All Dystopian Novels Are Realistic Fiction

It occurred to me on Friday that I've been blogging at the League of Extraordinary Writers for two months now and still haven't covered any topic directly related to the blog's theme: young adult dystopian novels. But the only thing I wanted to write about was library lending of ebooks. That topic is probably more comedy than dystopia, though, so I stuck that post on my own blog and turned to Twitter for help.

Luckily @TristinaWright came to my rescue. (Go follow her. She's an interesting tweep. Which should be a species of bird but, fortunately for her, is not.) She suggested the topic, "all dystopia is sci-fi," which I like because I disagree with that statement, and as a novelist I lurve me some conflict.

Yes, most dystopian novels are wrapped in a shiny veneer of future tech. Or a grungy layer of apocalyptic dirt. But the statement that all dystopian novels are sci-fi is wrong both at the level of text and subtext.

For example, dystopian novels can be historical fiction, like Ruta Sepetys' brilliant Shades of Grey. They can be realistic fiction, like Mitali Perkins' Bamboo People. We even have dystopian non-fiction such as Surviving the Angel of Death by Eva Kor. All of these depict societies, real or imagined, in which state power has run amok to the extreme detriment of many citizens.

On a subtextual level, even nominally sci-fi dystopias can be read as realistic fiction. As I've mentioned before in this space, I read The Hunger Games as a commentary on income inequality in the United States (it also pokes at reality television, of course.) Julia Karr's work can be read as a chilling imagining of what will follow if those waging the current war on women succeed. All dystopian science fiction is at a deeper level a commentary on the society in which the writer created the work. The dystopian elements of my debut novel, ASHFALL, are firmly grounded in real post-disaster dystopias. (Read A Paradise Built in Hell and Zeitoun if you're interested in the non-fictional inspiration for ASHFALL's dystopian elements.) Therefore, the title to this blog post: All dystopian novels are realistic fiction. (Look for them in that section of your local Barnes & Noble. The staff will love that, trust me.)

What do you think? Am I nuts? (Wait. Don't answer that question. Just let me know if this blog post is nuts.) Let's chat in the comments.
post signature

13 comments:

Ishta Mercurio said...

Yeah, I agree with this. I think what makes a good dystopian tick is that it is based in reality, and just takes that reality a little farther. Excellent post.

Angie Smibert said...

Good post, Mike. I adored Ruta's book. Her dystopia was real, which reminds me of what a librarian once told me. For some kids dystopia is not fiction. One of the kids she works with was from a country not too unlike the dystopia in my book (think terrorism and detention). Yet the kid still liked my book--which makes me feel both good and like a total fraud. (I was only imagining the reality he faced.)

Francesca Zappia said...

I think idea of dystopians being sci-fi was mostly applicable back when dystopians first got a running start with books like 1984. It was a sub-genre of sci-fi as a look into what the world could turn out to be were certain negative features of it exaggerated. And maybe then, science fiction wasn't the best name for the genre. Now we have words like speculative fiction to describe these things, because what science fiction really is is a look into how the world could be, either in the future or the present, and occasionally even the past.

Regardless, dystopia has obviously grown enough now that it no longer needs to stand under the umbrella term "sci-fi". But saying it is not science fiction in any way is a misunderstanding of the sci-fi genre at its core.

Leigh Ann said...

On a subtextual level, ALL novels can be read as realistic fiction, pretty much.
Can't dystopian just be...dystopian? Can't it just be one classification for story elements that can stand in infinite combination with other story elements?

I'm writing a dystopian novel right now. It's based on a Bible story and set against a futuristic sci-fi backdrop. So right there we have four different genres. It *is* sci-fi, but I could also write it as *not* sci-fi. It is most certainly NOT realistic - it's based on religious mythology. It does have themes that resonate with realism, which all books should - otherwise, what is there for the reader to grab onto?

But I'm much more interested in how GOOD the story is rather than what GENRE it falls under. Because I don't really care if dystopian is sci-fi or post-apocalyptic or realistic or fantasy or contemporary - as long as it's a good story.

Mike Mullin said...

Yes, you're right--most dystopians are sci-fi at least on the surface. But at a deeper level, is there really any such thing as science fiction? Even the most wildly out there novels reflect at their core the writer's vision of present society. The label sci-fi seems to me to be more of a convenience for bookstore shelving than something that's useful in appreciating the literature.

Mike Mullin said...

I completely agree, Leigh. And often the novels I most enjoy transgress the sterile lines of genre. Good luck with yours!

ilima said...

I asked this question at a writer's conference once in a class about dystopia's: are all dystopia's science fiction? The instructor said he thought so, though dystopia's are an experiment on social sciences as opposed to natural sciences, as we usually think of sci-fi. Most stories I write meld so many genre's, I hate having to come up with 'the one' that it should be shelved under. I'm waiting for the category "awesome books" to become standard. :)

Mike Mullin said...

Yes! I love the awesome books genre! Now if we could all just agree what goes there....

Jennifer Morian Frye said...

Absolutely, the realistic-ness it what makes the best dystopia so frightening. On a funny-but-not-really note: when I read XVI a year ago, I thought it was a bit far fetched that the status of women could go that far in reverse.....now? I'm a bit more nervous about that.

As for the Awesome Books genre, I'm totally in favor. Labels can sometimes be limiting. I am all for having an Awesome Books section in our library....maybe even a rotating "recommended" area where staff and patrons can place books that they loved. Hmmm....*goes off to find "The Shelf"*

Kristin Bassett said...

This a delicious bit of sanity. You describe the heart of speculative fiction. However we define them, in the end, these books explore important ideas (dare I say truths, or even reality). The cool thing is that there are endless points of view to explore in speculative fiction. Even according to one of its common themes, we can't classify genre fiction neatly. The whole point is to push boundaries, but I agree that no matter where they are, the boundaries are real.

I love that you ask whether there is such a thing as science fiction!

Jen Chandler said...

Great post! Dystopian is a wonderful genre to house the frustrations we have about the world at large and to depict, realistically, what COULD happen if the powers that be aren't careful with the lives they're attempting to control and play with.

I've fallen in love with the dystopian genre because it is wide open for speculation and conflict.

Great post!

Jen

John Wiswell said...

This case for Hunger Games is hardly grounds for Realism. Just because something fictional relates to something real doesn't make the fiction itself Realism; the Lorax is a commentary on a real issue. Fiction has a habit of tying into real experiences because it has the habit of being written by real people. Fundamentally fiction is all phony and all relative to reality, be it Inu Yasha or Denis Johnson. Naturally Dystopian fiction, with its tendency to exploit obvious negativities like economy and government, would be more readily recognizable for its opinions about reality, but there's abundant depth of social criticism in more subtle works of Fantasy as well.

JustSarah said...

When I say realistic fiction, I generally mean it a bit differently than, "Hey, its set on Earth."

I mean more of a focus on contemporary problems, just multiplied 10 times worse.

Like insurance and gasoline price being amped up the roof.