Dystopia literally means “bad place” in Greek and is often situated in the context of a totalitarian future where the government has successfully utilized messaging and surveillance to control its citizens. Even more often, these places are in a post-apocalyptic future in the United States or London after a nuclear war or climate catastrophe (or both).
If you love this kind of setting I’ve gathered together some of the most common traits that seem to persist in the literature of the dystopia.
You know the genre I’m talking about: it’s the one packed with characters you wish were real (as long as they were on your side), with love triangles that tear your heart in half, and twisty-turny plots that would keep even the most genetically enhanced super-brain guessing until the final pages.
I’ve assembled the most comprehensive list of why we all keep reading young adult dystopian novels backed completely by my own opinion and absolutely no science!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that if there is a book of dystopian fiction open then upon some page there is also a love triangle.
Love seems to be the ultimate form of rebellion in many of these oppressive dystopias, whether its found in the Hunger Games, Divergent, or Delirium.
Just think about it.
Love is a loss of something very important:
Love is a loss of control.
And what do dystopias most often desire?
To control everything.
Especially the decision of who you fall in love with.
So its fun to watch these characters rebel (more on that later).
But there is a far more simpler and entertaining reason why love triangles make dystopian fiction so great:
A scintillating love triangle between your favorite female protagonist, her “safe and sensible choice,” and very often the novel’s more edgy character creates a landscape of inner-turmoil within the main protagonist that is as gripping as the exterior one.
Post-apocalyptic landscapes full of charred city ruins, scarcity, and oppression, not mossy banks and sunlight.
You would have to be delirious to think your love with anyone would have a chance in a place like this or that since you are fighting for survival, you would even have time to bother with something like love.
So it’s like watching the impossible happen—which is beautiful.
I think we as readers also become engrossed in these love triangles because it’s often not only simple humans (if there is such a thing, I’ve never met one) falling in love, but clones (Never Let Me Go), cyborgs (hello, Cinder), genetically engineered super robot things (Partials), and wild things that live beyond the city’s borders (as in the case of Under the Never Sky).
Kick-ass Female Protagonists
What’s the one reason you read dystopian books?
I know what it is for me:
Kick-ass female protagonists.
Sure they have questions and anxieties buried deep down inside, but that just makes it all the more satisfying when they are able to shoot a peacekeeper in the face with a burning arrow.
As a male reader who is new to dystopian fiction, it’s extremely refreshing not to be reading about The Chosen One who is usually a male on a farm and either finds a lightsaber or pulls a sword from a stone and slays a dark lord.
Charming and Sinister Dystopian Rulers
The villains in dystopian books are usually exceptionally cunning, manipulative, and will go to great lengths in order to ensure all the sheep remain placated.
In short, we love to hate them. (Personally I just love them.)
Both President Snow from the Hunger Games and Jeanine from Divergent fall into this category, but just as often the authors are content to supply us only with a faceless government which usually goes by something like “The Society.”
Do you know what goes perfectly with either a faceless ruling government or a ruthless Machiavellian villain?
An Unquestioning Citizenry
Every day in dystopian books there are citizens who are getting hoodwinked, brainwashed, or undergoing some other form of mass manipulation.
It can be done subtly and cleverly like through the mass media (or blatantly in the case of President Snow), or even through something like a serum, hat-tip to Jeanine for what she did to the Dauntless in Divergent.
Also sometimes they are just stupid!
And that makes us readers feel smart by comparison…
But should we feel so smug?
What if we are the unquestioning citizenry in our own lives?
We all know we are being watched and monitored.
But very few of us have a problem with it…
…because we are not doing anything wrong.
Should we be doing something wrong?
Speaking of doing wrong…
What’s better than reading about dystopian cities that oppress their citizens?
Reading about young heroines rebelling against them.
Whether it’s discovering District 13, the Patriots, the Voice, or the factionless, these outside groups are one of the key reasons why we all love to indulge in the dystopian genre.
In a sense, if you read this kind of fiction, you are already committing an act of rebellion and cavorting with the revolutionaries.
May the odds be ever in your favor.
The Deep Dark Secret
Almost all dystopian books have a deep dark secret.
And that secret is: what happened to the rest of the world?
These books weave a mystery into their already exciting plots.
We try to guess what really happened based upon the limited information and it keeps us flipping eagerly through each page, seeing if we can figure it out before the characters in the book.
Dystopias don’t like it when you ask questions or when you try to think for yourself.
They would much rather you just went along with the information they provide you.
As the characters get closer and closer to confronting the “facts” surrounding what happened to the world, the novel gets more and more exciting.
Because eventually it’s secret reveal time.
And that means:
We get to see how the world really “ended.”
And learning about the end of all things is just as exciting as learning about how people continue on in a post-apocalyptic world.
Dystopian Books Burn a Candle in the Darkness
Dystopian novels don’t pretend that everything is going to be alright.
But they also don’t tell us that all hope is lost.
By now, you know how the Hunger Games ended:
It was as much of a question as it was a conclusion.
Dystopian books encourage us to find our own answers and leave us with the very real possibility that we will be just as malicious and error-prone as the Dystopia we usurped.
The light could just as much be blown out as it could light the rest of the world.
We live in a world where we are technically more connected than ever before, but we are also more disconnected and alienated than ever before.
There’s a chance you are reading this on your phone.
Look up for a second.
See how many people are looking down into their phones? #Dystopian
But we can connect through some of the oldest technology in the world: books!
When we enter a dystopian ya novel we begin to learn about a character who is sharing her inner world exclusively with us.
These books are almost all written as first person narratives, where powerful and emotional confessions and stories can be communicated between the character and the reader.
We learn who these characters are and experience passions and anxieties that we are also going through, have gone through, and will go through again in our own human drama.
But dystopian fiction creates a feeling of intimacy in other way:
Dystopian literature is packed with small groups of teenagers who must band together to fight against seemingly insuperable forces.
Often the only thing that holds them together through a journey like this is their friendship—which will be strained and tested on almost every page.
Many of them will break and fail, just like our own partnerships. #Dystopian #YA
Betrayals You Just Didn’t Think Were Possible
There are always dastardly conspiracies afoot involving secret faction alliances, the military and the government doing dishonest military and government things, the creation of experimental societies
Just as there are plenty of twists and turns throughout dystopian books, there are just as many betrayals.
You know who does this the best?
Seriously the betrayals and back and forth throughout Legend, Prodigy, and Champion will keep you up way too late and you will probably miss work or class the next day (which is a good thing because then you can read more).
The Fans of Dystopian
These people make sharing the reading experience absolutely phenomenal.
For example, @dystopianYA tweets hilarious parodies of an upcoming novel she is writing.
It’s time to rise up against the government and be a revolutionary. Good thing I’m white, or I’d be a thug.
— Dystopian YA Novel (@DystopianYA) April 28, 2015
And readers are always sharing their opinions in reviews, on blogs, and reddit threads.
We are like our own factionless District 13!
They Reveal Our Post-Apocalyptic Future
We are told that with enough hard work and determination, everything will be alright.
We are told that if we are honest and “do the right thing,” our benevolence will be rewarded in kind.
Our high school teachers tell us this.
Our Senate tells us this.
Our President tells us this.
Even our professors tell us this!
But when we look at the world right now, that seems to be a complete farce.
Because it is.
Dystopian fiction acknowledge this lie that our trusted elders tell us over and over again.
The genre show us what the world might look like as it’s falling apart or after it has fallen to shambles.
I love the dark grey tapestry that these books weave for the background to their stories.
Here are just a few bleak possible post-apocalytpic futures we have imagined for ourselves:
- Ruined cities juxtaposed with limited access to advanced technology.
- Hierarchies based upon class, place of birth, or genetic abilities.
- Rewards based upon lies, treachery, selfishness, and murder—not honesty, industriousness, and benevolence.
Dystopian books don’t hide the lies. They confront them. And that is what makes them effing awesome.
Nitimur in Vetitum
You are probably wondering what this phrase means.
It’s an ancient, hallowed phrase written by a Roman poet.
It was lost for a while, until a radical philosopher found it one day.
It means: we strive for the forbidden.
What does that have to do with dystopian books?
Well, everything really.
If dystopian fiction encourages us to do one thing and one thing only, it’s explore the forbidden.
In these works, the protagonists have to become brave enough to find the outlaws living beyond the safety of the city.
This is often seen as a last resort.
But eventually the characters are forced to leave their comfort zones and we as readers are as well.
They literally push the boundaries.
They make us imagine things we might not really want think about.
They make us explore our feelings about things we might not be sure of.
For example, would you really feel comfortable “falling in love” with a robot?
It’s something that could actually happen within the next 50 years.
It’s a message to us as readers: don’t accept limits.
Dystopian give us the courage to ask:
Who sets the limits? What lies beyond them?
Explore what everyone tells you is impossible.
You might just find yourself with the people you really should be creating relationships with.
The Test or The Selection or the Choosing Ceremony
You’ve got to fit in somewhere right?
Dystopian works are all about proving how none of us fit into neatly prescribed categories.
Why Do You Love Dystopian Books So Much?
What are some things you love about the Dystopia?