Author Scott Harvey discusses his definition of dystopia in literary fiction
Since launching HeroPlot, one of the questions I am often asked is, "How do you define dystopia?"
The real question I think, is not about how to define a dystopia, but to try to understand why, despite history, experience, and countless warnings, dystopias still seemingly prevail... or at least remain the catalysts that draw us deeper into their literary worlds today.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines dystopia as: an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.
History of course has played host to numerous empires, dictators, and leaders who have through whatever form or means sought control and repress societies with great injustice. Over the years, the arts have exposed us also to a great many dystopian societies, portrayed through film or imagined through literary texts.
Often, we simply find ourselves in a modern, post-apocalyptic world where we follow the adventures of the protagonist through his or her various trials, given only a brief insight or summary into, “what happened on that fateful day,” when the world once known was reduced to ash or transformed forever into this new society. One which by coincidence, is most always extreme and tyrannical. As if the events that are happening around the world in which we live in today are not tyrannical enough?
Of course, there are also other takes on such dystopias, where fantasy worlds and imaginary countries play host to contests or games to hail champions or legends, like Greek myths and tales of old.
The truth is, that dystopian themes and stories of dystopian societies have become extremely popular, and transcend everything from planet’s dominated by apes, to one’s over-run by zombies. From populations crammed onto a train, to world’s where everyone races across deserts or oceans in search of oil or green pastures. To societies where those who have much, are ungrateful and live luxurious, almost meaningless lives. And those who have nothing, live in squalor, but are valiant, hard-working and full of optimism.
Typically, we see gangs, groups, or tribes, opposing each other with heroes caught, more often than not, trapped in-between; where man must live alongside or fight against cyborgs, replicants, or robots.
Dystopia is an outcome that it seems we almost expect and have imagined and re-imagined most every conceivable way. Yet one of the main problems for me with a great number of dystopian stories is often the journey itself. I.e., how did the reader, or audience, get from where we are today to where the author or director wants us to believe we are now?Scott Harvey, Author of HEROPLOT: The Spear of Destiny
Speaking for myself, as a reader, or as someone who doesn’t simply want to watch a movie but would rather escape into the world before my eyes and believe in it, these brief summaries often fail to provide any real understanding. I often find myself following the protagonist and appreciating their dilemma, but not enough to find myself engrossed by it.
Perhaps, at this point, it is important to remember that my opinions and thoughts are merely that. They are personal observations and not meant as any basis for academic dissection of the genre. And besides, there are of course other examples that exist on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Where film series such as the Terminator, explain again and again, that it all started with a super computer and that for some reason we now need to see the same plot retold numerous times with the same end result. That if something isn’t done to prevent SkyNet going live then it will be too late, and mankind will be all but exterminated by the machines. A terrifying thought, but one which is also the problem, because if after the twentieth movie someone actually does manage to prevent SkyNet coming online, then no Terminator would ever exist, and that would of course mean neither would the dystopia. In other words, it would be "Hasta la vista, baby" to an otherwise lucrative franchise. So perhaps, or rather inevitably, the only possible way to keep it alive is to have to keep retelling the same story with the same characters, which is limiting to say the least and creates a problem and repetition for its audience.
In any dystopian telling, it may be a case of simply saying that if it’s believable then it’s science fiction. If it’s not, then it should be classified as fantasy. However, speaking again strictly for myself, that does seem a little like an easy escape route, a way to over-simplify what brought us here is not as important as what is going to happen here. And yet, for me to really appreciate what is going to happen both for character and story development, in a dystopian context at least, I need a bridge. Now don’t misunderstand me, movies like Star Wars for example, which would be classified as a space-opera rather than a dystopia or fantasy, don’t necessarily need such a bridge. The idea that what is about to happen is taking place in a galaxy far, far away, already removes the story from believability, although who is to say that the Jedi aren’t real? Interestingly enough, when George Lucas began to try to add depth and “bridge” the series with the prequel trilogy; explaining how we got to the events that led to the original Star Wars movie which was released thirty-two years earlier, it arguably raised more questions and created more conjecture than was hoped. Perhaps because there was no need for believability? The story had stood for so long and acquired a loyal following of fans, that trying to take them on the journey of how we got to Luke and the Rebellion, to the Death Star and the Empire, long after the fact so to speak — after the role playing and endless hypothetical plot discussions — would either bring into question what they had already imagined, or circumvent what was believed. Disappoint the many or reaffirm what others had said all long... and nobody likes a know-it-all, or having to listen to someone tell you, "I told you so." It only begs the question, who cares about the trade federation? And perhaps, things are sometimes best left to the imagination. After all, a prequel movie now, at this stage, about a factory building robots wouldn't necessarily add greater depth to the character of Optimus Prime or his struggles with the Decepticons.
No, my thoughts in this post centre purely around the dystopia, or as it is often mixed and confused, the concept of a totalitarian society. Something that I personally feel, even after more than thirty-five years, no one has been able to more aptly envisage than George Orwell.
A PUBLISHING CHALLENGE
When a market gets used to a formula, the market becomes formulated
I have to be completely honest, when I first started with the idea of HeroPlot, I remember writing a brief synopsis and taking several discussions with potential agents and publishers who were all immediately drawn to the idea of “heroes” and “plots”. It all seemed very straight-forward and well, for want of better words, I would have said, very predictable. To me it was something to which I was entirely against and not at all in line with my thinking. When I then began to explain that this was essentially a dystopia: a time in the future when things will be different than they are today, without giving away too much insight into the planned books and characters ahead, I noticed that eyebrows would raise as they still hung on the hopes of “heroes” and “plots”. When I said that the first book in the series, The Spear of Destiny, would focus on the “bridge” on the gap between where we are today and how we get to the dystopia. I watched as those eyebrows would slowly, albeit ever so surely sink. When I then said that the first book would be told essentially through the eyes of a villain. Any eyebrows still afloat, sank like Jack beside the raft….
I was breaking convention, and it was not the thing to do. To write a young adult dystopian thriller without an inspiring teen lead was unheard of. And for individuals whose success relies upon monies and the numbers of copies sold, I could naturally appreciate their concerns. The market is used to a formula, and we give the market what we know it likes.
Still, to me, being asked to jump ahead and "skip the bridge" all together by introducing only traces of it instead, made no sense at all. I couldn’t imagine watching Batman without knowing the reasons for why Bruce Wayne has an alter ego. Or why Superman came to earth and is impossible to recognise, despite his uncanny likeness to Clark Kent. The fact that Batman takes on villains with his vast array of weaponry, or that Superman can leap from tall buildings with a single bound and fly, is all well and good, but as a storyteller and lover of stories at heart, the real stories of these characters for me comes from their origins not their ongoing heroic deeds.
So, in my defiance of industry advice, I chose instead to write The Spear of Destiny, the way I—as a reader—would need to read it. As a journey. A journey from where we are today to where we might believably or perhaps unbelievably go in the future. Where the consequences of that journey may be indicated or perhaps even evident today, but are yet to be fully realised, maybe even avoided.
THE HEART OF ANY STORY
To me, it all stems back to the heart of the story. Any story, any novel, is a tale, either complete or in part. If the novel is in part, then it is a step towards the conclusion of the tale, and the first step of the HeroPlot saga as I envisaged it, made perfect sense. How could I expect any reader to believe in the world that I wanted to create if I could not bring them on the journey from the beginning? How could they see the mistakes made and consequences of actions taken that led to such a world, if they were not there to follow them?
I am only too aware that The Spear of Destiny is a non-typical young adult dystopian story. Just as it is a non-typical thriller, and that many will say a thriller has to grip you with relentless action from the very first page. But it is really so important to be typical? Are we no longer able to break with tradition and craft alternatives?
The young adult audience, or YA reader as I so often hear them referred to, are as exposed to the horrors that we must sometimes watch each evening in world events on the news as any older generation is. That is a fact that we should never shy away from. I believe the teenage audience is as sophisticated as any adult one, and perhaps instead of simply providing the expected teen hero in another mysterious dystopia, there may be a place for one that chooses not to follow the expected industry formula. Time of course will tell, and perhaps SkyNet is not only inevitable, but a required part of the future? At least until the story has no more ways to be told…. That being said, I do hope not, and I do hope that in a world of diversity, there is a place for a modern-day dystopian thriller where the boy doesn’t necessarily get the girl, and the girl doesn’t necessarily save the day. Where a hero doesn’t necessarily need a costume to aspire to an act of heroism, and where young adult readers get to decide what makes a hero for themselves.
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