what we talk about when we talk about dystopia

i recently had the pleasure of hosting Gabrielle Zevin (AUTHOR CRUSH alert) at the bookstore, and she and i ended up chatting briefly about dystopia, the labeling of YA books in particular, and how her new book ALL THESE THINGS I’VE DONE was not actually a dystopia (regardless of which, you should read it). the whole conversation made me cringe a bit (i MAY have used the word in my review) and prompted a trip to the dictionary.

according to Merriam-Webster, a dystopia is “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.”

pretty straightforward, right? i mean, you COULD get really hung up on what counts as “an imaginary place,” technically speaking ALL FICTION is imaginary, and ALL FICTION contains people living dehumanized and fearful lives, but let’s not split hairs. Zevin’s book takes place in a New York some 70-odd years in the future, in which the economic recession just went right along and the city is a crumbling mess. not a huge stretch, sadly. slang is different, social mores (and in particular controlled substances) have changed but otherwise life is pretty recognizable. dystopia? only if you’re stretching.

i think this is one of those “spirit of the law” rather than “letter of the law” issues. what’s the real crux of Zevin’s book? how a girl in a mafioso family will deal with the breakdown of her world, and the lengths to which she’ll in order to protect her family. whereas in, let’s say, UGLIES (which i would consider a true dystopia) the reader is asked to consider a totally foreign political system in which, yes, citizens are deliberately dehumanized and coerced.

why does it matter? dystopia is the new buzzword, a catchy marketingspeak term that will, theoretically, attract the teens! sell more books! and hey, i am all for the selling of books to teens. but a bait-and-switch situation is not particularly helpful. if a reader picks up ALL THESE THINGS and is expecting UGLIES (or vice versa), they may very well be disappointed. both books are excellent and well worth the read, but they’re horses of a different color.

we need a new word. what do you call a book that takes place in a future that’s not great? i’d like to use “futuristic” but i think it’s got too much of a techno-bent to it. it makes me think of flying cars. doesn’t it make you think of flying cars?

what we talk about when we talk about dystopia

2 thoughts on “what we talk about when we talk about dystopia

  1. The first time I heard the word dystopia I said to myself “that’s not the name of the book.The name of the book is “Dinotopia”.Isn’t it.

    BTW Webster’s Office Dictionary does not even have the word listed.


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