Someone Might Be Watching — An Introduction
to Dystopian Fiction
By Shelby Ostergaard 2017
 Walking through carnivals, we love to laugh at the versions of ourselves that appear in the funhouse mirror. We delight in taking sel es with lters that arti cially bulge out our noses or shrink our mouths. But sometimes these distortions1 take on a deeper meaning and force us to notice things about ourselves. You don’t notice that your nose is a little large until you take a picture with that lter and compare. The version of yourself in the mirror shows you things about yourself.
Dystopias are usually constructed through this
type of magni cation. But the subject matter
goes far deeper than noses and lips. Authors take
troubling aspects of their own society and imagine a world where they are taken to the extreme. The 21st century tendency to over-document through the use of technology becomes a compulsion2 acted out through a literal recording of our memories. An invasive state becomes one that criminalizes thoughts. A love of reality television and a saturation3 of violence becomes a society where teens are forced to ght to the death for entertainment. Because of how they are constructed, dystopias are often seen as a desperate warning sign. The truth is, dystopian ction presents a funhouse mirror of our collective selves. It forces the audience to stare, trans xed,4 at the small aws which, in the mirror, have become pronounced enough to produce a monster.
HISTORY OF DYSTOPIAS
The term dystopia stems from another word: utopia. The English word utopia comes from the Greek “ou-” (οὐ) meaning “not” and “topos” (τόπος) meaning “place.” It translates literally to ‘no place’, or nowhere. Thomas More coined the term in 1615 when he published a book that described a perfect ctional island society. He titled the book Utopia to emphasize that he was describing a made-up place that he considered perfect. The perfection that More, and other philosophers who wrote about utopias, imagined was never intended to be real. Philosophers from More to Plato understood that the perfection they wrote about did not exist in reality, it was ‘no place.’
Dystopian stories are commonplace in our society today. In this informational text, Shelby Ostergaard discusses the characteristics of dystopian ction and how the genre comments on society. As you read, take notes on themes commonly found in dystopian ction.
If you think of dystopian literature as holding up a funhouse mirror to society, you can also think of utopian literature as retouching a photo of society. The overly perfected image is less concerned with reality than with showing us an unobtainable perfection.
 But, by the 1900s, for the rst time in human history, perfection like that seemed possible for society. Technological advances had spurred on the industrial revolution. Philosophers and politicians saw this automation5 and, for the rst time, a vision of a world without di cult, toiling, physical labor seemed not only possible, but likely. Economic theories envisioned a world without staggering class inequality or crippling poverty. At the turn of the century, the predominant view was that humanity constantly progressed. History was seen as one long forward march that would lead, inevitably, to perfection. However, throughout the 1900s, no matter how much humanity progressed, perfection was never achieved. The promises of technology and sociopolitical6 theory only resulted in war, poverty, famine, and chaos.
As the century progressed, authors began to question the idea that societies should be attempting perfection at all by writing dystopian ction. Dystopia stems from two Greek words that translate to ‘bad place.’ It describes a ctional setting that the author nds horrifying. But, unlike other genres, dystopias prod the audience into examining contemporary political and social structures. Dystopian authors argued that the pursuit of perfection will inevitably lead not to ‘no place’ but to a ‘bad place’, because of aws within the system. And they made it their business to use ction to hold up funhouse mirrors to magnify those aws and force discussion about them.
COMMON THEMES AND STYLISTIC CHOICES
Since two of the most famous dystopian novels, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, rst gripped the world, their themes have been successfully reproduced in other wildly successful dystopias, like The Handmaid's Tale and The Hunger Games. The success of TV shows like Black Mirror and video games like BioShock re ect our continued fascination with the worst paths our society could take. Both famous and lesser known dystopian works of art have common themes and stylistic choices.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is arguably the best known dystopian novel. It was written in 1949 as a description of what the year 1984 could look like if totalitarianism7 were allowed to continue. Orwell describes a province of Oceania (formerly known as Great Britain) as an industrialized wasteland, dirty and rigidly controlled by a political regime known as the Party. He magni es disturbing trends he saw in his own time, like surveillance,8 government control, and industrialization9 to show how negative they were. Despite the promise that people in his own time saw, Orwell pointed out the aws these ideas had. Nineteen Eighty-Four, and other dystopias that examine surveillance, magnify how people act di erently when someone is watching. As technology allows for the constant possibility that someone might always be watching you — whether it’s the government, your friends, or your family — and that you might act di erently in response to this. If it is possible to be under surveillance at any time, people act as if they are always under surveillance. Dystopias often magnify this idea to show how surveillance erodes freedom.
Another common theme in dystopian ction revolves around the downside of human intervention in health and genetics. Throughout the entirety of history, humans have su ered from illness and poor health. Sometimes this occurs in huge bursts, such as the Spanish In uenza in 1918, which killed more people than WWI. More often it is a simple result of aging. However, scientists now believe that the rst person who will live to 150 has already been born and that the eradication10 of diseases like cancer and in uenza are within our reach. In addition, genetic research o ers the possibility of eliminating killers like heart disease and chronic diseases like asthma. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and the 1997 movie Gattaca explore the possibilities of this type of progress. Both examine themes around what happens to humanity when too many natural obstacles are removed, or when genetic engineering can eliminate aws. Brave New World, and other dystopias that examine health and genetics, magnify what happens when humans don’t face natural problems and when di erences in genetics are treated as di erences in destiny.
 Dystopian literature also often chooses to magnify the perils11 of misinformation. Characters in dystopias are often told incorrect information about history by their governments or their society. For example, most of the characters in The Hunger Games have an incorrect understanding of what life in the other Districts is like. Characters in dystopias are often given incorrect information and isolated from anyone they could con rm or discuss the information with. People in our world are also often given poor information and are too isolated to investigate the information. Dystopian literature highlights why this is a problem. Because of the information they are given, characters in dystopias act di erently. They can be convinced to hate people they have things in common with or to be happy with the meager life they have because they are convinced it is far better than what existed in the past. In dystopian literature, misinformation helps to keep ine cient and unfair systems in place because characters are convinced that they are e cient and fair.
A nal theme in dystopian literature is lack of individuality. One of the most striking images from The Handmaid’s Tale is the dress code. Women are forced to wear out ts that correspond to their social status, and no one is given any choice. In some dystopias, the lack of choice is enforced by the government. In others, it is enforced by friends and social codes or enforced through a corporation, like in the 2008 movie Wall-E. Authors of dystopias who imagine a world without individuality are concerned with the idea that the wisdom of the crowd can sti e the wisdom of the individual. Authors often choose to magnify this trait by emphasizing lack of choice in simple items, like clothing, food, or toothpaste. This showcases lack of choice and individuality in larger areas, like family structure or careers.
Dystopias tend to have common themes and styles because they re ect the society that we live in. Surveillance is frequently a theme in dystopian literature because we are continually worried about it. The dark side of too much health and genetics research is a common theme because technology furthers the possibilities of genetics and health research every day. Misinformation, totalitarianism, and lack of individuality are all problems that exist in the world that authors are writing in. Dystopias are the dark side of our dreams. There are common themes and stylistic choices because all of the distorted mirrors that authors are holding up are trying to show us the same things. They are trying to give us the same warnings — what the world might look like if we take our quest for perfection too far.