When I describe the premise of books like The Hunger Games or The Giver to my friends, I use the adjective “dystopian”. And even with all of the hype surrounding Suzanne Collins’ popular books, that term still makes people wrinkle their brows and say, “What?” So let me roll up my word nerdy sleeves and explain.
Dystopia = the opposite of utopia
Sir Thomas More, way back in the 16th century, introduced the idea of utopia : a place of social perfection. The term dystopia takes More’s unrealistic ideal and flips it on its head. Remember that the prefix “dys” means difficult or bad, as in dysfunction, dyslexia, and dysentery. So, in dystopian fiction, we find a society, often of the future, crippled by at least one horrible, inherent flaw.
Dystopian books tackle themes about government, politics, religion, or technology in a hypothetical setting. They often explore the delicate balance between what’s best for the individual versus what’s best for society as a whole.
Dystopian literature isn’t new
Dystopian books appeared well before The Hunger Games. According to Wikipedia, the term was first used in the British House of Commons in 1868 when John Stuart Mill spoke to the assembly about the faults of the English government’s land policy in Ireland.
During the 20thcentury, several authors explored dystopian themes. Some examples:
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Brave New Worldby Aldous Huxley
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
Dystopian literature addresses moral issues without being didactic
Dystopian books challenge us to thoughtfully consider what’s important, both for ourselves and society as a whole. A good dystopian piece might take a current idea or practice and push it to extremes, forcing people to think, would this way of life really work better?
For example, in Ally Condie’s Matched, the government chooses everything for its citizens in order to optimize productivity- that includes food, occupation, and spouse. Type two diabetes and obesity would definitely NOT be a problem in Condie’s world, but, at what price?
Many dystopian titles target young adult readers, giving teenagers great material to ponder as they form their opinions about religion, politics, and society. I’ve enjoyed discussing controversial issues from The Giverwith my kids, and I hope that we will have more great conversations as they read the other books listed in this post.
Current popular dystopian reads
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- Matched by Ally Condie
- Divergent by Veronica Roth
- The Maze Runner by James Dashner
- The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
- Ship Breaker Paolo Bacigalupi
- The Host by Stephenie Meyer
What does the term “dystopian” mean to you, and can you recommend any books that fit the category? Thanks for adding to the discussion.
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