Friday, 29 June 2012

D is for Dystopia...

Here is the first of Darran's posts fo us! I thought I'd get it up early, as I just can't wait to share it with you all. Enjoy!!

There’s a new word on the lips and on the pages of an awful lot of Young Adult and Teen Fiction at the moment, both snaking through the blogs and zapping from person to person in good old fashioned word of mouth. That word is Dystopia, and whilst it may not be a new idea, thanks to Suzanne Collins’ success with her Hunger Games books, it is looking to be a big thing.

Most customers give me a bit of a wary look when I mention something being “Dystopian”, and more than a few have asked what on Earth it means? Once I’ve explained, turns out nine times out of ten, they knew exactly what a Dystopia was, they just didn’t know there was a word for it. Soooo, I figured I’d write a short(ish) blog piece, explaining this new and frightening genre, and throwing in some recommended reading as I go.

So, Webster’s Dictionary defines… Haha, no, maybe not that cliché, but I think to first truly understand the idea of a Dystopia, you must first understand that it’s an opposite of a much more familiar word: Utopia. Neither are new ideas, and for players of video games or readers of science fiction, this article is probably painfully obvious, but they’re both pretty new to the world of YA/Teen lit. So, a Utopia, or Utopian society is basically the perfect society, where poverty, crime, war and suffering have been erased, either
through improved social convention, or superior technology, hence why it’s pretty staple as a science fiction term. If my research has informed correctly, the term was first proposed in the 1500’s by Sir Thomas Moore, in an attempt to set out the ideal conditions for society to flourish. Dystopia, as the word itself suggests, is the antithesis of everything a Utopia is, often featuring oppression, poverty or suffering. I’ve decided to lump Dystopian ideals into two main clumps. It’s not really that clear cut, but then, nothing ever is, but this way I can explain the typical environments making themselves known:
The first Dystopia I will tackle is what I’m calling Armageddon Dystopia. This normally uses some kind of catastrophic events to wipe out a huge percentage of humanity, reducing technology and quality of life to virtually zero. The favourite mechanism for this Dystopia is the old terrifying Nuclear Armageddon. This has been explored fairly prominently in Video Game lore (notably theFallout series, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and even some aspects of Half Life are good examples too). These normally focus on characters and individuals or groups trying to survive in an inhospitable wasteland, and will often feature mutated enemies. Nuclear or warfare orientated Dystopia’s are often set within a “Wasteland” environment of scorched Earth and ruined cities, and frequently use the loss of society to examine the tribal nature of human kind, asking how groups of survivors would respond to the crumbling of society. The general conclusion seems to be the formation of skirmishing gangs, fighting other gangs and controlling territories in their little world. Protagonists are normally driven to try and kick-start society, or find some way of peaceful co-existence, and this can be their primary driving force, although they may also focus on conspiracy ideas of hidden government or some kind of organisation that orchestrated the Armageddon for their own purposes. I think the best example of this kind of Dystopian fiction in the Teen/YA world is probably the superb dream-like Pure by Juliana Baggott, which features conspiracy, wastelands, mutants and gang warfare, in a superb narrative and really vibrant characters with distinct and varying goals and desires.

The other subgenre of Armageddon Dystopia is of course, the ever famous and much adapted: Zombie Apocalypse. Of course, things like Night of the Living Dead, George Romero’s seminal Zombie flick is hardly Dystopia, but the follow-ups in Dawn/Day of the Dead are landed squarely in the Dystopia park, examining Human behaviour and survival mechanisms in such a hostile environment. Zombie work tends to be considerably more violent by the very nature of it, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist in YA/Teen worlds, with Charlie Higson really pioneering the genre with his brilliant books starting withThe Enemy. Ashes by Ilsa Bick is another twist on the Zombie story from across the pond, with a really dark examination of the lengths at which people are willing to go to in order to survive. Also, if you’re enjoying stuff like this, but feel yourself capable of handling a bit more, Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series The Walking Dead is the perfect bridging piece between some of the teen literature and adult Zombie adventures (such as World War Z). Veteran teen terror master Darren Shan is also launching his own take on the undead withZom-B this September.

So, Armageddon Dystopia is pretty easy to sum-up, and we’ve all seen similar themes explored in plenty of films, books, video games and tapestries in our lives, but didn’t always know that there was a NAME for it. Well there is! So, there you go. The next type of Dystopia, and the more complicated, but much more classical, I’m referring to as the Social Dystopia. Now, as you can imagine, a Social Dystopia is one that focuses on society. Correct! Ordinarily in a Social Dystopia piece, the protagonist(s) live in what appears to be a perfect society (or Utopia, see?!), but as time goes on, it becomes apparent that some, if not many of the individuals human rights and freedoms are controlled, or all together abolished in order to create the appearance of harmony and peace in their world. I think possibly the most famous example of this kind of Dystopia is George Orwell’s scathing social examination 1984, but Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is also a pretty classic example, as well as the sci-fi movie Logan’s Run. In this kind of Dystopia, it is often personal expression that is repressed, either against the government, or a dominating religion, and this is most often used by the author as a device to shed light on the potential pitfalls of modern society. With Orwell, he believed that the endless supervision of society “for our own safety” would inevitably lead to a world where all individuality was wiped out by constant monitoring, under the guise of the greater good. This idea is explored in a number of a YA/Teen titles as well, and I think it’s a very important idea to be confronted by the younger members of society, because let’s face it, they’re the ones who need to be aware of the potential backlashes of society, and how under a mask of “safety” or “protection”, governments can slowly strip away peoples human rights. In Veronica Roth’s Divergent, society has been segregated based on a soul belief into Factions, with none-conforming beliefs frowned upon and often rogue elements eliminated, and this is done in the idea that it will prevent war, because each belief held dear by a Faction should prevent all out war, after a devastating disaster in the world’s past. Across the Universe by Beth Revis also tackles a similar topic of repression, set on a ship hurtling through space. The protagonist in this book awakens on a ship designed to populate a new Earth, in a journey taking hundreds of years. She finds the descendants of the crew have become a monotonous society based around working, with artistic expression viewed as a mental illness. Even reproduction on the ship is strictly enforced with “season” to ensure that everyone has children at the same time, and this horrifies our narrator, and as she looks deeper into the mystery the rises an intricate network of deceit and chemical control. In Suzanne Collins Hunger Games books, as well as the brilliant Battle Royale by Japanese author Koushun Takami, a way to keep control in these future societies (and provide entertainment) are brutal death matches, usually between younger members of the society. These books highlight our disturbing obsession with reality TV, as well as emphasizing a society that favours survival of the fittest to keep itself strong, and they often use violence as a way to explore human nature in very extreme scenarios, similar to the Zombie examination of humans under pressure. Social Dystopia may be seen as science-fiction fancy, but it’s often a very astute glance at the way our own societies might head if we’re not careful with how much control we give those who run our countries. After all, as the title hero of Alan Moore’s Dystopian graphic novel classic V for Vendetta said: “People shouldn’t be afraid of their Government, Governments should be afraid of their people”.

So, I’m aware that I’ve probably come across as a total paranoid conspiracy theorist, and I’m ok with that. What it really comes down to though, is that Dystopia fiction is a brilliant warped perspective on our own worlds, and that makes it such a fascinating genre. We can genuinely imagine these scenarios and place ourselves in them, which makes them both terrifying and addictive, and just fantastic books. So don’t be afraid of Dystopian fiction, if it sounds like something you might enjoy, please check some of these below titles out!

Armageddon Dystopia


Pure – Juliana Baggott
Tomorrow, When the War Began – John Marsden
Gone – Michael Grant

Adult Fiction:
War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Children of Men – P.D. James

The Matrix
The Book of Eli
Video Games:
Fallout 3

Zombie Apocalypse:
The Enemy – Charlie Higson
Ashes – Ilsa J. Bick

The Walking Dead – Robert Kirkman
World War Z – Max Brooks
Warm Bodies – Isaac Marion

Dawn of the Dead
28 Days Later
Video Games:
Left 4 Dead
Dead Island

Social Dystopia:
Divergent – Veronica Roth
Uglies – Scott Westerfeld
Matched – Ally Condie
Wither – Lauren DeStefano
Noughts & Crosses – Malorie Blackman

1984 – George Orwell
The Running Man – Philip K. Dick
V for Vendetta – Alan Moore

The Island
Video Games:
Mirror’s Edge

Obviously, I’ve divided these up, and with the books I would recommend looking into them, asking about them to see if they’re suitable for your child. You can contact me, I don’t mind, either via Twitter ( @ShinraAlpha ) or by email ( and I’ll give you a heads up on what they should and shouldn’t be reading. I’m an avid gamer, so I feel it necessary to point out that not only do the films have age ratings, but video games do to! Many of these games are 15’s or 18’s for a reason, so always check what the recommended age is, because it’s there for your own piece of mind. Video Games are a superb art form and storytelling medium, and are not automatically suitable for all youngsters. The same of course, goes for the films I’ve also listed. Check them, make sure they’re what you would want your child watching. Of course, if you’re the one fascinated by Dystopia, and you’re well past 18, then have a go!

Darran Stobbart,
Children's Manager of Waterstones Northallerton


  1. Brilliant post and so many new books I want to read now!

  2. That's just a selection, but here's a pretty extensive list:

    The Giver by Lois Lowry is also incredimazing.


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