All dystopias are science fiction, but not all science fiction is dystopian. This is a surprise to some, apparently, given this entertaining post over at Stacked.
… so many of you insist on conflating the two! Yes, dystopias are science fiction stories, but the opposite is not always true. Perhaps some examples will help shed light on the situation.
Not dystopias: VARIANT(157 Goodreads readers have been misled into calling this a dystopia). Cinder (422 befuddled creatures). TANKBORN (59 confused souls). THE OBSIDIAN BLADE (1 lonely reader). DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE(22 readers who need to stop reading fantasy while under the influence of certain substances). THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (not even the professionals are immune).
Kimberly is being snarky here. She is also absolutely right.
A lot of novels, especially YA, are labeled “dystopia” today because the label sells. These are nearly all actually science fiction (I put the “nearly” in there in case there are some dystopian fantasies I am forgetting). Sometimes it seems that other subgenres of science fiction have vanished because there are so many dystopias out there today, especially, as I say, in YA. But this is not true, though labeling all kinds of SF “dystopia” for marketing purposes does give that impression.
As you all know, in order to be a dystopia, the society in which the story takes place must be repressive, the repression must occur on a large scale, and the repressive society is generally also presented by the ruling class as a utopia (though this is not required; look at THE HUNGER GAMES, that is about as nakedly repressive as you can get).
Incidentally, this means that Post-Apocalyptic SF is not dystopian, either, though a dystopian society can arise from a post-apocalyptic scenario. But look at LIFE AS WE KNEW IT, for example. You don’t have a large-scale repressive society there. You have a society in the process of falling apart. Same with ASHFALL. Post-apocalyptic does read a lot like dystopia, though, so what else is out there that is not anything like dystopia? Plenty, of course!
For those who don’t read a lot of SF(Chachic, I’m looking at you), let me just mention a couple big subgenres of SF which are not at all dystopian:
Adventure SF — this is the equivalent of high fantasy. There is a quest, and there are obstacles, and tribulations, and often a romance, and generally a positive outcome. HUNTING PARTY by Elizabeth Moon comes to mind. People who love fantasy but avoid SF should look here for stories that are likely to appeal to them.
Incidentally, Andrea K Höst had a good post recently, in which she also mentions high fantasy (secondary world fantasy that is neither epic nor comedic) and adventure SF in the same breath. I think this is right.
Space Opera — often romantic and often melodramatic, always fast-paced, always with a heroic protagonist, set in a relatively distant future. It’s hard to define, so what the heck, I’ll do it by example: The VORKOSIGAN series by Bujold is one of the best examples ever. Stuff that reads like that is space opera. Again, people who love fantasy should look at space opera for SF that will provide a reading experience that feels more comfortable and familiar.
Hard SF — this is what people too often think of as “science fiction”, as though there’s nothing else out there. Often idea- or concept- or world-based, often with characterization taking a back seat. Kim Stanley Robinson comes forcefully to mind. So does James Corey. In my opinion, both do fine characterization, but characterization is not the point. Actually, the fantasy equivalent might be Tolkien. Both are showing you the world more than showcasing the characters. Some hard SF authors do seem, to me, to write very flat characters. Their books are not very appealing to me personally.
Sociological SF — a second classic SF subgenre, this appeals to me a lot more. This category includes masterpieces like Elizabeth Moon’s THE SPEED OF DARK, which focuses on human society; but this category is where an author can use nonhuman species to explore sociological ideas in ways impossible to other genres. CJ Cherryh is the master at this.
Obviously there are lots and lots of other SF subgenres. I just wanted to mention a handful of the most important subgenres that are NOT dystopias.
Okay! Now you can all argue. What should I have used as an example of hard SF? How should space opera actually be defined?