The term “dystopia” can be defined in 2 ways: as a genre and as a characterization of a fictional world. As a genre, dystopia is exploratory and speculative in nature. Hallmarks of dystopian fiction generally include the 2 R’s: Revelation and Revolt. As a characterization, dystopia has come to represent a purely imaginative world that is either 1) isolated from mainstream society, accessible by some form of travel, or 2) the actual society at large from which there is no escape.
In any literary work that has been labeled a dystopia, there are a few of the same defining qualities. The fictional world often operates under the guise of a high-functioning and orderly society. For example, in The Giver, written by Lois Lowry, there is the absence of argument, violence, conflict, and ultimately, individuality – the one characteristic that makes us inherently human. Such a society may appear to be ideal on the surface but eventually proves otherwise. Another trait of dystopian fiction is an overarching political system that exercises control and power over its inhabitants. This is especially evident in George Orwell’s 1984, which was written as a satire on the “colossal failures of totalitarian collectivism” (Claeys 108). Generally-speaking, I consider dystopian literature to be a critique on any such social, economic, or political injustice that, if not already true in some form, has the potential to become true.
As a genre, dystopia changes its meaning when combined with science fiction. Science fiction written with dystopian influences – or, another way of putting it, a dystopian novel written under the backdrop of science fiction – inherently becomes a brainchild of two genres, one that defies proper categorization. What utopia brings to science fiction is its “ability to reflect or express our hopes and fears” (Claeys 138). On a similar note, what science fiction lends to utopia “is an awareness of the effects and importance of science and technology” (Claeys 139). The two genres are not so similar as to be interchangeable, but they do share common elements, leading some books to be labeled as both.
The dystopian genre, when combined with Young Adult Literature, acquires themes familiar to a younger audience, such as love and identity. Y.A. dystopian fiction typically features adolescents navigating through the woes of growing up, while also coming to terms (or not) with the society in which they reside. Due to the harsh reality of the imperfect world they find themselves in, the characters in these novels are often exposed to violence and traumatic situations at an early age. Ultimately, a Y.A. dystopia is just as much an exploration of self as it is a critique of society – all through the lens of a coming-of-age individual.
Claeys, Gregory. “The origins of dystopia: Wells, Huxley, and Orwell.” The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. Ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 107-131. Print.
Claeys, Gregory. “Utopia, dystopia and science fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. Ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 135-153. Print.