What Makes a Good Dystopian Novel?

Last night, I finished a dystopian novel that didn’t quite work for me as a dystopian novel. I can’t stress enough, though, that it was a good novel and kept me reading. However, that got me thinking: What makes a good dystopian novel?

My own idea of a good dystopian novel comes from something my then-teenage son said after reading Feed, by M. T. Anderson. Josh said that it was disturbing to read a dystopian novel during the time it was commenting on. He had to read 1984 for school, and it hadn’t hit him as hard as Feed, which talked about our consumer culture taken to the extreme.

Josh said, and I agree, that dystopian novels are written about the present, even when they are set in the future. Or at least I agree that this is true of the best dystopian novels.

Thinking about other dystopian novels I’ve read, I think there’s something of a continuum. Some are written with a dystopian setting because a dystopian setting makes an intriguing setting to place your characters in and see how they react. You can say things about human nature by putting your characters in an extreme setting.

For me, the best dystopian novels do say something about human nature in an extreme setting, but they also present a situation that mirrors present-day trends taken to the extreme. They present a warning about what could happen if things go on as they are right now.

Feed is a prime example of this kind of brilliant dystopian novel. In it, people have gotten a chip in their brain for constant internet access. The Feed knows what they like and what they want to buy and provides personalized shopping experiences. They don’t have to learn as much, because they can just look facts up on the Feed. But we quickly see in the book that this does not work out so perfectly.

The classic dystopian novel, 1984, is another example of a dystopian novel that commented on the time in which it was written. You can judge how well a book does this by how easily you can imagine our own society ending up like this. The propaganda and surveillance in 1984 is all too easy to imagine.

Part of the success of The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, comes from how it plays on the current fascination with reality TV shows. It shows that maybe we aren’t so different from ancient Rome. It’s easy to believe that if there ever were fight-to-the-death games, that they would indeed become a national obsession and be fully televised. The part about why there were fight-to-the-death games was not quite as hard-hitting, but the whole media circus around the Hunger Games was all too believable.

Another recent dystopian novel, Candor, by Pam Bachorz, didn’t quite have me believing in the technology. Sure, I believed that subliminal messages could completely affect people’s behavior, just not that withdrawal could result in death. However, I did believe that parents would be happy about living in a city where subliminal messages would make their teens behave perfectly. That aspect (and the main premise of the book) was indeed hard-hitting. I have seen many many “Tiger Mom” type parents in Northern Virginia who would embrace that sort of technology without batting an eye. And the dystopian novel Candor, taking current trends to the extreme, is a perfect way of examining that sort of parenting.

I have not yet read Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, but I believe it also speaks about current trends of giving up our privacy and shows where they can lead.

When I look at the dystopian novels that don’t succeed as well for me, they are still good stories. And the dystopian setting does add an intriguing twist. However, they don’t hit home, because I’m not at all worried about them coming to pass in my lifetime. They make good stories, but don’t disturb me. And my idea of a great dystopian novel is one that disturbs me, that makes me think about my life today.

Matched, by Ally Condie, presents a situation where the Society chooses what your life should be like and who you should marry. The intriguing premise is what happens when a mistake is made and Cassia sees the face of a second boy on her microcard, a boy who is an Aberration and is not supposed to be matched. It’s a good story about not letting your life be controlled by others. However, bottom line, I can’t really imagine that ever happening in America — we are too much individualists. I don’t think we ever would be willing to give that much faith to authorities. Now, it does make an intriguing story, but it doesn’t hit home like some dystopian novels. I’m simply not worried that our society will ever go there.

Among the Hidden, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, was like that for me, too. Although it makes an intriguing story — what would you do if you were the third child in your family in a society that only allows couples to have two children — I can’t quite imagine American society ever submitting to that kind of law. Now, Margaret Peterson Haddix puts in a past crisis so that food is scarce, which makes it more believable, but it’s not something I see as a natural result of today’s trends. So it does make a fascinating story, but I don’t think of it as a hard-hitting commentary about today’s society.

After, by Francine Prose, was closer on the continuum to a dystopian novel that talks about today. I could imagine people giving up their freedom in exchange for safety, but the book didn’t make clear why they were doing that, which made it a little less believable, a little harder to imagine it actually happening.

Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld, is toward the hard-hitting end of that continuum, too. We are obsessed with how people look, so it is possible to imagine everyone getting an operation when they turn sixteen to make them beautiful. They’ve abolished prejudice by making sure everyone looks beautiful. Now, the downside to that ends up being not so much about the operation as about its side-effects and the other things the society is doing to control the people. So it ends up not so much a commentary on our obsession with looks as an intriguing story about what Tally will do in extreme circumstances. The whole thing ends up feeling pretty far removed from our life today, though it is a gripping and exciting story, and it does make you think. But this is more toward the end of examining human nature in extreme circumstances than a warning about where society is going.

What do you think? Do you agree with me that a truly great dystopian novel comments on our society today, or is that just a nice bonus added on top? Is it more important as a device to examine human nature in an extreme setting, or just as a plot technique to increase suspense?

What dystopian novels have I left out? Where do they fall on the continuum of commenting-on-today as opposed to just-an-intriguing-setting? I’d love to hear some reactions in the comments.