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[GUEST POST] Anderson O’Donnell on Reclaiming Dystopian Fiction

Into the Black: Reclaiming Dystopian Fiction

There’s not doubt about it: Dystopian fiction is a hot literary commodity. In fact, dystopian literature seems to have supplanted paranormal romance as the new “It” genre—bookshelves, both virtual and brick-and-mortar, are awash with sexy heroines who, despite total societal collapse, still managed to apply makeup. Yet, in this rush to realize Hunger Games levels of fame and fortune, publishers and their media brethren have sanitized the genre, stripping away the grit and existential horror that defines classic dystopia.

For the past few years, the publishing world was obsessed with good-looking vampires and werewolves; now “dystopias” are the new publishing trend sweeping New York and making hardened Hollywood hearts pitter-patter. But these genres are all just interchangeable set pieces, shiny new ways to spin the same old story: girl meets boy, society gets in the way, girl and boy rebel. And rebellion sells—so long as it’s a safe, sanitized uprising.

This is not to say, of course, that there is no room in fiction for YA dystopia, or even that the genre is without merit. Rather, my concern with YA dystopia stems from the fact that, with very few exceptions, it’s a neutered version of real dystopian literature, de-fanged and repackaged to extend its commercial appeal to the Twilight kids (and adults). The dark soul of the dystopian novel has been compromised, and, as a result, something vital has been lost.


Classic dystopian fiction — 1984, Brave New World, Neuromancer, Children of Men, A Clockwork Orange, to mention but a few — is fiction written with a purpose: a desire to caution mankind about the dangers of systems of control (political or religious), and the de-humanizing consequences of our over-reliance on technology. These works are warnings; feverish missives churned out by half-mad prophets and visionaries whose message is uniform and clear: If we do not change our ways, these wastelands and teeming urban slums will be our future.

But in order to effect any such change, there has to be a spark—these writers have to force the reader to feel emotions powerful enough to disrupt our routines; to shatter thought patterns and leave us so shaken that we have no choice but to alter our lives.


None of this is to imply dystopian fiction can’t be, or isn’t, very, very cool. There is something irresistible about these bleak descriptions of the future, of the various brilliant backstories that imagine new and rather ingenious ways in which society might crumble. Plus, these futurelands come with their fair share of sex, drugs, and violence, the enjoyment of which tends to transcend traditional genre boundaries.

The trouble is that this new wave of dystopian fiction takes only the fun, sexy aspects of classic dystopia, and then either ignores, or pays simple lip service to, the genre’s core tenets. Consider recent comments from a prominent YA dystopian blogger:

You know, its fun to see so many books try to guess how the world will end. Super-volcano’s been very popular, virus is very popular, nuclear bomb is popular … but it is kind of fun to see writers trying to stretch and be like, what else could happen, what other terrible tragedy could occur?”

People are reading dystopian fiction for the cheap thrills—like an amusement park ride or a slasher flick; its fun to be scared but the ride stops or the movie ends and we can go back to our lives: nothing has changed. And that lessens the power of dystopian fiction.

George Orwell had it right: If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever. That might not be the recipe for a capturing the hearts of the YA reader, but there’s still plenty of glamorous shape-shifters and sexy vampires to go around; leave the future black.

Anderson O’Donnell lives in Connecticut with his wife and son. Kingdom is O’Donnell’s full-length debut, and the first installment of the Tiber City Trilogy. It is now available in paperback and eBook formats exclusively via Amazon. Exile, the second installment in the Tiber City Trilogy, is set for release in the summer of 2013.

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16 Comments on [GUEST POST] Anderson O’Donnell on Reclaiming Dystopian Fiction

  1. Ah, I’d forgotten that I wasn’t supposed to be actually *enjoying* Logan’s Run and Brave New World (the latter is actually pretty damned hilarious in parts), and just admire their subtle social commentary.

  2. I think there’s a difference between “tenets” and “tenants.” The latter are the annoying people that live in your apartment building, whereas the former seems more appropriately principled…

    Orwell did indeed get “dystopia” right; the worst thing isn’t having some disaster visit the human race, it is for the human race to get into a rut of treating itself dreadfully.

  3. Matte Lozenge // July 11, 2012 at 8:19 pm //

    I think the most blah thing about current YA dystopian fiction is there is no room for morality, ethics, or any coherent idea of what heroism is in an oppressed society. There’s only dog-eat-dog survival – an avalanche of ultraviolence prettied up with emo teen romance. And sometimes if the writer wants to get really deep, some PTSD or remorse the morning after.

    • I’m not sure what recent YA dystopian fiction you’ve been reading, but the stuff I’ve been reading is all about morality, ethics, and ideas about heroism in an oppressed society. The Hunger Games is entirely concerned with those things. I don’t get the whole bandwagon that says the new Dystopian fiction is not up to snuff. Sometimes it seems that if a book involves romance or female leads it gets the fanciful tag and if it’s emotionless and male it gets the serious tag. Yeah right, dream on wanna-be intellectuals! Being serious and intellectual and still engaging is a great talent and I want to thank Suzanne Collins for getting in on and sharing with the world. Bring on more of it.

  4. Excellent. Anything that weakens the power of dystopian fiction is okay by me. Though I personally can’t understand the “cheap thrills” they get. I prefer my cheap thrills to be uplifting, and preferably with explosives involved.

  5. I am stunned by O’Donnell’s last paragraph:

    “George Orwell had it right: If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

    WTH? If I understand correctly what you are saying, brutal eternal tyranny IS going to be real-life future? And it is pointless to pretend otherwise?

    • Hi Ilya,

      I was poking around and saw your comment, and I wanted to clarify: What I was saying (or at least trying to saw) was that, with regard to Dystopian fiction–not real life future or all futurist fiction–needs to focus on the darker concepts, such as brutal eternal tyranny, etc., because exploring such harsh and terrifying concepts is, IMHO, the point of dystopian literature.

      • So you want dystopia SF to be Serious Literature. Problem is, hardly anyone reads Serious Literature. How many people do you think would buy “Hunger Games” with all cool stuff taken out?

        Besides “brutal eternal tyranny” is not such complicated concept that it needs endless books to warn about it. “1984” sold well because it explored what at the time was a new idea. By now the idea has been done to death, and without some entertainment value nobody will read its rehash.

  6. A Science Fiction personality disdains character driven works over high concept. Again. Color me surprised.

    Another thing I noticed, of the classics mentioned, all of them star a male protagonist, and all but one of them are written by men. YA dystopias are primarily written by women, for girls, and star female protagonists. Are we getting our girl cooties all over everything again? So sorry.

    • Marfisa // July 13, 2012 at 2:15 am //

      Yes, his “politics and (male-centric) big-picture stuff are so much more important than how dystopian tyranny affects the characters on a personal level” bias would have been somewhat mitigated if he had at least mentioned the one female-POV adult dystopian novel I can think of that seems to have been pretty widely accepted by critics as literarily worthwhile (however flawed). I refer to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in which rightwing patriarchs succeed in overthrowing the U.S. government and rebooting society in a manner calculated to impose existential horror–not to mention major-league oppression–on anyone who isn’t a straight white Christian male. Atwood’s book may not be the same kind of game-changing classic as “1984” or “Brave New World” (although I seem to recall that both of those focused on the “petty” emotional agonies of protagonists forced to cope with dystopian tyranny as much as they did on the mechanism of the tyranny itself). But it did get better reviews than “Children of Men,” at least. As for “A Clockwork Orange,” I consider its alleged classic status problematical. This is due to both the abundance of action/slasher movie-type cheap thrills inherent in its sensationalistic choice of central character and to author Anthony Burgess’ apparent conviction that it might be okay for the ultraviolent Alex to rape and murder (and somehow eventually grow out of it after the book ends)–or, possibly, for the authorities to successfully condition him to abandon such destructive behavior. But what’s really unforgivable is that they accidentally screwed up and conditioned the naturally musically sensitive, though behaviorally savage, Alex to experience the same kind of violently aversive reaction to his beloved Beethoven as he does to the concept of violent behavior. (See Burgess’ essay reprinted in the June science fiction issue of the *New Yorker*.)

      “Clockwork Orange” may be the kind of classic that “leaves us shaken.” But a large–albeit probably unintended–part of its message is only new to people living in such a cotton-wool bubble of privilege that they don’t realize that the reality of the feral behavior they romanticize can be just as life-shatteringly scary as any hypothetical government experiment in brainwashing.

      • There’s always The Stepford Wives, too, though it’s a small scale dystopia. Actually, with the current birth control debate raging I’ve been hearing The Handmaid’s Tale name-checked a lot lately.

        You’re right. There was a lot of emotional focus in those classic dystopias, and it was important to the plot. Winston’s romance with Julia helped motivate him to rebel, because society was against their romance. In the end, one of the most terrifying things the EngSoc government was able to do was destroy his love for her, and cause him to sacrifice her to save himself. It seems romance is only oh so bad when it’s from the girl’s point of view. From the man’s point of view, it’s archetypal.

        A Clockwork Orange didn’t leave me shaken. It just reminded me of my second stalker. And the idea that violent sociopaths grow out of it was something I couldn’t stomach. They don’t. They just get better at hiding it.

  7. JCHeff1979 // July 12, 2012 at 10:22 am //

    Hey now, O’Donnell isn’t saying there isn’t a place for YA dystopian fiction out there, only that the recent commoditization of the sub-genre is squeezing out works which try to treat the downfall of civilization as something more than a set piece for teenage romance (not that there’s anything wrong with teenage romance).

    If Hunger Games and it’s progeny is seen as THE dystopian voice over the more serious minded works like 1984 and A Clock Work Orange, the whole genre (fans and authors) has lost something of great value.

    I’v read the Hunger Games. I LIKED the Hunger Games. The books were entertaining as hell and had me reading a book a day. But, they didn’t do much in the way of meaningful social commentary. Which, again is fine, books are supposed to entertain as well as provoke serious reflection and while the best books do both, a book can be perfectly sublime if all it does is entertain.

    At the end of the day, YA Dystopian fiction uses the downfall of man as a way to delve into the emotions and angst of teenagers. That’s all well and good, but it isn’t in the same vein as the pillars of the genre which sought to say something more.

    What O’Donnell is saying, I think, is that there needs to be a resurgence and return to the meaning of the genre if the genre is to be anything more than “puberty love at the end of the world.” As fans, and writers, we need to push ourselves as hard as the giants who came before us. That means writing and reading stuff that makes you think long and hard about your world. Keep the bubblegum, but eat a real book every now and then too. “How can you have your pudding if you don’t eat your meat!?”

    The best example I can think of is the world of country music. The acts like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Loretta Lynn stood for something more than Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and Jason Aldean. But, if you look at Country today, all you get is the Nashville pop and that’s just damn sad, even if it is selling lots of records and making people rich. There are great alt country acts out there, but they’re in the niche. They’re in the fringe. They’re hard to discover but they’re also the only ones doing anything that is still approaching the greats of the past.

    That, I think is what O’Donnell is on about. It’s all well and good that Hunger Games and its ilk is bringing the dystopia to the masses, but it’s leaving all that was truly transcendent about the genre behind in the corners, out on the fringe.

    Like Shooter Jennings said, “Put the ‘O’ back in Country” and put the “Dystopia” back in Dystopian Fiction!

  8. This sounds like sour grapes instead of a legitimate critique.

    As for the YA novels Sturgeon’s Law applies. Being part of the 90% (of crud) is not criminal, it’s just reality.

    The Hunger Games Trilogy turns the coming of age story on it’s head. By the end of the story instead of being a heroine, Katniss is a pragmatist, a realist. It’s a character driven story that uses a dystopian setting as a backdrop. It is not 1984 nor does it have to be.

    The genre is not less for being used in young adult novels. The classics remain classics. The rest are trash whether they were written for teenagers or for adults.

  9. I’ve got to read Clockwork Orange already, loved the movie, but I hear the book is full of slang from it’s time, so that may put me off. I haven’t even read Brave New World yet.

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