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The Dystopian Virtue

by janderson on January 9, 2012

Various literary scholars and Websites have identified several common elements that are distinct within classic dystopian literature. What distinguishes the dystopian tale, when examined, reveals the why of its importance as a literary form. The examination also gives insight into the why of the authors and their motives for writing such generally bleak stories.

Classic dystopian novels, such as 1984, A Brave New World and Farenheit 451, commonly involve a humanity overburdened by technology and dehumanized by its own fragility and helplessness that technology has brought on. It is often a humanity tightly controlled and oppressed by a government, corporation or other controlling power that has stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the populace’s inability or unwillingness to self govern behaviors and social structure. The governing power may have intentionally encouraged the powerlessness of the people and helped to create the dystopian society, or simply arose as a response to the decline of self governance. Regardless, the result is always nightmarish.

The “heroes” of the genre, perhaps better simply termed protagonists, are usually disaffected members of the defunct society, insiders who, for one reason or another, are not fully indoctrinated by the governing power and not susceptible to the soporific trance of the average citizen. They rebel against the dystopia and try to escape, or fight back against its oppression. Interestingly, in many cases, the protagonists are largely unsuccessful, falling prey to the power of the antagonistic governor. This leaves many dystopian novels with predominantly frightening and sorrowful endings, and leaves readers feeling as hopeless and powerless as the citizens of the novel.

The intentions of dystopian novels are pretty clear-cut. The whys of these stark warnings about society are deep seeded concerns of the writers as observers of their own times and cultures. Portraying a totalitarian end result to their concerns over apathy, censorship, over-governance and over-technologied people is a plausible and logical conclusion to these writers, observing the trends of the world.

It is a significant and important genre because it realizes fears that many people have about their modern world and can serve as a message of warning that the dystopia can be averted if people become more involved in the formation of their future. But is dystopian literature averting anything, or is it symptomatic of the dystopia becoming realized?

The popularity and frequency of the genre has increased over the last several decades. Literature and film both seem to show an increased fascination with the dystopia. There may be something to the idea that, somewhere in our collective human conscience, the dissatisfaction with the world is increasing, as is the fear of its general direction.

In my own dystopian novel, Ephemera, the world is not a clear-cut dystopia, yet. But, it is far more dystopian than its citizens realize and it edges closer to it every day. It is a dystopia and a totalitarian power that has slowly been emerging for sometime and is on the brink of taking total control of the people, as technology slowly puts them to sleep.

And that is the most likely way that this scenario would come about. Not with a major defining event, but in bits and pieces over time. As the old adage goes – with a whimper, not a bang. There are any multitude of trends one could point to as evidence that the slide toward dystopia has been long coming. It is a pessimistic and perhaps, hyperbolic view of modern history. Still, observant watchers of history cannot deny that the presence and power of media, technology and governing bodies over the daily lives of people has been steadily increasing, if in seemingly innocuous, or even beneficial ways. As to now, society has not hit a stopping point, drawn a line in the sands of tolerance that it will not allow any of these influences to cross. That, in itself, may be of most concern to writers and readers of dystopian literature.

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