definition

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The idea of a dystopia is an intriguing one – a world that was supposed to be perfect, but has somehow turned out horribly wrong. Why do so many horrible realities start out with such good intentions? I guess the saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, has more than a grain of truth to it. We all live in an imperfect world, it cannot be argued otherwise. However, the difference between our imperfect world and a nightmarish dystopia is a simple one: the efforts of good people. Our own world is continually pulled into times of grief, wars with bloodshed, and the loss of innocent lives, but in the midst of all the bad, there are always the efforts of good people. Leaders striving to make a change for the better in the lives of their followers; soldiers fighting for the freedom and safety of their countrymen and women; ordinary, everyday people who believe that life is more than personal gain. In a dystopia, every aspect of society has rotted away into some kind of dehumanizing suppression. There is no “good” so to speak. I believe this is why there is so much attraction to the dystopian genre of YA fiction.

Dystopias have just enough resemblance to our own, broken world that we can relate to the characters, but hold the fascination of a reality that has never truly existed. The Millennial Generation as well as Generation Z have grown up with the ability to reside part-time in different realities than the one real life claims. Unlimited access to internet means unlimited access to the worlds of thousands of tv shows and movies; video games create a virtual reality that gamers love to get lost in for hours. The youth of today have grown up with the expectation of a radically different tomorrow, and considering that many of the popular YA dystopias take place in the future, is it really any surprise that the genre holds a particular interest to us “young folk”?

Within the genre of YA dystopias, there are many combinations with other genres (ex: romance, sci-fi, apocalypse). When a dystopia is given an extra layer, other than the typical, radicalized government control, the story is able to appeal to different audiences. Personally, I enjoy dystopias with a sci-fi theme, but shout out to all my TWD fans, you all probably lean more toward the apocalypse themed dystopia. Combining genres gives writers opportunities to appeal to different audiences, as well as  the ability for deeper social commentary.

After reading The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature book, and having discussions in class, I have gathered that a dystopia is a utopia that has fallen. Where a utopia is a dreamed up basically perfect society, a dystopia is just the opposite. The idea of the dystopias is often combined with other genres of literature. I do not think that combining dystopias with other genres changes the essence of a dystopia. Instead it adds another element to the story to engage the readers. For example, in The Hunger Games, there is definitely a romantic love triangle going on. However, this romance aspect of the story does not detract from the serious dystopia related issues at hand.

On another note, considering the popularity of YA dystopias, I think that when dystopias become marketed at young adults, that the underlying themes surrounding the genre do not change very much. In fact, I also do not think that the real problems in the stories are sugar-coated very much for young adults. For example, The Hunger Games deals with very serious issues, and young adults who are forced to kill each other. I would definitely not say that there is anything sweet about this subject.

With the rise of this genre, I think it is important to ask why it has gotten so popular. With the growth of technology and the direction in which our society is moving, it would seem that we are always striving to become better and improve our world. Are we trying to create a utopia? Are these numerous dystopia novels a warning to us that we will not be able to achieve the utopia we strive for? I think these become bigger questions when we consider that many sci-fi novels of the past predicted events and technologies that we have today. Which leads to the biggest question of all: when we read dystopia novels, are we glimpsing our future?

The genre of dystopia plays such a dominant role in the development of our culture, even in the modern day, that it seems necessary to craft a definition for the term. The difficulty with confining such a broad, complex style of literature into a single description is there will always be significant details left out. How could someone define something that is constantly adapting to the atmosphere of society, consistently referenced, and continuously ever-present?

 

Gregory Claeys claims that dystopia as a genre “refers to imaginary places that were worse than real places” and goes on to say the concept is the “dark side” of the Utopian concept. While I fundamentally agree with his analysis, I have to think there is more to dystopian themes than simply portraying a universe completely opposite of society’s utopia. In my opinion, a dystopian literature is one that reveals the flaws of our society to such an extreme that it engulfs the written reality and twists it into the worst possible outcome for humanity. The commonalities in such stories, such as a Great War or a vast abandoned colony, come together to represent this epic doom hanging over our heads that could consume our future if the warnings from the story are not heeded.

Like many other genres, dystopian themes can be combined with other categories of literature such as science fiction or fantasy. When considering such styles paired together I do not see the meaning of dystopia changing; I believe the best elements of each genre come together to adapt the broad definition into a more cultivated mixture of ideals. Science fiction brings about technological innovation and new ways of thinking in the devastated, previously hopeless environment of a dystopia. Fantasy gives way to epic battles and unearthed magic that, when used correctly, can highlight the desolate dystopian themes.  Combining genres does not completely change the definition of a dystopia, it simply adjusts it to better fit the role it is made to fill.

When young adult themes are used to direct a dystopia, some slight changes in the genre can be seen. The authors, aiming to reach a wide range of ages from middle school to college, will create a broader story that could be applicable to many readers. The lessons they attempt to teach and the critiques they wish to be heard will be pushed slightly harder at the reader in order to ensure everyone receives some message from the book. The main characters in young adult dystopias typically mirror the projected audience in age, thought process, and interests. Overall, when an author aims to write a young adult dystopia the overall themes common in the genre remain with only slight changes to the style of writing.

Works Cited:

Claeys, Gregory. “The origins of dystopia: Wells, Huxley, and Orwell.” The Cambridge
Companion to Utopian Literature.
Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Just as the United States’ Constitution is referred to as a “living document”, I believe the English Dictionary can be placed in the same regard, since awareness of the meaning of a word can adapt and develop due to a plethora of factors, such as expansion of knowledge, historical events, technological advancement, etc. This is especially true when pertaining to the word “Utopia”. Originally, Thomas More constructed this neologism to represent a place that is no place, a desired end that is unattainable, a dream that cannot exist; however, this paradoxical, vague definition sparked contention and controversy over what constituted a utopia. Was it all up to the interpretation of the reader? Or are there certain elements required? Over time, literary philosophers, as they do, continued to throw in their perspective on the definition, developing more and more criteria and signs that indicated a utopia. These philosophers were aiming to construct boundaries for this term, but in my opinion, the opposite actually occurred. They facilitated the use of the word in a generic, household setting, as the criteria and signs applied to a multitude of works and societies. Today, as shown below, dictionary.com defines the word Utopia simply as “an ideal place or state”. Then, could simple daydreams and wandering imaginations be referred to as utopian thought?

In my opinion, Utopia is a term that cannot be strictly defined, rather it applies to any work of literature or thought provoking introspection in the reader or thinker. By that, I mean it initiates reflection of current societal practices and organizations as well as what could be improved or scrapped altogether in the future. Essentially, it is a process with an end goal of constructing a better world. However, it is important to note that this “better world” is highly subjective, depending on each individual’s mindset in regard to the world around them. For example, as portrayed by the Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, there are a plethora of works classified as utopias, regardless to the subject matter or particular aspect of society each are addressing. There may be “primitivist and nostalgic utopias, sentimental individualist utopias, voyage utopias, satires, anti-utopias”, and more, depending on the society that the author is a part of (Claeys 51). Due to this, Utopia is an extremely malleable, adaptable term, not limited by one definition or set of expectations, but able to be molded into the time and audience for which it is written. Then,Utopian literature will always present itself as relevant, as it is at it’s core a medium through which beliefs, hopes, dreams, and guidelines can be expressed and developed upon, independent of the factors influencing their creation.

In response to this versatility of the concept of Utopia, Utopian literature and thought is commonly mixed with other genres of literature, including sci-fi, romance, etc, as the author so desires. To me, this acts as a tactic to tailor their critiques and comments to particular audiences, ensuring that the point they are trying to instill resonates with their readers. Recently, Utopian literature has taken a turn towards the Young Adult genre, modifying itself to apply to this age group. Therefore, Utopia is still its own separate genre, but it does blend with other genres in order to solidify its commentary.

Works Cited

Claeys, Gregory. “The origins of dystopia: Wells, Huxley, and Orwell.” The Cambridge
          Companion to Utopian Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

“Utopia”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 21 Jan. 2017.

So you’ve decided to go out and construct your own utopian society. You have the money, the power, and any other means necessary to do whatever you want with some remote, undiscovered island (which is sure to be the focus of a classic novel in the near future) and some eager followers. Now the only problem left is figuring out what a utopia actually entails. You could ask your future subjects what their vision of a utopia is, but this will lead to thousands of unique answers. Can any one of them be correct?

Picking apart the name seems to be of little use. Thomas “More created a tension that has persisted over time and has been the basis for the perennial duality of meaning of utopia as the place that is simultaneously a non-place (utopia) and a good place (eutopia).” (Vieira 3) The name itself maybe once provided a definition, but so much time has passed that the name no longer holds any true definition. We live in a completely different society from that of Thomas More, and therefore each of us probably defines a utopia differently from him. For example, most people use the words utopia and eutopia interchangeably, yet some argue that these words are eminently different.

A broad definition for utopia is only somewhat satisfactory. On the one hand there exists the simplest definition: a good place. It is even widely accepted that a utopia is inherently a better place than one’s current society. These definitions mostly speak about the social and technological settings of the “better place.” Yet with such a simple definition one person could envision nearly infinite social settings and another person may envision exactly none. On the other hand, the more complex one’s specific definition of a utopia becomes, the fewer people will agree. Eventually, only the person who has created that definition will agree.

Personally, based on the fact that each person has their own version of utopia, my definition is as follows: A society in which each person believes wholeheartedly that their lives could not get any better without putting strain on someone else’s life. Thus, each person would need the society to be tailored specifically to suit them, which makes such a place nearly impossible.

Utopia as a concept can exist in any other genre of literature. All that a story in another genre needs is someone wishing for a better life, which can typically arise out of nearly any conflict. In this way, sci-fi is a twin to utopian stories. Technology is central to both sci-fi and many authors’ utopian societies. Yet technology is just a means to achieving the state of utopia, and does not affect my definition of the genre or the concept.

Utopias written for young adults are not really very much different from others, except that they are typically dystopian with a push towards a utopian society. Dystopias are easier to make interesting, and in my opinion young adult literature is a money-maker at the moment. There may be secondary goals to implant ideas about perfect societies, as well as societies to avoid, but I believe these are secondary goals.

So, is your definition of a utopia any stronger? Or is it just more befuddled and unclear? Good luck building that society!

 

Works Cited

Vieira, Fátima. “The Concept of Utopia.” Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 3-4.

 

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.

“Dystopia.” Dystopia Page 1.

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.

“The Capitol Skyline.” The Capitol.

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.

“District12.” Hunger Games’ District 12.

 

 

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.

 

 

Works Cited

Claeys, Gregory. “The origins of dystopia: Wells, Huxley, and Orwell.” The Cambridge
Companion to Utopian Literature.
Cambridge University Press, 2010.