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 🙂