it tends to be ones by mainstream writers that leap to mind.

Genres are marketing categories, but genres are also useful ways of thinking about things that are in dialogue with each other. We certainly have dystopias from within SF, like Elgin’s Native Tongue or Butler’s Parable of the Sower, but we also have SF noir and SF mysteries and SF romances. Science fiction writers are adept at taking mainstream modes and taking them into SF.

Does it make sense to look at something like Piercy’s Body of Glass (aka He, She and It) or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (post) in a science fiction context? They are certainly “set in the future” but that isn’t a very useful way of looking at things. There’s a worldbuilding thing that science fiction does that they mostly don’t do because they’re more interested in doing a mainstream thing, and if you look at them as SF you start saying they don’t make sense from angles that their authors haven’t even considered because that’s not what they’re interested in. Never Let Me Go suffers if you compare it to Cyteen (post) because while Ishiguro has done the social extrapolation he doesn’t really understand the science of cloning. But if you compare it to his other work, and to Ian MacEwan and Vikram Seth and other contemporary mainstream writers you can see much more interesting connections. On the other hand, Cyteen is inarguably in dialogue with Brave New World.

I’ve argued before that science fiction isn’t a genre in the “set of tropes” “fears pool” sense, while it absolutely is in the reading protocols sense. Dystopias are definitely a genre in that first sense. They take a current fear and push it hard to come out with a world where everything is as bad as the writer can imagine. They have a shape of story, in which somebody accepts their world as the way the world is and then comes to reconsider, question and learn deeper truths about it, and then attempt to change it. The attempt can go well or badly, and the more the book is part of SF, where worlds are characters and more likely to change, the more likely it is to end well. But they mostly don’t require SF reading protocols. And they are mostly in dialogue with the news and literary fiction rather than with current SF.

Dystopias are certainly doing “what if,” which ought to make them SF. But it tends to be what if one thing only carried to the worst excess, rather than a more science fictional complexity. It’s interesting that Le Guin wrote an “ambiguous utopia” and Delany an “ambiguous heterotopia.” Science fiction tends to be more nuanced and ambiguous in this area, and to have more things in it that are there because they’re cool and not just to serve the theme. Mainstream writers writing utopias and dystopias tend to be warning or preaching, or using what they’re doing as metaphor for talking about something else.

But maybe this is the wrong question. Dystopias aren’t really either firmly within SF or firmly within mainstream. Maybe they are best seen as an encapsulated subgenre on an uneasy border, their own thing? Or is this too utopian a suggestion?


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

20 comments
Del C
1. del
Utopias, too, fit this pattern (Plato, More, etc.) They'd presumably be neighbours in the land of genre, or halves of one genre (allotopia? Google tells me this is a medical term for a misplaced organ)
Ursula L
2. Ursula
Dystopias aren’t really either firmly within SF or firmly within mainstream. Maybe they are best seen as an encapsulated subgenre on an uneasy border, their own thing? Or is this too utopian a suggestion?

If genre is works in conversation with each other, certainly there is a space for works where genres converse and touch each other. It would be almost impossible to not have such works, as I doubt that there is anyone who has stuck to narrowly reading only one genre in their life. If only because your third grade reader had short stories and excerpts from a variety of works and genres.

Answering a mainstream literature type question with SF tools, or a SF type question with mainstream literature type tools, is one more way of playing with words and ideas. And it's to be expected, that if an SF author who uses the SF set of reading tools and expectations comes across an interesting concept in mainstream literature, they might want to explore it with the tools they know, because the mainstream work doesn't quite "work" for them, with the wrong tool set. And vice-versa with genres.

A good idea, executed for a tool set you don't have, will inspire tinkering with your tools to make it work.
David Levinson
3. DemetriosX
Perhaps this explains why I've never really connected with Brave New World; I've always read it as I would SF and it doesn't work very well on that level. 1984, OTOH, does use a few sfnal techniques, starting with the opening line. The clocks striking thirteen is very much a "the door dilated" moment.

I've been trying to think of some other SF dystopias, but most of them seem to fall short being "true" dystopias. Farenheit 451 certainly fills the bill, but it is clearly in dialog with both BNW and 1984. Even the dystopic part of Kim Stanley Robinson's California triptych is more post-apocalyptic than dystopic. Perhaps it has to do with the optimistic and problem-solving roots of SF as a genre.
Clark Myers
4. ClarkEMyers
Brave New World the plot might well be taken in conjunction with Brave New World Revisited - the author suggests a revisited edition might well have included a resistance however isolated by the society as part of the story IIRC.

Ape and Essence by the same author is surely a dystopia but on original publication equally sure, I suggest, to disappoint the fan who looked to Huxley for new and more SF.

It seems to me that acknowledged SF includes any number of dystopias as plot but the story is the resistance not the crushing of resistance. Gunner Cade say has literary aspirations (as satire at a minimum)- as the authors tended to display separately - but is a very genre driven and light hearted read.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Ape and Essence disappointed me quite a while after original publication. His other genuinely SFnal, though not dystopic, work is After Many a Summer.
awightknight
6. awightknight
I have always seen the term genres as a slippery slope. People seem to have a primal need when they find something to take it and find a group for it so they can better process how it is similar and different from what came before.

There are so many pieces that come together to make a novel: setting, characters, story arc. All of these are used to classify the novel but are not necessarily exclusive. One character's dystopia may be another's utopia or someone's tragedy another's comedy or romance.

Many novels have started taking these expected tropes and turning them on there head or mixing multiple "genres" together giving us headaches of how do we classify this new sci-fi-fantasy-romance-thriller.

But then I am confronted with the issue that genres are helpful. When I go to a book store I walk right to the Sci-fi fantasy section.(which I always took issue with cause they are quite different in my opinion). So for the purpose of slimming down my search from every book to just those it was good. However many times I would read other fiction and enjoy them as well. I hardly enjoy all Sci-fi or fantasy novels I almost feel I am stuck in the genre and can't get out.

For instance in my mind romance novels are horrible and would not even walk down a romance aisle in the book store. However I have read many a sci-fi or fantasy novel with a compelling romance as the centerpiece for the story. So why are these listed as one rather then the other. If said novel was listed as a romance I would not have touched it.

Now is the time I would make a point if I had one...


Maybe we should just let the books speak for themselves.
Joris Meijer
7. jtmeijer
Dystopias can at the least be a tool of genre. It is one of the big what-ifs out there.

Even works that don't focus on the dystopia can use it as a background in the setting.
For example some of the Glitter Band societies in Alastair Reynolds' "the Prefect", or the galactic society in the background of Tobias Buckell's universe.

The same of course goes for Utopias, which at times are undistinguishable from Distopias for any cynical enough reader.
Chris Modzelewski
8. elflands2ndcousin
Somehow I can't help but think that genre (SF, mainstream, romance, etc) is vast and contains multitudes. Saying that the dystopian tradition originated outside of SF is like claiming that Dickens' serializations shouldn't be considered books. How do Brave New World, The Time Machine, We, Modern Utopia, 1984, etc. stray outside the realms of SF? They lack many (most) of the pulp tropes of their contemporaries, but so what? I've argued before and will again that classic dystopias were a response to earlier utopian fiction and presaged later "more SFnal" dystopias. Much of what was written in the New Wave especially comes to mind.

Why would Triton, The Dispossed, Dhalgren, The Demolished Man, or Mockingbird be SF but 1984, Brave New World, and the Hunger Games not be? Is it just because they devote a lower proportion of words to technical extrapolation? Somehow I remember a fair bit of "soft science" in those more recent "genre" dystopias. And in almost all cases, the story and world fall apart without the underlying (SFnal) technologies.
Clark Myers
9. ClarkEMyers
Taking dilated to be descriptive then By His Bootstraps hardly has a word of technical extrapolation.

Dystopia/Utopia is there and perhaps generally a matter of point of view - POV and details of character (deserves or doesn't deserve fate) often show the author's thumb in making the story or perhaps in more didactic ways the point.

I'd say both Pournelle and David Drake tend to have readers who mistake their respective dystopias for the author's idea of a utopia.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
10. tnh
awightknight@6:
For instance in my mind romance novels are horrible and would not even walk down a romance aisle in the book store. However I have read many a sci-fi or fantasy novel with a compelling romance as the centerpiece for the story. So why are these listed as one rather then the other. If said novel was listed as a romance I would not have touched it. ... Maybe we should just let the books speak for themselves.
If we just put a plain cover on every book and stacked them up in a heap in the middle of the bookstore, or racked them alphabetically by author or title around the walls, a lot fewer books would get sold, and readers would get a lot less pleasure out of the whole enterprise.

The marketing categories you're talking about aren't entirely content-based. At their most basic, they're a way of saying If you liked other books in this category, or you liked other books with this style of cover art, there's a good chance you'll like this book too. Having a romance be an element in a novel by Greg Bear or Lois Bujold doesn't turn it into the same kind of book that fans of LaVyrle Spencer or Laura Kinsale are looking for.

Say your book features a powerful new invention, the Transnistrian Infundibulator. If the storyline primarily focuses on the inception, interim difficulties, and eventual happy resolution of the relationship between the inventor of the Transnistrian Infundibulator and a random local governess, it's a romance. Fans of this hypothetical book won't see much point to long discussions of how the Infundibulator works, but they'll expect the resolution to clearly indicate that the inventor and the governess will live happily ever after.

If instead the storyline cheerfully digs into the rubber science whys and hows of the Transnistrian Infundibulator, and the romance element is secondary to interesting extrapolations of the social effects produced by the introduction of this technology, it's science fiction. Fans of this version of the book will take the declarations of everlasting love and commitment as obviously implicit and therefore unnecessary. However, if a character leaves the infundibulator cracking water into its constituent atoms in an unventilated room over the weekend, but nothing remarkable happens when he walks in on Monday with a lit cigarette in his hand, the readers are going to be unhappy about it.

What differentiates those books isn't their props and sets. The essential difference is that if you have an itch to read one of them, the other book won't scratch it. That's why categories exist: to help you find the kind you want.
awightknight
11. Gerry__Quinn
Dystopias take a particular element (sometimes, I suppose, elements) of society and portray a society where society is ruled exclusively by that element. I suppose they could be equally considered as SF extrapolations or as literary satires, and thus the explanation of why mainstream literary authors often do them well is that they fall quite comfortably into either genre.

A society dominated by one element is apt to be suboptimal. Also, depictions of societies are often best dramatised by those whom they do not suit. The combination is enough that most books of this kind will be characterised as dystopias, though in many cases (e.g. Brave New World) they are in fact depicted as not uncomfortable most of the time for the majority of citizens. And what society can in truth claim to do better than that?

Arguably, most true dystopias exist in fantasy novels. SF dystopias are sometimes horrid for everyone (1984, or The Sheep Look Up) but is that really the norm? On the other hand, if the Evil Overlord sends his magical minions to terrorise the countryside, while blighting the crops and imposing perpetual winter and suchlike, this is surely a dystopia more horrid than that within the pages ofSF novels, in which realism generally precludes a society in which everybody is always miserable.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
12. tnh
Gerry Quinn, while there are certainly one-note dystopias of the kind you describe, there are also complex broad-spectrum dystopian scenarios, and I'm fairly sure they're gaining on the other sort.

Of course, I'm counting by title. In terms of copies sold, Hunger Games has to outweigh one or two dozen more plausible and complicated dystopias.
awightknight
13. Mary Catelli
Dystopias really are about the world in which the writer lives, intentionally. Missing the connection between 1984 and contemporary Communism is missing the point of the work. This gives them a connection to the mainstream that a lot of speculative fiction lacks.

(And makes their mainstream readers happier, perhaps. There are those who want to interpret all speculative elements as metaphors for contemporary life. It can get silly with some of the more fantastic works.)
awightknight
14. Louis Bertrand Shalako
'Brave New World' was grim, dystopian for the average man, but a kind of utopia for authoritarians. The trouble with dystopia is that it relies on soft, social sciences rather than hard science made up of ray guns and genetics and scientific extrapolation. It is the hard truths revealed by 'soft science' that trouble the cataloguers and compilers of lists. My gut instinct is that if SF insists on rocket ships and bumpy-headed aliens, it becomes less about literature and more about Saturday morning cartoons, with all the mundane moralizing and convenient wrap-ups that this implies. Compared to the world of our childhood, we live in a dystopia already. We have a huge investment in not seeing this or admitting it.
individ ewe-al
15. individ-ewe-al
Can you explain more why you think Brave New World isn't SF? 1984 clearly isn't (even though fans like to use it as a rhetorical club to strike back against people who think that all SF is automatically trash). But Brave New World? The world-building is based on plausible extrapolations of biological technology, and considering it was written 20 years before the structure of DNA was solved, it does better than 99% of modern SF.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
Individ-ewe-al: It's SF, sure. But Huxley wasn't an SF writer, ot somebody who read SF, and it's largely intended as satire rather than prediction. So it's SF, and it had an influence on later SF, but it isn't coming out of SF and isn't influenced by what else was going on in SF at the time.
individ ewe-al
17. individ-ewe-al
Jo: I see the distinction you're making, yup. I may be just a teeny bit defensive about people not counting biology as science (in the context of SF criticism).

I have vivid memories of an A-level French class where I was attempting to explain that what I was intending to do with my career did not precisely match Huxley's descriptions of genetics. Satire rather than prediction, indeed!
awightknight
18. Gerry__Quinn
Louis Bertrand Shalako@14:

Uh-oh, I can see that someone skipped his morning Soma! Seriously, I was as sorry as anyone about that poor Savage guy, but even back in the Atomic Age there were loads of people like that who just couldn't fit into society. In fact there were far more than than there are now, since we started engineering citizens pre-natally, rather than desperately trying to socialise wild-state individuals who evolved to live in a pre-technological society. Amazing that humanity survived those years at all, really!

[\BNW]

"Compared to the world of our childhood, we live in a dystopia already." If you mean this as a factual observation on the state of the world now as distinct from 1980, 1960, 1940 or whatever, I disagree. If you mean it in the context of the loss of our personal childhood universes, you might have a point... but we have coping mechanisms for this inevitable personal tragedy. As odd as it may seem, older people when interviewed regarding their level of happiness report a level not greatly different from that reported by the young.
John Ginsberg-Stevens
19. eruditeogre
I think that Jo Walton's point that dystopia and SF in a strict genre sense have different contours makes sense, but I also think that we need to look more deeply at the history of genres and look at how dystopic literature and iterations of SF may have influenced each other and the general readership. I think it's too easy to label some dystopias "mainstream" and cut them off from SF. Going back to the root of the word, and thinking about how the use of dystopia has expanded, taken on different cultural tasks and associations, and has in turn perhaps had a more symboitic relationship with fantastika, is a necessary task to undertake so that we can better understand the history of the idea and perhaps see more connections.

The point about SF's value-added worldbuilding does not cut off the uses of dystopia from "mainstream" or "literary"works. They all take that first important step away from the real, from sheer, illusory mimesis, into the unknown. I think it makes more sense to say that SF dystopias often step farther out, try to imagine more richly, but that should not prevent us from examining the articulations between different dystopic works. The idea of dystopia itself has changed since Mill first coined it, and it continues to alter, continues to be used in new ways. I think we need to get at the commonalities across the spectrum of its history to better grasp its literary and cultural impact.
Pamela Adams
20. Pam Adams
I think that many dystopias have a physical cause- for example, the cosy catastrophe novels.

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