Dystopian Vs. Science Fiction

Okay, so I apologize if we've discussed this before, but it's something I've been thinking a lot about. A few months ago, I attended a class on dystopian literature, and realized there are different kinds. I had no idea! So I've been thinking about this since then. And then, POSSESSION came out last week, and some people are saying it's sci fi, and some are saying it's dystopian.

So I started thinking some more.

So here's some dystopian definitions:
dystopia - An imaginary place in a work of fiction where the characters lead dehumanized, fearful lives. Jack London's The Iron Heel, Yevgeny Zamyatin's My, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, and Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale portray versions of dystopia. ...

dystopia - Polar opposite of utopia. A society in which social and/or technological trends have contributed to a corrupted or degraded state.

dystopia - an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives; an imaginary place or state where everything is as bad as it possibly can be: or a description of such a place.

I read those, and I see "bad" "fear" "corrupt" and "dehumanized."

And that, to me, does not sound like science fiction. At all. To me, science fiction is gadgets and space ships. In fact, I don't think something is science fiction unless there is a space ship.

Let's look at some definitions for science fiction:
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with the impact of imagined innovations in science or technology, often in a futuristic setting.

Kingsley Amis says "Science Fiction is that class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesized on the basis of some innovation in science or technology, or pseudo-technology, whether human or extra-terresial in origin."

Isaac Asimov says "Modern science fiction is the only form of literature that consistently considers the nature of the changes that face us, the possible consequences, and the possible solutions.

That branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings."

And for those of us not as deep as Asimov, Benjamin Appel says, "Science fiction reflects scientific thought; a fiction of things-to-come based on things-on-hand."

Okay, I don't see "space ship" in any of those. Ha! What I do see is "science" "futuristic" and "impact."

It's the last word that fascinates me. The impact of futuristic scientific achievements. I like that almost as much as space ships.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with these definitions? How would you define dystopian? Science fiction?

One thing is clear: dystopian and science fiction are NOT the same, but I can see how they can exist in the same book, space ships or not. Can you see that relation?


kathy said...

But if the impact of scientific achievement leads to the dehumaization of society, then can it be both? OK - thinking about it too much makes my head hurt. :)

I do think that readers who have been drawn in by dystopian works might eventually crave books where society is built up again, so there might be more finding their way to the sci fi side.

Midnight Bloom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Midnight Bloom said...

I'm taking a science fiction course at U of T right now and we learned that dystopian is a sub-genre of SF. Our required reading for our discussions on dystopian was actually The Hunger Games, which I thought was pretty awesome seeing the novel studied from an academic perspective.

Before taking the course, I would have thought dystopian and SF were separate, but I guess there's more to SF than meets the eye. I think, for some reason, when I think of SF, I think more often of space operas like Star Wars or something, which may not exactly be fair. But now I have a better idea that SF has focus on how technology and science go together to influence the society. When I think of a novel as being dystopian, I look more towards the political aspects of the society and how they're flawed and controlling in some way.

Elanor Lawrence said...

I like that distinction. Right now I'm writing a story that falls into both categories. The world is made possible by a Scientific advance (namely, virtual reality) which makes it Sci-fi rather than dystopia, but it's dystopia b/c the world is ruled by a fairly controlling government. So, it's pretty much both, which I'm guessing is a good thing b/c it means I can pitch it as whatever is hot when I want to publish it.

Tere Kirkland said...

I think where I draw the line is that dystopian novels can have sci-fi elements, but it isn't the science that's the main focus of the story, but a society that's tried so hard to create a utopia, that it's actually limited the rights of its people and become oppressive.

Sci-fi has more of a focus on the tech and how that changes the society. It's almost like an alternate reality, usually set in the future.

It's an interesting topic of discussion, that's for sure.

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

I'm no expert on either genre (though I do enjoy reading them) so your definitions look good to me. :)

Karen Sandler said...

I think your definitions are great. I also think that as Midnight Bloom stated, dystopian is a sub-genre of SF. Sometimes SF is softer, more societal. LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K. Le Guin is a good example of that. I'd put THE HUNGER GAMES in that category as well (the soft has to do with it being more people/societal oriented rather than being non-violent). My own book, TANKBORN, fits this category too. Although the science of genetic engineering is key to the plot, it's a very character driven story.

Bottom line, to me dystopian is a type of science fiction. Or call it speculative fiction if the "science" puts you off.

Rebecca said...

So many dystopian books have science fiction elements, but that doesn't mean they are the same thing.

I see dystopian as primarily focused on some sort of oppression, often in a more technically advanced futuristic society. The Giver, The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.

I see science fiction as primarily centered around the science itself (aliens invading, space ships, computers taking over the world, cloning, other planets, outbreaks). The Ear the Eye and the Arm, The House of the Scorpion, The Dragon Riders of Pern, I am Number Four, etc.

Catherine Stine said...

Sci-fi does not always have a spaceship and serious gadgetry these days. There are some great women sci-fi writers who are more interested in visionary world-building and future psychology. And then, there's the inimitable Ray Bradbury, who was a prose poet more than anything.
But yeah, you've got the dystopian thing pretty on point.

Holly Black said...

I see that Midnight Bloom already pointed this out above, but I think that the reason that the distinction may seem confusing is that the dystopian genre, as we are currently using it in kidlit, is a SUBGENRE of science fiction, just like urban fantasy, epic secondary world fantasy, sword and sorcery, dark fantasy, etc. are all subgenres of the fantasy genre.

Other sub-genres of science fiction are space opera, hard science fiction, space opera, slipstream, and sociological science fiction. You might want to look here for some quick-and-dirty categorizations: http://www.writing-world.com/sf/genres.shtml

Holly Black said...

Not to say there aren't more subgenres of both sf and fantasy -- there are lots!

Holly Black said...

Last point: I always think it's a good rule of thumb to say that if it's set in the future, it's probably science fiction.

Sorry for posting a bazillion times.

Reid Kemper said...

There are many dystopian science fiction stories, so that's where people may get confused.