Dystopias Are Made Of People.

So some people have read my new story, “It Brought Us All Together,” and even talked about it, which is always great. (Hurray, readers!) One of the things they’ve said is that a few people have described it as dystopian. And I am not opposed to people thinking of it as dystopian, but it doesn’t strike me that way personally, and I was trying to figure out why.

(Note that “fight about exact genre boundaries” is one of the most boring kinds of fight in the world, yes? So what I am doing is descriptive, not prescriptive. I am describing my idea of dystopia to you rather than telling you it should be yours. If you have completely other ideas, fabulous, would love to hear about them. Clear? Okay good.)

For me a dystopia is about human relationships. It can have bad government or bad lack of government, but the dominant relationship between people on average in this society needs to be exploitative, destructive, or otherwise negative. If not, I don’t see it as a dystopia.

This leads to me sounding really hard-core, saying things like, “Oh, sure, it’s about a fungus-ravaged landscape, but I just don’t see that as dystopian.” But I don’t. It’s not about fungal plagues not being bad enough, it’s that they’re on a different axis of bad than dystopic/utopic/non -topic society. I could write a utopia set in a crashed spaceship inside a volcano–if the people in that culture were on average good to each other.* I could write a completely depressing dystopia in a green and pleasant land.** Because the challenges the universe hands you feel different to me than the challenges other people give you gratuitously.

And “gratuitously” is important, because “hey, my family is dying of fungus in their lungs” is an other-people challenge! It really is about dealing with other people. It’s just…dystopia is if the government infected your family with this lung fungus on purpose. Or if an evil corporation controls so much of the world that it can withhold cures for the fungal plague that is ravaging the landscape. The bit where people just flail around and don’t entirely know what they’re doing and some of them are jerks but most of them are at least okayish…that’s not dystopia, for me. That’s life.

*Actually…if half a dozen of you want that, I’ll make a good go at it.
**This one not so much.

3 thoughts on “Dystopias Are Made Of People.

  1. I think people think it’s dystopic because of the way people are acting around grief and trying to help, not realising (because this is new to them) that this is just how people are in that situation.

    More and more people are living longer, we have modern health care, many people live far from their extended families, people don’t routinely lose close family or friends to death until quite late in their lives these days. I’m running across people in their fifties and sixties losing parents who were n their eighties and nineties and being knocked flat by it, because they’d never lost more than a pet before.

    I suspect readers without personal experience of grief and the kinds of stuff there are around it, could imagine you intended that as dystopic.

    Tangentially, I was reading a biography of Freud the other day (Peter Gay’s, very good) and it occurred to me that Freid’s patients, the ones he used to come up with his theories, the adults he treated in the 1880s and 90s lived in small houses with their parents, with their siblings dying like flies, themselves surviving horrific illnesses, seeing their parents dress and undress — and that their lives and early experiences with sex and death were utterly unlike those of modern people.

    • Alas, the library doesn’t have that Freud bio. It sounds good.

      For me, a society where young people are so distant from old people that they don’t lose anybody significant to them until their parents die of old age is a dystopia. Good heavens, what a thing.

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