I recently finished reading ‘The Bees’, which fits the dystopian genre perfectly: there’s a hierarchy, manipulation and control. The story reflects on being told how to think and focuses on the role of a hive mind. This seems to be the running thread across this genre, especially in the Holy Grail of dystopian fiction: 1984. That’s the problem with dystopian novels. They work so hard to make their ‘message’ heard, that the plot and characters are no longer a priority.
Not a fan…
Though it’s definitely a controversial opinion, I’m not a fan of 1984. ‘But it’s about Big Brother, can’t you see how it reflects Stalinism and our history?’ That’s a response I got when I raised my problems with the plot and characters to a lover of George Orwell’s 1984. Anyone who studied this novel at school had the metaphors and allegories shoved down their throats enough times to see the important things this novel says about our history and our future. But I don’t want what I’m reading to only be about philosophical ideas. I want an interest in the tangible things too. Why do I have to be denied a good plot and characters to get across the now rather tired ‘message’?
Perhaps you’ll criticise me for not wanting my books to be more intellectual, offering an insight into our society, but of course I want that. I just fear I’ll end up putting the book down from boredom, and thus completely ignore the message altogether. Has anyone actually enjoyed the “Goldstein’s Book” section in 1984? Even my English teacher admitted she skipped it. That’s because you can skip parts of the plot in a dystopian novel. It’s all the same story: a futuristic world where everything has been lost, but one person chooses to rebel and fight the system. Whether it’s a Katniss in The Hunger Games, a Tally Youngblood in Pretties, or a Flora in The Bees, it’s always the same plot, just with a change in scenery.
How can dystopian fiction be revived?
All this means is that the message dystopian novels work so hard to promote has simply worn off. The Sunday Times reviewed ‘The Bees’ as ‘changing the way we see the world’, but I’m no longer shocked by the dictators, the violence and the manipulation featured in dystopian novels. It’s commonplace. If a ‘police state’ wants the shock factor it craves, then it needs characters I can be interested in. I didn’t care about Flora in ‘The Bees’, so I wasn’t that invested in her fate or the world she lived in.
The warnings for our own world that dystopian novels contain are important. and growing ever more relevant. However I’m afraid I can’t listen to them if the story itself doesn’t engage me. The message shouldn’t be at the expense of the plot or characters. All the features need to work together. If a writer wants to create a dystopian novel its readers not only connect with, it also needs to be a great story on its own, without all the themes and underlying warnings. As with any genre, it’s the story itself that must come first.