Got dystopia? The history of our hunger for the nightmare society

Dear Magically Real:

I have some questions for you.  What’s a dystopia and where does the first one show up?  What do you think of the Hunger Games?  Are you excited about the movie?  I love the way those people look in the trailer they are showing!  They remind me a little of the Marie Antoinette movie that came out a while back.  Do you  think there’s a connection?  What about all the other dystopian fiction stories out there right now?  Does this all go back to the Terminator movies ?  Also — Why did Thomas More write a book called UTOPIA when it’s obvious that dystopia is so much cooler?

Thanks for your help.


Digging the dark


Dear Digging – At least in Western Culture, the first artistically depicted dystopia – aka, an impossibly horrible society that is the antithesis of a utopia, a term, coined by Thomas More – is of course the Christian Hell:  specifically Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Pandemonium (Paradise Lost).  But the dystopia in the modern sense is indeed an 18th Century phenomenon, originating arguably in the nightmare world of Voltaire’s Candide. Mary Shelley imagines a an empty world devoid of human life in her novel The Last Man, but dystopia goes into hiding until HG Wells’s The Time Machine and the German film Metropolis.  These bleak glimpses into the future deeply influence subsequent 20th Century renderings.  In just about all modern and postmodern fictions, the dystopic society becomes connected to future-oriented vision of human society — often linked, in turn, to some kind of police state and/or a post-nuclear apocalypse.  These narratives generally attempt – like Voltaire’s novel did – to satirically critique the society in which the authors and their audiences currently find themselves.

At this point, the fictional landscape looks more familiar and we find books like We, 1984, Brave New World, Ira Levin’s less known but fascinating This Perfect Day, and a gaggle of film and film adaptations that I will mention in no particular order: The Terminator films, the Matrix films, A Boy and his Dog (based on the short story), The Road, (based on the novel), the Mad Max films, Blade Runner, THX 1138, Logan’s Run and so on.  And let’s not forget Octavia Butler’s Parable novels and Margaret Atwood’s grim visions in the Handmaid’s Tale and elsewhere.  Finally, let’s not leave out the late, great Russell Hoban  and the late great Anthony Burgess and their two almost incomprehensible novels written in futuristic English, Riddley Walker and A Clockwork Orange.

Wait — And it’s not just Anglo-European lit!  What about Battle Royale and The Fat Years!

Heaven’s, there’s alot, isn’t there?!

What this all means is a tougher question.  At least since the 18th Century, the dystopian has been used as a way to shock the moral/political sensibilities of audiences, in order to provoke progressive change, and many of the texts cited above are trying to urge political/moral/psychological alteration in their readers/viewers (arguably of course, visions of Hell were supposed to do this too — I seem to be going in a dystopia replaces Hell sort of direction in this blog post).

But what happens when audiences become so used to being shocked, scared, amazed, and awed that this method no longer works for them?  This problem — the failure of the satiric/critical — might be precisely what the Hunger Games novels, and I imagine the film, are grappling with, because they imagine a nightmare world which survives and thrives precisely by means of its ability to charm and fascinate audiences through television!

A French philosopher named Baudrillard argued, that we are so addicted to watching simulacra on a screen that we are basically dead inside (he said this in a fancy, French way, but you get the idea…[think Fahrenheit 451 {there’s ANOTHER one}]).  In a similar vein Frederic Jameson has maintained that late capitalism has got us so under the spell of consumerism that we’ll consume anything, including the very idea of consuming. I’m guessing that the Hunger Games is somehow engaging with these ideas.

As I write this blog, the Hunger Games movie isn’t out yet, but I saw the trailer too and I’m sure you’re right about the Marie Antoinette connection vis a vis the costumes.  What better way to “indicate” both the ultimate oppressor society and the society of spectacle than by riffing on the aristocracy of the French Monarchy? These were the people who “played” at being farmers and country-people.  Isn’t it interesting that even when imagining the post-Apocalypse… we’re still thinking about the time BEFORE the French Revolution — which was also Voltaire’s time…?  It’s very American, somehow, don’t you think — this obsession with the European aristocratic pre-revolution?

Since the dystopian is so rife – and I think it’s everywhere in young adult fiction, as a recent New Yorker article has observed – then perhaps, the more interesting way to go artistically is with the utopian. Which brings me back to ADVENTURE TIME — a big favorite here at Magically Real.  This cartoon show seems to take a post-apocalyptic space as its base and then craft it into something else: a place where humans are no longer central, but where there seems to be hope, change, and even gratitude.

I’m wondering if at this point, imagining the good, the just, and the happy isn’t the most politically and artistically radical possible statement you can make.
More on these questions if/when I see/read the Hunger Games.  Thoughts, insights, and ideas from you are very welcome. So please post them.

Thanks for writing.

Regards —

Magically Real HQ

Thanks to Lillian, Mandy, and Mureall for getting me thinking about these ideas.

26 thoughts on “Got dystopia? The history of our hunger for the nightmare society

  1. Stephanie, you should teach a course on this. From a historical standpoint, I’d say the modern idea of the dystopia was introduced by, and roughly parallels modern industrial society. They seemed to have grown in similar directions, envisioning a world that is increasingly automated and, therefore, less accommodating of human needs for friendship and quietude. In the case of art, the message was cautionary, that we might still change our direction if we realized where we were going. The difference, I see, now that we have crossed from an industrial society into a digital (and frighteningly commercial) one, is that the dystopian future is no longer coming, but that it is here. Films and books on the subject seem to comment on who we are, rather than who we might become.

    1. Joe– that’s a great insight. Yes, i think dystopia is ultimately a secular concept and pertains to the onset and growth of industrialization, colonialism, imperialsim, and dare I say it — captitalism. I’m interested, personally, in who is writing the stuff for “kids”, since this kind of literature was until recently very much the purvue of adults. What does it mean that adults are writing these stories for “young people”, and is it progressive, regressive, neither or just exploitative? Or all of these things? And, if as you are suggesting, the dystopian has become a figuratively bankrupt (haha) way to represent social ills in narrative art, then what do we, as artists do now?

      Alot to think about, and yup, I’d love to do a course on this, but only if you’ll sit in and maybe team-teach it with me! (-:

      1. Who’s writing this for kids? Well, in this case, Suzanne Collins earned her chops as a children’s tv writer, which explains a lot of this series’ cultural grounding.

      2. Thanks Grier! I knew you’d know. It makes sense — given the reality tv angle — that Collins would be a tv expert. What do you make of the dystopian rush in YA? Is this a reaction against the Free to be You and Be 70’s , or a reaction against Nancy Drew, Judy Blume or what? I also wonder how much input young adults actually have into what gets written for them. None? Alot? Has the internet changed the nature and quality of that input? so many questions!

      3. Stephanie, I think it’s a reaction to reality. Forget everything you know about being a teen. The world has shifted on its axis in the last decade (post 911).

      4. Interesting. There are alot of questions I would love to ask you and the cya folks about this, but will save those for another post. I wonder though, if, as I said in an earlier reponse, dystopian fiction has become emptied of its political/moral ability to shock readers/viewers, then what does the YA writer do when s/he wants to effect progressive change, support teens who are persons of color, queer, trans, differently abled and/or poor? Is the bottom line “well, at least the kids are reading?” Maybe it is.

      5. In answer to your last question, all I have to say is don’t judge YA based on Hunger Games or any other dystopian novel. I’m not sure anyone’s necessarily trying to effect change; at least, not like you might find in some realistic fiction. Speaking of which, there’s lots of very good realistic fiction being written (and sold), too. Dystopian is just one slice. Paranormal Teen is another slice (with its own section at B&N). But it’s not the whole of it.

      6. Great. Thanks. The other point is that HUNGER GAMES seems to be appealing very much to 20-something women — yet another demongraphic — which takes us out of the YA world altogether. Interesting how paranormal is yet another response to the 09/11 “crisis”. Perhaps you will blog about that sometime? Thanks again for posting!

      7. that’s “demographic,” although “demongraphic” has a certain charm. (-:

        On Tuesday, February 28, 2012, Stephanie Barb Hammer wrote:

        > Great. Thanks. The other point is that HUNGER GAMES seems to be > appealing very much to 20-something women — yet another demongraphic — > which takes us out of the YA world altogether. Interesting how paranormal > is yet another response to the 09/11 “crisis”. Perhaps you will blog about > that sometime? Thanks again for posting! > > On Tuesday, February 28, 2012, comment-reply@wordpress.comwrote: > >> >> New comment on your post “Got dystopia? The history of our hunger for >> the nightmare society” >> Author : Grier Jewell (IP: , >> E-mail : >> URL : >> Whois : >

  2. I read Hunger Games when it first came out and thought it wasn’t so much futuristic as an amped up present day (so I agree with Joe on that). The readers of this and other books in this genre don’t know utopia. They only know a world of extremes (war, politics, economics) that’s reflected in bizarre reality shows (fear factor, for example, and the Jersey Shore…or worse, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills where there was a real life death that producers milked for ratings). It’s all about how far someone will go to “win” (read: survive). In this sense, stories like Hunger Games might be popular because they offer a way to view and express one’s worst fears about what’s really happening.

    As a side note, I was disappointed with the way it ended (I was expecting a Romeo and Juliet finale, which would have been perfect). I feel cheated when a book is written as a trilogy and not a whole story in and of itself.

  3. Grier — your comments here square with one of the books’ reviewers who commented that high-school IS a dystopia — which I think is very apt, and that the struggle for “beauty” the ascendancy of the “athlete” and the incredible over-scheduling (and surveillance) of the young is part and parcel of the contemporary world. So, perhaps it’s more useful to think about the HG novels as connected to horror. Horror works to express our worst fears (think HOSTEL, think HALLOWEEN) where the protagonist is progressively terrorized and barely (and often ONLY the protagonist) survives. The genre isn’t generally concerned with making the world a better place (although there are exceptions). I think of this, because a very meek, quiet female student in my enormous class admitted to being a HUGE horror fan. She watches them all — loves them — perhaps because they are comforting somehow. So there’s something perhaps for young women in just thinking, to quote Courtney Love “I will live through this.”

    Side-bar: my native informant Lillian Behrendt was disappointed in the ending of the series also. it sounded terrible — like an enormous cop-out.

    1. It’s one of the few books out there with a really strong female character, which is nice to see. The adults, of course, are either powerless and ineffectual or power hungry oppressors, which seems to be an accurate portrayal if you’re looking at adulthood from the perspective of teens.

      (I love hearing that confirmation from your informant.)

  4. Great conversations going on here. In regards to Dystopia, YA and ‘books for children’ I think there’s two factors to consider. I believe the YA category was a more recent invention, so that skews our opinion on “suitable topics for kids”, maybe if Fahrenheit 451 was written when the YA tag was around it would be considered a YA book? Who knows. The other factor is the fact that our media is more intense then it used to be, which is what you were talking about with the Hunger Games. It still boggles my mind that there is a version of Law and Order on television, with multiple seasons, that focuses only on rape and sexual violence. Does it bring awareness or just desensitize us? It’s easy to see that our society is completely dismissive to violence and sexual abuse, among other issues of humanity and compassion.

    As for the hunger games, I was hooked. I guess reading about someone’s fight against hopelessness takes me away from my own feelings of hopelessness (especially with our government) The character’s fight is not an easy one, and I don’t think the reader ever feels truly satisfied, which I liked. I don’t think books for kids should always be easy, or resolve themselves completely. But I’m also a proponent of letting kids read at whatever level they want to.

    I’m not excited about seeing the movie. My main issue is the casting, I feel like they fell short on casting POC, an issue I’m pretty passionate about. Here is a link to an article on Racebending, which talks specifically about the casting of Katniss Too often people of color get pushed out of roles and I just don’t think I can stand it anymore. I would like to see this movie but this issue just makes me too depressed.

    1. Thanks Molly. These are important points: the historicity of the YA rubric, the problems of adapting books into films without falling into racial stereeotyping aka erasing people of color, and the fact that women really need and value female heroes they can believe and that give them hope. Katniss may be for you what Sarah Connor was for me. Every time I see that sequence of her fighting her way out of he mental hospital in T2, I feel as though something very deep has been expressed.

      Thanks again!

      1. I’m a student in an MFA program and am currently taking a YA Directed Reading class where all the books are dsytopic, rape, murder, infidelity, drugs, teen sex, and many more of our favorites. I think having those books is fine, but who is writing the Horatio Alger books for our teens. I realize that Gary Paulsen is doing some of that, but why are we not “learning” about those kinds of books, in addition to learning about all the dystopic issues.

        I’ve read the Hunger games and was disappointed with its ending as well as with the trilogy ending. Too many things were left hanging, and all the energy the author created was vented off with almost throwaway results. I’d like to write great fiction for kids that give them hope and ideas and pathways to a positive future. Where do I go to ramp up on those things?

      2. Clark — thank you so much for this post. I wonder about this issue as well. I remember reading _Lord of the Flies_ when I was 13 and just loving it, but I also read goofy romances and very uplifting sorts of books. There was one book in particular that I revisited from time to time about a boy and a girl who were plane crash survivors in the alps, and who developped this completely pastoral life, and who were — of course — rescued. I would read that book when I couldn’t sleep and/or had nightmares. I wonder where THOSE books are.

        I also wonder — as I posted elsewhere — about the “triggering” effect of this material on PTSD folks and others. But I don’t know, as I’m not preteen or teen. Perhaps the “voicing” of these events is crucial, as Mollybot posted already about the HUNGER GAMES; they made the very good argument that the enunciation of this despair about society the government really mattered to them.

        These issues raise particular concerns for us as writers, don’t they? Thanks again for commenting!

  5. In a writing program it makes sense to me that both branches of this dystopian/utopian fork could be followed. I would think that most of the skills would be similar, but perhaps not all. Force students to write about happy times, as well as about the antagonists and failures and near-death experiences of the hero’s journey. We need a healthy, diverse diet for our writer’s growth as we need the four food groups (one of course being chocolate) for our physical growth and maintenance.

    1. Really interesting observation, Clark, that gets us writers in the conversation into craft issues.

      I think many writers are “trained’ to see story as conflict-driven and we are taught to press on for all the things that can go “wrong” in a story’s event-horizon which often amounts to an seemingly unending set of catastrophes and conflicts and “stakes” continually ramping up till the big *explosion*. It’s no coincidence that the author of HUNGER GAMES has substantial background in television writing; tv plots certainly operate in that manner. GAME OF THRONES’ author is also a tv person, and I think that kind of writing often stresses the ramp-up and the “Oh my GOD, what’s going to happen next- can it get worse? can it? YES it CAN” over the “has everything been resolved in a satisfying way” concerns.

      But your suggestion — that we all make ourselves ramp down or ramp differently and actually TRY to write a “happy” story, is very intriguing to me. I think we should all try!

      The other question is of course, “happy” for whom, satisfying for whom? Reading around online, I can see that there are readers who feel passionately about HUNGER GAMES — who feel it “gave” them something. Writing this post, and looking at (and feeling scared by) the trailer for the HG movies has made me realize that, fortunately or unfortunately, my own tolerance for very dark stories is lessening. Studies have shown that past traumas surface with a vengeance as we age; there’s been interesting work on Holocaust survivors in this arena. So, we maturer people may, unfortunately, not be able to “take it” — the way that young people can. Whether it’s “good” for readers or not is another matter.

      Still the fact that we are all arguing and discussing about the HG books makes me think that they are a positive force in that they are making us think and communicate with each other. (-:

  6. I wonder if once in a while we might ask, with due diligence, creativity and a little luck, what else could go right? I’m a believer, at some level, that there is an intelligent universe out there that hears us, and feels us looking for something, asking for something. How often for me, and perhaps for you, has that long sought for thing, idea, contact, just suddenly been there. Perhaps we haven’t seen it because we haven’t “really” opened our eyes, or we needed to do some preliminary work so we “could” see it, or a person just came into our life, saw what we needed and handed it to us. That sounds a little Twilight Zone, but it happens.

    This is getting a little away from writing craft, but if we looked for the uplifting story line, and learned how to see it, believed in it, “build it and they will come” approach. Rather than think, “what else could go wrong” and put that into the story arc, I think asking what else could go right, might feed us, too. We have so much tragedy in our world, I, for one, would like to see some “happily ever after”, not gushy or silly or unbelievable, stories. There are those feel good stories out there, like “A Dogs Year,” for instance, with Jeff Bridges. There are struggles, but everybody sort of wins. I’ll get off this kick, but I’d like at least a little attention paid in my training to writing the non-violent story. No, not like Pleasantville. Sorry to clog your blog. 🙂

  7. your comments about utopian views being perhaps more artistically interesting than their opposite reminds me of a comment of David Foster Wallace. He was talking about the new rebels of fiction being earnest and positive instead of ironic and snarky. that said, it is hard to dramatize happiness. apart from everything else mentioned above, dystopian fiction sells because we love to read about other people’s misery, which is pretty miserable if you ask me.

    thanks for the thoughts.


  8. Yes, I read that DFW comment too. (I think it was in a New Yorker article, or maybe NY Review of Books.) If I recall correctly, he was disenchanted with the negativity of much fiction and saw a move towards more constructive writing.

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