A dystopia is “an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.” Millions would define it as Divergent, or perhaps for the more cultured, Hunger Games. Key word in the definition, “imagined.” But if we take a little look at current world affairs, it seems we are inching closer and closer to death apocalypse à la the Factions. Hence the question, are we already living in a dystopia?
The idea is unfathomable perhaps; our idea of totalitarianism and apocalypse have been completely constructed by the popular content we consume. After all, the 21st century is no “death world” or ravaged wasteland, and we can't claim to live with mindless zombies. However, this is the source of the problem. Our consumption of “dystopian” literature and media has skewed our perceptions, until now we lean heavily on the idea of imagined post-apocalypse, rather than the true issues of suffering and injustice.
The issue may lie in our definition, or our emphasis that all dystopia is simply imaginary. Even imagined plotlines aim to provide something; moral and ethical lessons. Should we be disregarding the potential destruction in class systems, highlighted in The Hunger Games for example, because it’s isn’t recounting reality?
Speaking on issues, let’s focus upon a key idea in our definition; that “great suffering and injustice” within the world makes a dystopia tick. For The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s the patriarchal and totalitarian Republic of Gilead that creates injustice, or capitalist Joh Fredersenin in Fritz Lang's Metropolis that causes suffering to his workers.
To move away from the imagined sphere, can we not think of great suffering or injustice within our world? I’ll bet you came up with a scenario instantly. Perhaps the most obvious case for suffering would be the widespread loss of life and employment caused by COVID 19; over 550 thousand deaths in America alone. That’s not even counting the amount of people who contracted it; try 130 million.
I don’t know about you, but global pandemic seems pretty high on the apocalypse bingo card. As for injustice, recent cases in Australia and England have firmly shone a light upon socio-political injustices for women. Cases like this are, sadly, everywhere. So I pose to you strong evidence for a world plagued by suffering and injustice; a world on the edge of dystopia, if not already in it.
The last part of our definition gets in the way of this neat conclusion. Totalitarian, post-apocalyptic world. The first thing that pops into everyone’s heads when defining a dystopia. I have to blame Young Adult fiction for this; the ruination of an entire genre of literature all due to authors creating books that neatly summarise everything that makes the dystopian genre. This is best captured by Divergent’s rise and fall to popularity. Now widely mocked by the book community (particularly on Booktok), the trilogy takes the essentials of Hunger Games and none of the meaning.
- A generic, pick me protagonist
- A brooding male love interest
- Sleek intelligent villains that are shadowy imitations of totalitarian governments
- Factions for forced diversity
- Not to mention that ending! All that tension, dissolved by poorly chosen plot decisions
As a particularly eloquent tumblr thread put it
Collins, Orwell, Atwood; they had something to say. The love triangle in the Hunger Games, the Districts, the Capitol; they were a social allegory brimming with rage about the state of the media, the world. How romance is glorified and all of us desensitised to violence. How surveillance is reaching new and terrifying levels of privacy invasion.
So yes, the Capitol is relevant. Why? Because the Capitol is all of us. For example, the pinhole camera crisis in South Korea that has only recently shed a terrifying light on privacy even within hotel rooms, is one step sideways from Big Brother. I had no idea that this was even happening until recently! So are the purchase algorithms embedded within social media, as the Guardian notes. And the thing is, I am guilty of buying into the hype of dystopian fiction, and overinflated media coverage. We all are. Healthy media diets are difficult to control and even more difficult to maintain. And isn’t that terrifying? All this technology and yet, all these lies to filter through. We have never been so desperate to source the truth in an age where information is everywhere. To circle back to my original point; are we living in a dystopia? I’ll let the facts speak for themselves. It’s close, to be sure, and not a coincidence that the popular dystopian movies and books are allegories for societal struggle. “Not real” indeed.