Dystopian Fiction And Creativity – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d talk about dystopian fiction today. This is mostly because, at the time of writing, I’m reading Alice Hoffman’s 2000 novel “The River King” (SPOILERS ahoy!). The interesting thing about this novel is that, whilst it probably isn’t technically a dystopian novel, the first third or so of it certainly takes a lot of influence from the genre.

The novel revolves around a private boarding school in Massachussetts and, from the very first page, you’ll get the sense that this isn’t going to be a typical “literary” novel or a novel aimed at teenagers. To show you what I mean, here’s the opening sentence: ‘The Haddan School was built in 1858 on the sloping banks of the Haddan river, a muddy and precarious location that had proven disastrous from the start.

The length and formal language of this sentence hints that the story is aimed at a more mature readership (despite the YA-style subject matter), the references to the 19th century hint at a grim history and the final few words give an ominous hint about the rest of the novel. In just a couple of lines, the story has already caught you off-guard and created a slightly unsettling and suspenseful atmosphere.

Not only that, the novel focuses very heavily on both teachers and pupils who don’t “fit in”. Initially, the absolutely luxurious writing and poetic descriptions counterpoint all of this with a “larger than life” sense of wonder – not to mention that the main characters also initially seem like intriguingly quirky misfits too. And then things get dystopian. A mixture of violent bullying, creepy secret societies, harsh hierarchies, animal cruelty, uncaring authority, creepy characters and grimly tragic pasts all lead up to a shocking death scene.

It may not be set in a telescreen-filled and/or soma-addled future world or anything like that, but this part of the novel feels a lot like dystopian fiction. And it is a lot more dramatic and unsettling than “traditional” dystopian fiction for the simple reason that it actually does something creative with the genre. In other words, the dystopia doesn’t look like a dystopia. After all, the novel is set in a fascinating and beautifully-described small American town – the sort of place that would look absolutely wonderful in a landscape painting.

This part of the novel is dystopian in a very subjective sense of the word. In other words, it relies on perspective and characters to create a claustrophobic sense of being somewhere absolutely nightmarish. As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the third-person narration in the first third of the novel focuses on teachers and pupils who don’t “fit in”. And, if you were someone who wasn’t “popular” when you were at school, you can probably see how this evokes a familiar sense of dystopian dread that is considerably more chilling than any grim imagined futures that Orwell, Huxley, Atwood etc… could conjure up.

The main point that I’m trying to make here is that dystopian fiction often “works” best when it does something creative with the genre.

For example, although an intriguing premise can be something that makes a dystopian story interesting (eg: “A cautionary tale set in a nightmarish world where social media use is #compulsory!”) it also means that the reader knows what to expect. The dystopia won’t unsettle them as much for the simple reason that they know they’re reading a dystopian novel before they even look at the first chapter. On the other hand, stories that don’t look like dystopian novels at first glance can be considerably more chilling and unsettling for the simple reason that the reader is caught by surprise.

Not only does this technique make the reader feel like they’ve suddenly been dropped into somewhere nightmarish but, when handled well, it can also be used to show how dystopias can come into being. It can provide a potent warning to the audience in a way that might not work as well if the story is clearly dystopian from the very first sentence.

In addition to this, don’t be afraid to use characters and characterisation to make your dystopian story feel a bit more “realistic”. After all, dystopian fiction is all about perspective. Would Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” be as chilling if it had focused on one of the powerful leaders of the novel’s totalitarian regime rather than an ordinary person, Winston Smith, who gets crushed by it?

The thing to remember about fictional dystopias, if you want to make them feel at least vaguely realistic, is that they aren’t a dystopia for everyone. If a dystopia has been created, then someone is probably benefiting from it or really enjoying it. So, if you want to make your readers feel unsettled, choose your characters carefully. Whether a story is a “feel good” utopian story or a grim, chilling dystopian story is all a matter of perspective.

And, like in the Alice Hoffman novel I mentioned earlier, you can use this to add some real creativity to the genre. By focusing as much or more on perspective than on the concept behind your story, you can add some dystopian grimness to even the happiest or most idyllic of settings.

Finally, don’t be afraid to use narration and style in creative ways too. Dystopian fiction is often written in a very “matter of fact” way to add grim realism to the story, and this can work. If you want to create the impression of a bleak, nightmarish future, then using a rather stark, formal and/or functional writing style can be a great way to do this. But, if you really want to mess with your readers, then don’t be afraid to make your narration poetic, beautiful or luxurious.

In addition to Hoffman’s novel, another great place where you can see this technique at work is in the horror genre. More specifically, British splatterpunk horror novels from the 1970s-90s by authors like James Herbert, Shaun Hutson and Clive Barker. These novels will sometimes use a more poetic, beautiful, formal and/or descriptive writing style whenever anything especially horrific or gross happens. The contrast between the “beautiful” writing and the “ugly” subject matter really helps to emphasise these horrific moments in a uniquely dramatic way. It catches the reader off-guard and makes them feel both curious and repulsed at the same time. Needless to say, this technique can also be used to great effect in dystopian fiction – albeit in a more general way.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Using Banality In Dystopian Fiction

Well, I thought that I’d talk about dystopian fiction today. This is mostly because the dystopian alternate history novel that I’m reading at the moment (a novel from 2012 called “Dominion” by C. J. Sansom. Mild SPOILERS ahead) contains some absolutely perfect examples of one of the most essential (but easily missed) techniques for writing good dystopian fiction.

Although “Dominion” fits into the classic “What if Britain lost WW2?” genre of alternate history fiction, it is even more chilling than other things I’ve seen in the genre for the simple reason that – for some parts of the story – the dystopian elements are kept in the background. In some parts, the story almost just reads like an “ordinary” historical novel set in 1950s Britain.

Even though these “everyday life” elements of the story can slow the first half of story down quite significantly, they are there for a very good reason. By occasionally focusing on the banal, ordinary side of life – Sansom not only makes the story’s more obviously dystopian moments stand out more by contrast, but he also adds a significant amount of chilling realism to the story too.

After all, everyday life is usually ordinary, mundane and banal. And, by showing the characters having to deal with all of this boring everyday stuff (or even seeking refuge in it), the dystopian world of Sansom’s novel seems considerably more chilling.

Not only is this because it makes it easier to relate to the characters, but it’s also because it allows for all kinds of clever (and disturbing) social and political satire too.

For example, there’s one scene in “Dominion” where three of the characters stop off at a pub during a car journey. In the pub, they briefly overhear a few grumpy old men moaning about how the government (which, in the novel, is run by literal fascists) isn’t treating unemployed people harshly enough.

This disturbing dialogue segment could, almost word for word, probably be heard in some actual pubs during the early-mid 2010s (eg: during Iain Duncan Smith’s tenure as Work and Pensions secretary, when he tried to introduce an unlawful “work programme” ). This scene is an utterly brilliant, but very disturbing, piece of social and political satire. And it works because of how ordinary, mundane and everyday it is.

Likewise, the way that some of the many horrors in the story are sometimes pushed into the background also mirrors how people cope with the idea of bad things happening in the world.

In other words, showing the characters in a dystopian story sometimes focusing more on mundane everyday life (instead of thinking about all of the horrors that are happening out of sight) lends the story a chilling level of timeless realism. Especially in an age where, thanks to modern news media, we hear about all of the horrors of the world on a very regular basis.

In addition to this, a more obvious focus on the ordinary and everyday also helps to add a chilling sense of powerlessness to a dystopian story. For example, many of the more famous classic works of dystopian fiction deliberately avoid focusing on obviously “heroic”, powerful or influential characters.

For example, the protagonist of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a low-level bureaucrat, the protagonist of Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is literally a prisoner and the protagonist of Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451” is a low-ranking government henchman.

By focusing on characters who lead miserable “ordinary” lives in the dystopian worlds of these stories, the writers are able to create a chilling sense of powerlessness that you probably wouldn’t get with a more obviously heroic Katniss Everdeen -like main character.

Yes, your dystopian story obviously has to have moments of suspense, drama etc.. too. But don’t overlook the banal, the mundane and the ordinary too. It is these things that can really bring a horrifying fictional dystopia to life!


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

“VR” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

Trey was running through a valley of neon. Behind him, crackling radio voices barked HALT CITIZEN. He heard himself laugh. He wasn’t a citizen. The data raid on the Blue-Corp processing facility had seen to that.

Even with the best soft-masks that credits could buy, Blue’s tracer routines had still latched onto Trey’s neuro-ID. They’d crunched his brainprint in a quantum server farm over in Manila and sent the data to a dark site in Stockholm for enhancement and confirmation. From there, it had been a matter of running a simple usage trace on the open net. A level three hoover-bot set to look for macro-patterns in all of the corporation’s cookie records. Given that they owned 30% of the net, statistics were in their favour.

Trey kept running, hearing the footsteps getting louder and louder. He didn’t feel tired. The black-market nanotech coursing through his veins saw to that. Just as well I bought that upgrade he thought as he spotted the mouth of a metal-panelled alleyway. The HUD implanted in his retinas flashed up a large green arrow. It almost blended in with the rainbow reflections of the street’s many glowing signs.

Behind him, the bulls kept up the pace. With their dark helmets and shiny armour, Trey didn’t know if they were human or android. He didn’t care. As he got closer to the alley, a random pedestrian staggered out in front of him. A synth-head, so loaded with illicit pharma that spatial awareness was little more than an abstract concept. A bright red prompt flashed up in Trey’s HUD telling him to do something. He did. Another prompt flashed. He followed it perfectly.

Almost as if watching holo footage of himself, Trey grabbed the synth-head and hurled him backwards into the bulls – using the momentum to boost himself forwards. It took exactly 2.3 seconds. Just like the last time. He didn’t look back. He didn’t listen to the clattering and shouting behind him. He kept running.

By now, he was in the alley. Raven cameras whirred above. He picked up the pace, barely leaping out of the other side before the bulls activated the clearance system. The alleyway became a glowing caterpillar of flame. His HUD pointed to a shadowy alcove beside a shuttered shop. He ducked into it and waited. It would take two minutes for the clearance system to go through a full burn cycle.

On the other side, the bulls would be running range algorithms and probability trees. In eighty percent of pursuits, the perp took full advantage of the headstart. Typically running 300-400 metres. Tests showed that they stuck to brightly-lit areas, too panicked to chance stumbling in the dark. Data showed 75% of them turned right. As the flames died down, the bulls followed the most logical course. Trey watched them thunder past him, still barking standard warnings.

Green text floated in front of his eyes. CONGRATULATIONS. But, before he could work out what to spend his newly-acquired credits on, a voice from outside the world said: ‘Come on, mate. I need to use the telly.’

Sighing, Trey said: ‘Pause. Save. Quit.’ The world went black.

In the living room, Trey lifted the bulky VR headset off of his face and reached for the game console sitting beneath the flat-screen. Beside it, Joe grinned: ‘You were playing for five hours, mate. Good game?’

Trey laughed: ‘Yeah, it’s set in a dystopian parallel universe. Kind of like an indie version of Deus Ex, with a hint of Judge Dredd and Blade Runner. Oh my god, did you know that..’

Joe rolled his eyes: ‘…Blade Runner is set in the distant future of next November. You’ve told me already. Seriously though, I don’t see the point of all this dystopian stuff. I mean, the world is crap enough as it is.’

‘Yeah, but it’s a cooler type of crap. Plus, it’s nice to think that all of the scary stuff goes away when you turn the console off. That things could have turned out ten times worse than they did. Anyway, why did you want the telly?’

‘The footy’s on in five minutes. Light entertainment from this universe.’ Joe reached for the remote. The tail end of the news appeared: ‘…In the face of outspoken opposition from her opponents in congress, the US president signed the net neutrality bill into law. Now for an EU election party political broadcast from…

Joe laughed: ‘Parallel universes? I’m sure all of them are as boring as this one. It’s nonsense anyway. People are smart enough not to let the world turn into a dystopia.’

Trey nodded: ‘Yeah, I guess. Still, it makes for good games and movies though.’

Short Story: “Order” By C. A. Brown

The suit took a sip of coffee from his plastic cup and asked: ‘So, when exactly did you join this.. What did you call it? Society of Occult Hands?

Keeping a perfectly calm exterior, I said: ‘The Order Of The Occult Hand. For someone who sniffs out secret societies, you really haven’t done your research.

The suit was silent. For a second, I thought that I saw a flicker of anger on his face. A flicker of a smile must have crossed mine. Finally, he said: ‘Enlighten me then.

It’s an open society. Perfectly harmless. It all started as a running joke between a few American journalists back in the sixties. That’s the nineteen-sixties, in case your superiors want to know.

Opposite me, the suit took another sip of coffee. It was probably tepid by now. It was probably tepid when he got it. Hot drinks are probably too exciting for people like him. He nodded at me: ‘Go on.

All you need to join is to find some way to hide the phrase “occult hand” in something that you’ve written. Anyone who hears about it usually thinks that it’s a bit of fun and tries it out. It’s more like a meme, a virus-like idea, than an actual secret society. In fact…

I let a smile cross my face. I continued: ‘…You’ll have probably have to join it yourself when you submit your report. After all, you can’t very well tell your superiors about this without using the phrase in your report.

His face was blank. If the lighting wasn’t so terrible, I’d have said that his face probably went grey there and then.

Finally, he stuttered: ‘So, I’m going to be inducted? Involuntarily? Into this Order Of The Occult Hand. I’d bet anything that you’ve probably got connections. People in high places. I mean, I won’t really be in any danger… Will I?

Then, and only then, I allowed myself to laugh. This was starting to get fun, but he seemed like the kind of by-the-book robot who would probably insist on conducting a full undercover investigation into nothing. As fun as this would be, he had my name on paper and would probably come screaming back at me with a vengeance a few weeks later.

So, more than a little reluctantly, I said: ‘It’s a dead society. The printout from the old internet that I read said that it was exposed in the early two-thousands, about forty years before your organisation was formed. Apparently, the journalists then chose a different phrase. I don’t know what it is. But, for a while, everyone knew that it was a funny idea to include the phrase “occult hand” in things they wrote and it has spread from there.

A relieved sigh floated across the table. I continued: ‘As I said, it’s a meme. A joke. There’s no secrets involved. No connections. Just people from before all of this nonsense began having a bit of a laugh. In fact, I’m genuinely surprised that you didn’t know this. Surely your organisation’s private vaults probably include copies of...’

With a frown, he said: ‘That will be all. You may leave. Further inquiries will not be necessary.

After I’d been marched out of the pyramid, I hailed a cab. Then I took a bus. When the pyramid was well and truly out of sight, I ducked into a phone box and made a call.

Ten minutes later, I was sitting in the corner of a quiet French cafe with Steve. Picking up the phrasebooks on the table, we ordered. I paid with the few New Francs I had left in my bag.

Once the smiling waiter had shuffled away, I discreetly made the sign of the square hammer with my fingers. Steve made the sign of the granite anvil. We let out a deep sigh.

Finally, Steve whispered: ‘Congratulations. You entered the lion’s den and left in one piece. From what my contacts say, you even managed to rattle Martin Carthy. THE Martin Carthy. Circlemaster Johnson is very pleased.

Keeping my voice low, I asked: ‘Martin Carthy? That was Martin Carthy? I mean, there are no photos of him. But, I thought he’d be more… charismatic. So, I guess that I’ve passed the initiation.

Passed it? You’ve just skipped three levels of the circle. Johnson wants you as his personal assistant.

The Democracy Of The Written Word – A Ramble

One morning last spring, I found myself worrying about international politics and the future. To distract myself, I started imagining somewhat unrealistic and fanciful “alternate history” scenarios about how things could somehow turn out for the better. As I daydreamed, I noticed something interesting – most of my daydreams were more influenced by things like TV shows and computer games than any other type of cultural work.

This then made me think about how cultural influences have changed over the years. Half a century ago or more, a well-written novel by a single author could have a surprising impact on culture and politics. The most recent example of this is probably Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” from 1949, which is still referenced in political discussions. But, there are plenty of other historical examples, such as the “invasion literature” genre that was popular in Britain in the years before World War One.

Yet, I realised, the idea of novels having such an influence on people is very much a thing of the past.

Even during the 1960s and 70s, protest songs probably had more of a cultural impact than opinionated novels did. Although there are probably famous opinionated novels from this time period, they usually tend to get a lot less recognition than musicians do.

In more recent years, if someone wanted to make a political point to everyone, they had to do it through something like a TV show. For example, shows like the various versions of “Star Trek” helped to promote a more utopian vision of the future during the 1960s-1990s. They also probably had some level of influence on our current technology too (eg: tablet computers, automatic doors etc.. were probably at least partially inspired by “Star Trek: The Next Generation”).

Of course, culture changes and the shift from novels to protest songs to TV shows as a way of making a political point is an example of it. I mean, in the near future, computer and video games will probably be the main tool that creative people use to make some kind of political point. They’re becoming more mainstream, indie games are more popular than ever before and games are finally starting to be taken seriously as an artform by mainstream culture (at least when they don’t do stupid, greedy things like including loot boxes etc..). So, they’ll probably be the next evolutionary step of opinionated creative works.

But, with all of this progress, I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something.

Basically, in order to produce a TV show or a computer game, you need a team of people and a budget. Although novels used to require a traditional publisher, all of the actual creativity just involved one author. One person with a typewriter or even just a pen and paper. This lends opinions expressed in fiction a certain individuality which is much harder to achieve when a group of people are involved.

Likewise, there’s something oddly democratic about the idea of one person writing a story that makes some kind of difference. Yes, in practice, the publishing industry was almost certainly fairly narrow-minded during the heyday of the opinionated novel, but the idea that anyone could write a novel that made a point is an interesting one. After all, the materials needed to make it were cheap and easily available, and almost everyone learnt how to read and write at school. So, theoretically at least, anyone could do it.

The same, of course, cannot be said for more complicated things like TV shows and computer games. Yes, you might argue, “people can make Youtube videos” or “there are ‘game maker’ programs out there which don’t require programming“, but they don’t really compare to the large-budget offerings from more well-financed teams of people.

As such, they lack the meritocracy of the written word. Basically, if a story is good then it is good. If it is well-written, then it is well-written. It doesn’t matter who an author is or how wealthy they are – if they write well, they write well. if they don’t, they don’t. There’s no such thing as “large-budget special effects” in a novel – words are words.

However, with a game or a TV show, the quality and appeal of it depends on a whole host of other factors. Money matters more, a larger team of people are required, technology plays a role etc.. in other words, they miss out on the “anyone can, theoretically, do this” element that prose fiction has. And, when it comes to expressing opinions in a creative way, I think that this makes the world a slightly poorer place as a result.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Dystopic Sci-Fi Is A Very Modern Genre – A Ramble

2015 Artwork Dystopic sci fi has to be modern article sketch

A few months ago, I happened to watch a rather chilling Youtube video which pointed out some of the many ways that the programs on your smartphone can track you and spy on you. Although I thankfully don’t own a smartphone, this video made me think of the dystopic sci-fi genre.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to define “dystopic sci-fi” as being any story that presents a dystopian view of the future at the time it was written, regardless of whether it contains any overt sci-fi elements.

Anyway, the dystopic sci-fi genre is one of the most modern genres out there (for reasons I’ll explain later). Arguably, the first popular dystopic sci-fi novel was George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” which, when it was first published in 1949, tapped into widespread fears about totalitarian governments. After all, it was just four years after the end of World War Two and the Soviet Union was also still a major world power at the time.

Although Orwell’s novel still has a lot of resonance today, it is for very different reasons than the ones that existed in 1949. The theme of all-encompassing government surveillance was kind of a large background detail in the original novel but – when someone compares something to Orwell these days, they’re probably going to be talking about surveillance rather than about communism and/or fascism.

Even in Alan Moore’s “V For Vendetta” graphic novel from the 1980s, he intended the omnipresent government surveillance cameras to be just a background symbol that would emphasise that Britain had been taken over by a fascist government. In addition to this, he also points out the obvious fact that dystopic sci-fi is always about the time that it was written too.

Of course, when you read “V For Vendetta” these days, the thing that jumps out at you isn’t Alan Moore’s fears about 1980s politics, but the fact that – like Orwell – the government is spying on everyone. The fact that we essentially all live in one giant panopticon these days.

So, why am I talking about all of this stuff? Am I just being paranoid?

Well, probably. But, the main reason why I’m talking about all of this stuff is to illustrate something about the dystopic sci-fi genre – namely that it only really “works” when it emphasises current fears. In other words, in order to be taken seriously, a dystopic sci-fi story has to have modern relevance. When a dystopic sci-fi story loses it’s modern relevance, then it becomes nothing more than a cross between a joke and a historical curiosity.

A good example of this would be an old American movie from the 1980s called “Red Dawn“. It’s a dystopic alternate future movie about the Soviets invading America and, at the time, it was probably quite chilling.

But, even though I only watched it once on VHS when I was a teenager (in the early 00s), I just kind of saw it as a silly action movie rather than a chilling warning about the future. After all, the film had long lost it’s modern relevance and – well – it had turned into something of a joke.

In 2012, they tried to remake “Red Dawn”, with North Korea taking the place of the Soviets from the original film. Although I haven’t seen the modern remake, I very much doubt that it had the same impact as the original movie did for the simple reason that no-one is worried about North Korea invading America.

Orginally, the filmmakers had apparently wanted to make a film about China invading the US but decided against it for political and financial reasons. Even this arguably more “plausible” dystopic future story is still laughably absurd, given how China and the US both heavily depend on each other economically. The two countries may not be allies, but it’s fairly obvious that they have something of a mutually-beneficial symbiotic relationship with each other that would be ruined if one tried to invade the other.

So, yes, dystopic sci-fi only really works when it is directly relevant to modern fears about the future. This is why background details from dystopic fiction from the 1940s-80s can still be part of our modern culture, but how single-issue dystopic stories often quickly go out of date after a few years.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Why I Love Dystopic Science Fiction.

For my  international readers, "Radio 1" is a mainstream pop music station in the UK.

For my international readers, “Radio 1” is a mainstream pop music station in the UK.

Since I can’t think of any good advice about writing, art or comics at the moment, I thought that I’d take a break and talk about one of my favourite types of science fiction today. If you want advice about actually writing dystopic fiction, then check out this article I wrote last year.

Anyway, one of the things which made me go from being mildly interested in the sci-fi genre to being absolutely fascinated by it back when I was a teenager was probably when I discovered dystopic sci-fi.

In case you’ve never heard of this sub-genre of sci-fi before, “dystopic sci-fi” refers to any story set in a future where the world has really gone to hell in a massive way. Most dystopic sci-fi stories tend to feature totalitarian governments of some kind or another, but they can also take place in post-apocalyptic settings and corporate-controlled worlds.

I don’t know exactly what the first dystopic sci-fi novel I ever read was, but it was probably George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” which I read when I was about thirteen.

I’d seen part of the film adaptation for it in an English lesson at school (since we were studying Orwell’s “Animal Farm” at the time) and there was something about the gloomy, oppressive atmosphere of the film and the mysterious machinations of the totalitarian Ingsoc government that fascinated me enough to want to read more about it.

Not only that, as a nascent splatterpunk fan and aspiring horror writer, I was also morbidly curious about exactly what macabre horrors lay within the dreaded “Room 101” too.

Ok, I was mildly disappointed when I actually read the “Room 101” scene (James Herbert wrote this kind of scene much better about thirty years after Orwell wrote his novel) but there was just something about the novel that really fascinated me.

In many ways, I think that part of the appeal of it was the kind of “there but for the grace of god” feeling that I got when I realised that I lived in a world which was much better than the one in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

Yes, I was thirteen at the time and was too naive to develop a healthy sense of cynicism about politics and the world, but there was something curiously uplifting about reading stories set in worlds much worse than this one.

In addition to this, another reason why dystopic sci-fi fascinated me so much was because the main characters in dystopic sci-fi stories are almost all rebels or dissidents of some kind or another. This, of course, allows you to vicariously experience rebelling against authority when you read one of these novels.

It’s also probably why dystopic sci-fi is both incredibly popular amongst teenagers (eg: things like “The Hunger Games”) and why actual totalitarian governments throughout history almost always ban everything in this genre.

And, on a subconscious and subjective level, as someone who felt a bit like an “outsider” (for various reasons) – dystopic sci-fi was probably one of the few genres that partially mirrored how I saw the world and my place in it.

After all, the protagonists of dystopic sci-fi novels who have to fit into the soul-eroding orthodoxy of a deeply bizarre, but supposedly “ordinary”, world in order to survive.

Dystopic sci-fi is one of the few genres where being strange or different in some way is pretty much mandatory for the main characters. As such, it can never really be a completely “mainstream” genre in the way that, say, detective, romance or thriller fiction might be.

Yes, it might be a popular genre (especially in movies) but it can never really quite be mainstream.

So, yes, this is why I love dystopic sci-fi.


Sorry that this article wasn’t particularly informative, but I hope it was interesting 🙂

Five Tips For Writing Dystopic Fiction

2013 Artwork Dystopic Fiction Sketch

Along with splatterpunk horror fiction, detective fiction and 1950s-1980s science fiction, dystopic fiction was a genre that I absolutely loved when I was a teenager. I still find dystopic fiction pretty interesting, especially when it’s combined with sci-fi (eg: in cyberpunk stories) but I don’t seem to be quite as fascinated by it as I was when I was younger.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with this genre, it basically covers any type of story which is set in a dystopia (the opposite of a utopia/paradise). Whilst some writers use dystopic settings purely as a way to make a story interesting, other writers use them in order to make a political point or to explore current social issues.

This article will mostly focus on political types of dystopic fiction although the points in this article can obviously also be applied to non-political dystopic fiction too. If you live in a country where there is serious political and/or religious censorship of literature, then it goes without saying that you should be extremely careful if you plan to write any dystopic fiction.

Anyway, without any further ado, here are five tips which might help you if you’re planning to write some dystopic fiction:

1) Story first, politics second: Yes, you might want to write a world-shaking dystopic story about what would happen if a particular political ideology is allowed to gain too much influence or if a particular issue isn’t addressed. But, when you’re planning your dystopic story, politics shouldn’t be the first thing that you should be thinking about because, in practical terms, it isn’t the most important part of your story.

This might sound slightly counter-intuitive, but the main reason that people read a story is because they want to be entertained, enthralled and amazed by a good story. If they want to learn about politics, then they’ll probably read non-fiction instead. Stories which are nothing more than thinly-disguised political tracts tend to get very boring very quickly.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t include politics in your dystopic story, but it means that your story should have a compelling and interesting plot in it’s own right. In other words – after you’ve come up with an interesting plot, then you can work out how to add politics to it.

A good way to test this is to think about whether your story would still be readable and interesting if it didn’t contain any politics of any kind. If it’s still interesting without politics, then that means that you can go ahead and add politics to your story.

2) Ubiquity: Like how ‘war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength’ (in George Orwell’s excellent “Nineteen Eighty-Four”), when it comes to dystopic fiction, less is more.

In other words, once you’ve set up the premise of your story, it is usually a lot more effective to show the effects of your dystopic settings in more subtle ways and leave some details to your readers’ imaginations. For example, it can be a lot more dramatic/dystopic/disturbing to show that a friend of the main character has just mysteriously “disappeared” than it could be to actually show him or her being arrested by the regime’s secret police force.

Likewise, signs that your characters are living in a dystopia should be fairly subtle, but fairly ubiquitous (eg: everywhere). This will lend your story a certain level of realism, since dystopic regimes in the real world often try to subliminally reinforce their power over their people by placing subtle signs of their presence pretty much everywhere (eg: propaganda posters & films, political symbols, soldiers & police officers on every street, portraits of political leaders in public places, surveillance cameras everywhere etc…)

Plus, it can be a lot more effective to show the effects of your dystopic setting on a more “ordinary” and “everyday” level than it can be to show them on a larger, political level. For example, showing someone lowering their voice and looking over their shoulder before telling the main character a political joke about a dictator can be a lot more effective and dramatic than showing a speech by the dictator in question.

3) Don’t copy Orwell: Yes, if you are even slightly interested in dystopic fiction, then you should read George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, since it is one of the most well-known and influential works in this genre.

However, you shouldn’t copy it to any significant extent – even if you substitute your own politics for Orwell’s.

This might sound counter-intuitive, since “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is one of the most influential dystopic novels ever written. But, because it is so influential, most of the things in it have turned into cliches. I mean, in the UK, there’s a (fairly crappy) reality TV show called “Big Brother”, there’s a (much better) comedy TV show called “Room 101” and Orwellian metaphors are pretty much par for the course when describing our unusually high number of CCTV cameras and/or anything illiberal which our Government has done.

Yes, it is admirable to be inspired by the influence which Orwell’s novel has had on the world, but you shouldn’t try to acheive the same thing by copying his style/plot/settings. Not only is this somewhat cliched, but it will make your story less relevant too.

Remember, Orwell was writing in the 1940s, when totalitarian communist and fascist regimes were still a major issue and a major threat to Europe and America. These days, although there are still a few communist countries in the world, most of them aren’t totalitarian in the way that the 1940s Soviet Union/Eastern Europe was (and, thankfully, there are no longer any fascist dictatorships in the world either).

As such, whilst “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was extremely relevant to readers in the 1940s-1980s, Orwell’s concerns probably don’t translate as well into the modern world. So, if you’re writing a dystopic story that takes a lot from Orwell’s story, then you’re going to lose some of the dramatic influence which his story once had.

4) Extrapolate from the media: One good source of ideas for dystopic fiction is the media. This, in some cases, is because there’s usually a lot of discussion about controversial subjects and issues which can make good topics for your stories.

Just remember to look through the media thoroughly before choosing a subject to write about because, if an issue is very prominent, then it might have got “old” by the time you have finished your story (or lots of other people might have already written dystopic stories about the same subject). So, it can be a good idea to use your imagination and/or look for smaller or lesser-known stories which have the potential to become major issues in the near future.

For example, if you had written a dystopic story about mass surveillance of the internet two or three years ago, then it would have been deeply shocking to quite a lot of people. However if you started writing one today, then people might not be so affected or shocked by it, given all the stuff in the news over the past couple of months about mass surveillance of the internet by the British and American governments.

But, in other cases, some types of news media can be works of dystopic fiction in their own right and this can be a potent source of inspiration in a slightly different way.

More politicised forms of news media (eg: certain conservative news shows in America and certain right-wing tabloid newspapers in the UK) have a vested interest in presenting the world in a slightly dystopic way in order to influence people politically and/or to attract more customers.

If you’re looking for examples of how to portray “realistic” political propaganda or to show the effects that it has on people, then these politicised newspapers and news shows can be a very good model to base your story on.

5) Base the story on your own fears: This is a really obvious point, but the most effective dystopic stories often emerge from the writer’s own fears and concerns. If you don’t personally care about the issue you’re writing about, then it will probably show in your story and it might put your readers off. But, at the same time, caring deeply about an issue is no excuse for political lectures and/or bad writing in a dystopic story either.

So, although it can still be a good idea to take inspiration from topics in the news, make sure that they are topics which you care deeply about.


Anyway, I hope that this article was doubleplusgood 🙂