Dystopian Worlds Don’t Work

dystopiaDeb and I were watching Divergent on DVD recently, and before the movie ended, I was struck by the thought that the world didn’t work. Once Kate Winslet began going on about suppressing or eliminating free will, I realized this was not tenable. By dividing society in to five groups, calling them factions no less, you are inviting trouble, which is exactly what happens across three novels and soon several more films.

The interesting thing about dystopia novels is that the worlds they depict are equally unrealistic. In every case, they blithely ignore the rest of the world and focus on one country or one city or one sector of the world. In Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, the United States or greater North America is divided into thirteen districts but we know nothing about the other six continents. Each district provided a stringent set of supplies to greater whole, although district 1 held on to more of the bounty, controlling supply with an iron fist. But, you can’t ask one district to supply nothing but fish or timber or wheat. America isn’t built that way as each state or region may specialize in some things but have a variety of offerings. And how did district thirteen’s contributions get reapportioned when they were obliterated?

The granddaddy of dystopia novels remains George Orwell’s 1984 which, upon rereading, is wretchedly written and also presents a world divided into thirds that is also unrealistic. You try and tell the Muslim residents of Eurasia they have to conform to the European way of life. They’d be doing to that world what is happening today with constant infighting and terrorist attacks.

None of the dystopia worldbuilding I’ve read really works but instead has been vaguely designed to let the authors tell their stories. Orwell wanted to make a statement about post-World War II England so crafted a horrifying vision, Collins largely lifts her districts in the pattern of Ancient Rome although no one in the books apparently read history or they’d say the same thing. Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, a short story I have taught, focuses on one city and is designed to question human nature.

I know, I’m reality testing allegories but we’ve been given such a steady diet of them that they are starting to irritate me. Worldbuilding is vital in most fiction, there have to be rules that are consistent and logical so the reader can be properly immersed in the story itself. We get Middle Earth and Westeros or 19th Century England because the worlds have been tightly constructed or depicted. But when you try and tell me half the world is watching the other half or that elaborate choosing ceremonies cement a person’s place in society, I get twitchy.

It does make me wonder, though, are there any dystopia novels out there where the world depicted actually works? Please let me know.

5 comments

  • Watching Divergent, it wasn’t clear to me who actually made things. Did Amity work in the factory sweatshops, or Abnegation?

    (I hadn’t read the books, so I’m not sure if that’s discussed. It just didn’t seem like the the smarty lawyers and scientists types would be doing that, or the Klingons. I mean, Dauntless.)

  • Maybe the dystopian Brave New World is a better example of a functioning society?

  • Love this piece. I agree with you wholeheartedly on all of your points including the world at large, outside of the US. Books such as Ender’s Game and The Mazerunner series have similar issues if you think that far into it, BUT also offer up a little more depth into analyzing those factors.

    Great write up!

  • Steve L

    In HG Wells’ Time Machine we have the society of the Morlocks and Eloi. This dystopia sort of works but mostly because we can be sure that the whole of Earth has descended to this level of degeneration of the human species. It’s a bit unfair since we can hardly say the Eloi have a society. It’s more like saying cattle have a society.

  • John Christopher

    Two that come to mind are the Supervolcano series by Turtledove and the After America series (well, the first two books anyhow). They may be closer to post-apocalyptic (and near post-apocalyptic at that), but seem to hold up as to what the REST of the world is up to while the US is dealing with catastrophe.

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