Monday, February 9, 2015

Real and Imagined Dystopias

Even if you haven’t read The Hunger Games, you probably saw the movie or at least heard all the hype about it: teens from the different regions of a future North America are drawn from a lottery to be sent to compete in a reality TV series where they kill each other and the last one alive wins. It’s a fascinating book about the horrors of violence and the gifts of compassion and cooperation. That is book 1. I found book 2 (Catching Fire) needed to augment the violence the author purported to despise in order to hold its audience. Book 3 (Mockingjay) is a cynical twist on just war that ends with hope that cannot be justified apart from the gospel.

The series is part of a popular trend in YA literature—the dystopian novel. Dystopia is the opposite of Utopia (meaning “no place” in Greek). It’s the name Sir Thomas More gave to the idealized community he wrote about in the sixteenth century. Instead of the perfect society imagined by More, a dystopia is a totally dysfunctional society, a horror story where the monsters are human.

I have recently been reading two dystopian series (alternating as my name comes up for the next book on library holds.) The first is the Last Survivors series by Susan Beth Pfeffer, beginning with Life as We Knew It. An asteroid hits the moon, setting off a series of environmental disasters and the collapse of modern civilization. It begins as a pretty ditsy teen novel, which actual provides a strong sense of this-could-happen-to-me to the survival story that follows. It’s enough to make you appreciate a bottle of shampoo and a tin of string beans.

In The Maze Runner series by James Dashner (beginning with The Maze Runner) we are thrust into the dystopian world from page one. I’m on book 3 and still have no idea what is behind it all except that this is some kind of scientific experiment designed to save humanity from a disaster even worse than what the teens trapped in the maze are experiencing. Sounds wacko, as it does to the characters, but the action will definitely keep you reading.

In each of these series, I am completely hooked by book 1. Unlike certain vampire books that were recently the rage, the writing is excellent. But the more I read, the more I find myself thinking, what’s the point? I have never been a fan of horror movies. There is enough really bad stuff in reality. Why do I need to be scared by imaginary axe murderers and walking mummies? (You can tell what generation I come from.)

Can you imagine a society more dystopian that ISIL? Or how about North Korea where starving people are told they are so much better off than the rest of the world? Authors on this blog have written about real dystopias. I think of Kathi Macias's Red Ink or Jeannette Windle’s series on Afghanistan beginning with Unveiled Freedom. Jeanette has other books involving drug cartels that control whole regions of countries.

For me a dystopian novel needs to be more than a series of graphic events that chill and horrify in a society without hope of justice. It needs to show me something about myself or reveal realities that should be on my prayer list (like China or Afghanistan). I admit, that I have had a dystopian idea in my head for several years now. I ask myself, what would be the point?

What dystopian fiction have you read? What made it worthwhile for you? We can expand the conversation to horror if you like. What makes a book like Dracula or Carrie worth reading? Or are they? How would the gospel change The Hunger Games or other dystopian fiction you have read?


LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents, including two civil wars, a military government and an emerging democracy. Along the way she has been challenged to depend on God rather than the American constitution. Her fiction reflects her faith, her passion for storytelling that stretches the mind and soul, and the cultures she has lived in. Learn more at .


  1. I read that genre when it was considered "literature." "1984", "Brave New World", "Fahrenheit 451", The Chrysalids" . . . I picked up the" Hunger Games", but put it down again. I couldn't relate to the characters. Oddly, the dystopian world had the greatest impact on me was "Lord of the Flies." Perhaps because it dispels the myth that humanity, left to it's own devices, is basically good. We are not intrinsically good. We need God's discipline, God's forgiveness, Jesus' example, and the Spirit's guidance to lead lives of fulfillment and meaning. Interesting topic. Thanks for posting.

    1. I agree very much, Alice. We are not intrinsically good. Groups like ISIL and Boko Haran come out of the evil of our hearts, the desire to demonstrate our power. We in the West have learned to pretend, but then it comes out in other ways like domestic violence. As to 1984, I remember feeling really weird December 31, 1983, knowing when I woke up, we would be there.

  2. Interesting thoughts on these recent dystopian works, Leanne. Sorry I can't comment more because I haven't read any of the recent series--my experiences are the same as Alice's above. Even then, I had found '1984' and so on quite scary and shied away from them, despite having to study them at uni!

  3. Hi LeAnne, I haven't read The Hunger Games but I liked the movie and I'm planning to watch the sequels. I studied 1984 at High School in the mid 80's, an interesting experience. I've read Kathi and Jeanette's books, and the books you've mentioned are challenging reads on a number of levels. Real life dystopia is very scary.

  4. As you said, LeAnne, life has enough dystopia in it that I need not read fictional dystopia. Unless there is a redeeming element, I simply don't have the time. I am, however, concerned about the effect of this type of fiction on our burgeoning young adults. I have a high school age grandson. I can only pray that he has enough grounding in faith to see through the horror for horror's sake.

    1. Grounding in faith is exactly what we need. I found the ending of the third Hunger Games to be unrealistic because it tried to find hope without Christ and it just wasn't there. My philosophy, Judith, is to read what the kids are reading and engage them in dialogue about it. See Gladys Hunt's Honey for a Teen's Heart. It is a bit out of date at this point, but it reviews books and points out what you will want to discuss if your teen is reading it.