By Harleen Kaur Bagga
Edited by Namitha Sadanand
Totalitarian governments, catastrophic environmental changes, incessant threats of death, unperturbed abhorrent societies, corporate hegemony, forced conformity are some of the customary features of the dystopic world. Dystopic pieces – from movies, short stories, poems to novels and graphic-novels – illustrate a world which has reached the nadir of human-existence, where a privileged and oppressive few take charge and create societies, communities, laws, customs, and most importantly, identities.
Antithetical to the concept of utopia, dystopia comes from the Ancient Greek dys- (bad) and -topia (place). A significant reality is expanded upon in the dystopian narrative, getting exaggerated manifold to portray the ruin that society might plummet into if it keeps moving further along the trodden path. Dystopic fiction has been around for a considerable period of time, from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go. However, there has indeed been a recent upsurge in “Young-Adult” dystopic fiction with Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and Richelle Mead’s Gameboard of the Gods, amidst many more.
I love to read dystopic narratives in alternate universes. This becomes a little paradoxical once my generally optimistic disposition is taken into consideration. What is it then about created dystopias that so fascinates its readers? Why would some-one voluntarily and enthusiastically indulge in a world which is at its bleakest moment, portraying a horrid dehumanization of its inhabitants?
I gobbled up The Huger Games trilogy in three days, setting into motion a much-deserved rebellion from my eyes. However, the books enchanted me so much that I could not shove them out of my mind. The deaths of Cinna, Rue, Mags, Finnick, Prim, along with the deterioration of Katniss and Gale’s relationship and the haunting treatment Peeta receives all amassed into an indelible collection of impressions in my memory. The novels, which displayed the brutal forces of the Capitol, the prevalent massive economic disparities, the unequivocal absurdity of the reality-show, and the loss of subjectivities, also exhibited beautifully the value of human-relationships, the power that man harbours within himself to stand against an oppressive regime, giving resistance his all. The sheer power of the mockingjay symbol and the three-finger salute intertwined with the melancholic songs added a quality of poignancy to the narrative, capturing the reader in a powerful hold.
One of the best things about dystopic narratives is that they offer a mirror to society, magnifying a social evil and transforming it into something that immediately delineates the ruinous trajectory that society seems to be following. Dystopias then become not only didactic, but also cathartic. They contain the elements of a tragedy which might or might not end on a positive note, regurgitating latent emotions and fears in the individual and providing an opportunity to realize the hamartia of the structures in society. The reader then gets elevated with the acquisition of this understanding, resulting in a barrage of questions and a feeling of positive responsibility.
Donald Sutherland, who portrays Coriolanus Snow, in The Hunger Games movies, proclaimed, “I want Hunger Games to stir up a revolution”. The vigorous responses that such pieces elicit from people who engage with them get channelled into something positive, something that holds the potential to change the status-quo. However, dystopias don’t indicate grim realities embedded solely in colossal political, economic and social frameworks. We, as individuals, encounter our own dystopias in life. Take the education-system for instance. The struggle to transform the odds in your favour and not only survive, but also triumph over everyone else, emerging at the top has become an intricate part of our academic arenas. However, the cornucopia of opportunities is not available to everyone. Some are the trained Careers who inevitably seize control and mark their territory, courtesy of the abundance of opportunities they have had access to due to certain birth and status privileges.
Dystopic narratives thus become moulded in our everyday personalized realities, getting embedded in different contexts. Dystopia, through its portrayal of the darkest caves of the human consciousness, helps us understand, identify and empathize with social evils better. Unlike utopias which are perceived as boring due to a lower adrenaline action level, dystopias sketch the blackest of nightmares through a stimulating mixture of action and emotion, triggering a positive and responsible involvement with both the text as well as society.
Harleen is an Art and Literature enthusiast, currently studying English lit at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. She lives in a world of hyperbole and Homeric similes and is irrevocably in love with descriptive words. Quite fond of stationery, the smell of old books, and the Harry Potter fandom, she most unfortunately possesses a traitorous mouth and a natural propensity to fall into embarrassing situations. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.