Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Are you tired of dystopias yet?

Here’s an interesting post at The Christian Science Monitor: ‘Blade Runner 2049’: Why some science fiction writers are tired of dystopias

Recent dystopian blockbusters seem to be jostling in a grim race to be the first to reach the seventh circle of hell in Dante’s “Inferno.” But some science-fiction writers are tired of the sorts of pessimistic futures depicted in movies and TV shows such as “The Hunger Games,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Black Mirror,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

In response, influential authors Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, David Brin, and Kim Stanley Robinson argue that futuristic fiction should, instead, offer an inspiring outlook about mankind’s ability to shape its destiny.

I basically never get tired of anything, because I don’t ever seem to read enough of any one subgenre to burn out on it. Well, except grimdark, which I burned out on REAL fast, essentially as soon as I recognized the category. But fundamentally, no, if a new take on a dystopia is well written, I’ll be happy to give it a try.

But to me, dystopias don’t seem fundamentally pessimistic.

Wait, I mean young adult dystopias don’t seem fundamentally pessimistic.

In YA dystopian fiction, the horrible repressive government always gets destroyed, thus laying the groundwork for a better future. (Are there exceptions? Let me know and I will avoid those.) YA dystopias are thus fundamentally optimistic and The Hunger Games does not belong in the same sentence as The Handmaid’s Tale. Really, I don’t know how the author of this post — Stephen Humphries — could have missed this obvious distinction between YA and adult dystopian fiction.

On the other hand, Humphries is in fact actually framing a broader argument about literature and society, and about pessimistic versus optimistic visions of the future:

But perhaps the debate over utopian versus dystopian fiction should be reframed. A more helpful distinction might be the difference between nihilism and existentialism in science fiction. Amid doom-and-gloom scenarios, does the hero or heroine have agency and an ability to win the day?

And there you go, there is the fundamental distinction between grimdark and everything else, rather than between dystopia and everything else.

Humprhies seems to be lacking some of the background categories — dark vs grimdark, for example — which would make it easier to frame thoughts on this topic. This is true even though opinions differ about what delineates various categories of SFF. Still, the post is worth a look if you have a minute to click through and read the whole thing.

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3 Comments Are you tired of dystopias yet?

  1. Pete Mack

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on grimdark. I don’t read it often, but sometimes it makes a good palate cleanser after too much sickly sweet fantasy. I mentioned Mercedes Lackey in a previous post on the topic. After a couple books like that, an anti-hero is just what the doctor ordered. Also: does Teresa Frohock’s ‘Miserere’ count as grimdark? The good guys win, but it’s very much a conditional win against an evil that remains very much present.

  2. Mary

    There are two types of dystopia and long have been. There is the 1984 type that is a prophetic warning. And then there is the useful Bad Guy of an evil society for our hero to throw himself against — and win, of course. YA draws on the later tradition. (A sage soul observed that the thing about cyberpunk was not that the society was worse than anything depicted in SF before; it was that in cyberpunk, the character didn’t consider their society to be a problem.)

  3. Rachel

    Mary, that seems like a useful way to draw the distinction.

    Pete, I know! I will never understand how anyone can tolerate Abercrombe’s books, but there you go: De gustibus non est disputandum.

    And I don’t know. To me it would count as grimdark if: The protagonist and/or other characters strive to become better people, but fail and wind up worse people. Or if they attempt to make the world a better place, but fail and after their efforts the world is worse off than it was before they started. Evil that remains present — eh. Evil ye shall always have with you. One doesn’t expect the protagonist to usher in utopia; temporary or partial victories are still victories.

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