By most definitions, dystopian fiction has been around about as long as science fiction; certainly there are elements of dystopia in HG Wells’ world of Morlocks and Eloi. The grandaddy of dystopia will probably always be recognised as Nineteen Eighty-Four, but several common dystopian themes – genetic engineering, indoctrination, the loss of individuality, and the World State – appeared in Brave New World some years earlier.
Dystopia come in two basic flavours: corrupted pseudo-utopia; and downright nasty-and-proud-of-it totalitarian regime. Both types, and their many variations, typically share a number of traits.
1. The police state - World State, The Party, or whatever you want to call it. A more recent alternative (Snow Crash) is to have global corporations rather than governments in control.
2. A class system gone mad. The powerful get ever more powerful and corrupt, everyone else gets an increasingly raw deal. Genetic engineering often plays some role in this.
3. Sex. Sex is either banned (Nineteen Eighty-Four) or removed from the act of procreation and encouraged as recreation from childhood (Brave New World). The theory is that strong emotional bonds distract from loyalty to the State.
4. Religion – or specifically, lack thereof, because it also diminishes loyalty to the Party.
5. Global upheaval. Somewhere in the back story of your dystopia there lurks some war, revolution or ecological or other disaster which somehow facilitated the shift in power.
The thing about dystopian fiction is that it seems increasingly close to reality. Some time in the late 20th century the western world became Orwellian enough to necessitate the word ‘Orwellian’. Big Brother – even before being hijacked by Endemol – became a universally recognised term for the ‘surveillance society’ we now live in.
A case in point: I mentioned in passing last week that I have an unstarted story idea – more of a setting I suppose – based on the idea of an election in a totalitarian state. The idea had been on my notepad for some years before events in Zimbabwe this year rendered the whole idea factual.
Well that's a few thoughts on dystopia then. Next time I'll try and wrangle with fitting Christianity into a dystopian story.