There's something about dystopia isn't there? Something that is so interesting to experience when you realize how different the world you're reading about is from your own.
As I've posted about before, so much of dystopian fiction is incredibly, sadly negative. Yet even in dystopian stories with a strongly negative quality I often find myself enjoying being wrapped up in the character's world.
What is it that makes dystopia so captivating? I think I have some ideas as to why.
One thing about dystopia that is enjoyable is the shock value of it, the jolt of surprise when you see how much differently things could be done in the future. Often it's things being done in a way you might not like, but it can set your mind swimming.
For example, in the film adaptation of Philip K. Dick's great short story, The Minority Report, we see the protagonist John Anderton walking through a major public area and opitcal scanners flashing at his eyes from some distance away. The optical scanners sense that it is him in particular walking by and flash an advertisement, customized so that the ad's audio mentions him by name and tempts him to buy a real brand name product.
Or in the book and film of A Scanner Darkly (another great story by Philip K. Dick) we learn that the protagonist Bob Arctor is disguised in a suit that camouflages him from the rest of the world, and does so by flashing on it's outward areas a constantly shifting visual output of different photos of people's faces, including his own. We're told that his own face must be included, because if his own face was never included that might giveaway that it was in fact him behind the suit.
How strangely discomfiting that idea is, but don't you just want to know more about that too? Part of the flavor of a lot of dystopia though is that you're going to be left wanting a little in terms of the information you get.
Scintillating. Intriguing. Scin-triguing!
Another feeling about dystopia I love is the swirl of chaos, the sense that everything is sort of spinning out of control. All of the new technology and new ideas you're seeing often seem more than a little scary. How can you help but wonder about all the dark implications connected to them? It's that chaos, uncertainty and fear that can grip you like nothing else. You may be concerned by it more than anything, but fear and chaos and concern get you so invested in a story.
When action ends up happening in a well written book it's far more gripping than the action of some lumbering, vapid big budget blockbuster films. Guy Montag, the protagonist in Fahrenheit 451, goes through various action scenes, and I won't spoil them here by saying that they got my pulse pounding a little. But they had this quality because they were a coherent and logical extension of a well established character and an intriguing plot line.
I think often, though not always, there's also a sense of great possibility with dystopia. You see some technology, some new thing people can do, and think that even if it's in a very negative story, part of you just wants that technology. You want to see that thing which they have in your own life. I found myself loving John Anderton's car in the film Minority Report, or wanting to see more of the amazing advertisements conveyed in Minority Report and Blade Runner.
Or sometimes you think: maybe I'd want that, but I'm not sure. In another great Philip K. Dick short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (the basis for both of the Total Recall films) we hear about the idea of having memories given to you, to make you think you did something or went through some grand experience in your past. What if you could have positive memories given to you, but for things you never actually experienced?
For arguments sake, let's say you knew somehow for sure that after you had this done you would never realize that the memories were fake. And let's say the memories would work as well as real ones in terms of being a source of happiness or fulfillment. Would you want that technology? Why not add to your happiness and fulfillment right?
What if all of the other aspects of their trauma could be addressed as well, so that doctors could turn their brain into one that would have no evidence of having experienced trauma? Who would I or anyone be to deny or begrudge them that if the leading mental health physicians thought it were in the people's best interests? Would you want that technology for society?
Character Is A Virtue
While these high-tech elements can make a dystopian story wonderful, another, and simpler element is necessary to make a dystopian story great: just like with any other work of fiction a dystopian story needs an interesting character or characters we can be focalized through.
What really made 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 great stories was not just that they showed us the kind of unfortunate societies our technology could play a role in turning us into, but that they did so through the eyes of characters we could empathize with. In all three of those books the protagonist is a person who is very limited by the society he lives in. In all three books there's a negative pleasure for the reader in experiencing some of the pain of their alienation.
In 1984 we also see the possibility of a warm romance for the protagonist, and this romance seems to be the only possible salve for him. Yet it's a romantic union that he and the woman he's in love with know will not be permitted by the tyrannical government they both live under.
What's great about these character elements in some dystopian stories is that they're pretty universal. You don't have to live in some super technical age to appreciate them, and they can draw you to an appreciation of the travails of those who do.
When all of these elements swirl together it can be an amazing read. Feeling dizzy? I hope so.