HOW versus WHY

Dystopian literature is, technically, a form of science fiction. Since we are dealing with stories based on reality, we have to have a reason WHY the world turned bad--and in order to do that, we have to use science. We can't use magic, we can't cheat our readers and say "just because"--we have to ground our works in reality so that the readers can reasonably say, "Hey, yeah...that COULD happen..."

But how much science do you need? In today's dystopian literature, I think it's easy to put the HOW of the science on the backburner and focus instead on the WHY. In Mary Pearson's THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX (slight spoilers ahead), we're told that the main character's medical problems are solved with a mysterious genetic substance--something we clearly don't have currently, but is something we are able to suspend our disbelief in and accept. A fan of hard science fiction would probably argue with this presentation--hard sci fi readers want to know HOW the science works. But teens and readers of teen lit tend to care much more about the WHY. It's enough for us that her parents use the mysterious substance and that the substance isn't so outrageously beyond our scope of knowledge that we question it. What's much more important is WHY her parents are willing to use the substance. That's the meat of Pearson's story.





On a similar level, you can see this in the character development in Joss Whedon's FIREFLY and SERENITY.* There's all sorts of technology out of our reach on this world--paper that's an electronic screen, space crafts that travels faster than the speed of light, hover vehicles, goo that seals wounds, etc., etc. But all these modern marvels are relegated to background and props because what we really care about is Captain Mal's ethical dilemmas, River Song's mental illness, Wash and Zoe's marital problems, and whether Shephard Book's story will ever fully be told (yes--in graphic novel form), whether Kayleigh and Simon will hook up (yes--and how creepy is it that River watches?!), and whether or not Jayne is actually a big damn hero (duh, obviously so!).

Is characterization over science a key difference between dystopia and science fiction? Or is it a matter of age--most dystopian works are, after all, geared toward teens rather than adults. Consider, for example, Susan Beth Pfeffer's LIFE AS WE KNEW IT. We, the reader, know that the moon is knocked closer to Earth and that the weather reacts in a life-threatening way...but we don't really know all the ins and outs of it. How big was the asteroid that hit the moon? What precautions or reactions is the scientific community making to counteract the situation? What are the long term effects of the shift in gravitational pull? The narrator of the novel, Miranda, is an average teen and doesn't know--or often think about--these questions. And so what? We, the reader, don't need to know either--we are listening to Miranda's story, the story of a teen girl in an extreme situation.

Characterization over science isn't limited to teen literature, though--just as dystopian literature isn't limited to teens. Think about Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD. This is definitely an adult dystopian...but it, too, focuses primarily on characters over science. We don't really know exactly why and how the world ended up so bleak and terrible--all we really know is that it IS bleak and terrible, and a father and son must find a way to live--or not--in such a world.


In the end, I think this leads to one of the key differences between science fiction and dystopian literature. Both deal with a different world from the one we have now, and both explain the world's differences through science. But science fiction tends to focus on the how--the science of the situation--while dystopian tends to focus more on the why--the characters in the situation.



*One could argue whether SERENITY and FIREFLY are more accurately labeled sci fi or dystopian...but I posit it's a far-future dystopian. Take away the space ship, and you've got all the classic tropes of dystopian--cruel government, gang of rebels fighting the government, a world that's lost a lot of it's former hope and innocence.

9 comments:

Marcia said...

Wow, great post, Beth! I was talking about exactly these things with a crit partner the other day. We concluded that in a dystopian, the science is more in the background and its main quality needs to be plausibility. Readers need to be able to say "Yes, I can picture people in the future having that." The other important element, I think, is POV, as you mentioned with Miranda in Pfeffer's book. Do we have to know all the science, or how it works? No, not if that's not part of the MC's POV. A lot of the science of the MC's day she will take for granted, like we do flipping on a light switch. To overexplain would pull readers out of the story b/c it's an info dump instead of the MC's POV. Your post helps me feel like I'm on the right track. :)

Rebecca said...

I would argue that a dystopian novel doesn't HAVE TO have science fiction elements. One could write a dystopian novel based on politics and government rather than sci-fi. A dystopian novel could take place in an alternate "now" rather than in the distant future. Or, as in The Windsinger by William Nicholson, it could be a fantasy world.

Annette Lyon said...

Fantastic way of looking at it. I know a lot of people who get confused at what makes a dystopian story and assume it's anything unpleasant. Sci Fi but with the science totally secondary--that's excellent.

Amanda J. said...

That's a nice way to break it down; obviously there are always going to be arguments over what goes into what genre, but I think you've done a great job of making it understandable as to why certain things get labeled dystopian and other scifi. Great post! :)

Jeff Hirsch said...

Great post! The how is certainly interesting but I'll take the why, and what it means to the characters, any day

Roland D. Yeomans said...

I believe in science fiction, as opposed to dystopian fiction, if the science takes the foreground, then the story suffers.

We have to care about the characters before the marvels of the science mean anything to us.

Great post, Roland

Angie said...

Good post, Beth. I am unabashedly a science fiction buff (and writer) with a science degree, AND I prefer any story that's character driven--as opposed to plot or setting or technology driven.

Jemi Fraser said...

Super post! I hadn't put much thought into the distinction before. I do agree- in most dystopians I've read characterization is much more important than the science.

Amie McCracken said...

Really awesome post. You're really helping me form the idea for my next novel.