What is dystopia? Literary scholars would like to adopt a lengthy definition such as “a fictional portrayal of a society in which evil, or negative social and political developments, have the upper hand, or as a satire of utopian aspirations which attempts to show up their fallacies, or which demonstrate ways of life we must be sure to avoid in the unlikely event that we can agree on particulars” (Claeys 107). I prefer a much simpler definition: a utopia is a place that is too good to exist, dystopia is a place too bad to exist. Since the dystopian genre first appeared after Enlightenment and the French Revolution, it was a response to the unexpected destruction brought about by the supposed struggle for utopia. Thus, all dystopias afterwards followed this tradition of reflecting on reality, whether it is ideology, science and technology or the political system. Consequently, periods with great changes in the world correspond to surges of dystopian writing, for example, the French Revolution, the World Wars, the Bolshevik Revolution and the establishment of communist regimes, Hitler and eugenics, the Cold War, etc. Through dystopian writing, the authors express their concern of the current society. And their works serve as warnings or pieces of constructive advice on what not to do to avoid such dystopias.
In contrast, apocalyptic writings present completely negative outlook of the future. If dystopia is an indignant speech, apocalypse would be a pure whining. Some apocalyptic writers are completely frustrated with the human nature, and thus provide an omen that the doom’s day is coming due to the sins of man. Unlike that of dystopia, readers of apocalyptic work are not expected to respond positively by trying to save the human race from destruction, but to give up all hope and hate all men. Therefore, as dystopia may contain apocalyptic elements, it is a totally different genre from apocalyptic fiction.
However, dystopian novel is frequently mixed with science fiction. Many dystopias rely on advanced technology to support the ruling system and the society. Sometimes science and technology are the target of critique in the dystopia, often reflecting their damaging power in the real world through atomic, chemical, biological and other weapons in war.
Also, technology may be representative of the ruling class’s oppression on the people, as in The Hunger Games. In the book, the Capitol, where the rulers live, is very futuristic in terms of technology and living standard, while District 12, one of the districts for common people, is poor and dilapidated and lives on
mining as people did in the 18th century.
Advanced technology is also employed to manipulate the Hunger Games, particularly creating lethal situations for the tributes, to make the game more entertaining to the residents in the Capitol.
Young adult dystopia is a division of dystopia where the protagonist and main characters are young adults like the readers, usually 12 to 18 of age. Therefore, the language employed is simple, everyday language spoken by teenagers. A noticeable feature of YA dystopia is that its plot moves on very fast, lacking the big chunks of descriptions often present in adult dystopia writings. YA dystopias embody easy-to-understand themes closely related to teenage life, for example, pursuit of freedom, acknowledgement of personality, etc as in Divergent, as opposed to critiques on certain political systems, such as totalitarianism as in 1984.
Claeys, Gregory. “The origins of dystopia: Wells, Huxley, and Orwell.” The Cambridge
Companion to Utopian Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2010.