All Dystopian Novels Are Realistic Fiction

(Originally posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

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.

4 thoughts on “All Dystopian Novels Are Realistic Fiction

  1. I’ve often said that dystopia is a big old warning to us of what could easily happen. Are we so far gone that we’re going to be seeing The Hunger Games in real life anytime soon (other than the film, of course)? I don’t think so. Could it happen? Sure it could. Push people far enough, make them desperate enough, and anything can happen.

    It’s very much realistic fiction with a good dose of sci-fi thrown in.

  2. Yep, I’d agree with that. The fundamental problem The Hunger Games highlights–income inequality–is killing people at a far higher rate than 24 per year. Sixty homeless people die each winter of exposure in an average year in Indianapolis alone.

  3. I’m with you! Some students start to tune me out when I show them distopian or post-apocalyptic books. They tell me they do not like fantasy. I am like, ‘whoa, you don’t think this could happen?!’ That catches their attention. 🙂

    (Well, I do think of Forest of Hands and Teeth to be fantasy. Zombie disease too far of a stretch from realistic for most. LOL)

  4. I’m thinking, it could be argued you could have a fantasy novel, thats dystopic as well. Though it might be harder to accomplish things like “Thoughtcrime.”

    Then again, fantasy has magic.

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