I tried to read the first book of the Hunger Games series awhile back, and although I thought it was well-written and had a good setting, it was hard for me to get into it because it was fairly predictable.  I’m sure that’s partially because it was written for a younger audience, but I think it also is a just a little too cliche filled.  I’m not saying it’s bad.  It’s a decent book, but I pretty much knew where it was going from a very early point.  This is a problem I have with a lot of dystopian fiction–it all seems cut from the same cloth.

You know, I had an idea for a dystopian movie once.  It would be set at an undefined place and time, in a country where a totalitarian, fascist government had taken over.  The main character would be some kind of violent goon for the government who went around suppressing all dissenters.  And the whole film would present him as the hero–he’d be played by a “leading man”, the camera angles would present him heroically–the whole film would seemingly approve of the dystopian society.  Then, at the end, there would be some kind of title card or something telling the audience that this was a propaganda film approved by the fictional government, perhaps even detailing some of the techniques involved.

The point of this would be to pull the rug out from under the audience; see how many of them would have found themselves being subtly seduced into rooting for the main character–and the society he represents–by the film’s technique.  The “plot twist” would actually be a test to see how much people would start to buy into something awful because of good cinematography. Then they would have to re-evaluate what they had just watched.

The trouble is, this is more of a science experiment than an entertainment movie.  The trick of the movie is that usually, in dystopian stories, the protagonist begins to question his society, and through him, the audience is told about the society’s problems. (e.g. Winston Smith in 1984, Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451)  There would be none of that in this movie.  He’d be 100% behind the society, and looking to maintain it.  It would be kind of like 1984 from O’Brien’s perspective.

The thing about my idea–and I’m not saying it’s a good idea–is that it plays with the tropes of the dystopian genre.  Dystopian stories give the audience some character they can turn to to see the dystopia’s flaws; or at least the “tone” of the piece, or the “voice” of the narrative give it away.  Here, there are no societal outcasts or anything like that for people to turn to. (The main character takes care of that.)  I thought this up largely from noticing that every dystopian story seems to rely on the same devices, and that makes them pretty predictable.

Slate has an article about a guy named Neal Stephenson calling for more Utopian, less Dystopian, science-fiction. The idea is that people need to be more optimistic about the future in order to be motivated to invent things.

I’ll comment on that anon, but first a language lesson. Quoth Wikipedia:

The word [Utopia] comes from the Greek: οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”) and means “no place”. The English homophone eutopia, derived from the Greek εὖ (“good” or “well”) and τόπος (“place”), means “good place”. This, due to the identical pronunciation of “utopia” and “eutopia”, gives rise to a double meaning.

So, when Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia, he was making a sort of pun in the title. Now you know. And “dys” is apparently Greek for “bad”, so when they say that, they’re really dyssing something. (Sorry.) I like these double-meanings, but people have kind of forgotten about that nuance. (It’s like the subtleties of language are being lost. Someone should write a dystopian novel about that.)

The problem is that most Utopian fiction is boring. There’s nothing interesting about a place where there are no problems. (Which is, in a sense, a problem. Someone should write a dystopian novel about that, too.) Even worse, it comes across as somebody preaching to you about what they think society ought to be like. I have enough of that as it is.

Also, would-be inventors can be forgiven for fearing that even their most brilliant efforts will be all to the bad. May I present Alfred Nobel and Robert Oppenheimer?

The only way to make an interesting Utopian story that I can see is to have some external threat appear in the Utopia, and destroy it. It’s best if the threat is from the present-day of the writer of the story. (This is kind of the plot of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited, in which a bunch of Englishmen show up and ruin a Utopian island.) And even this is pretty heavy-handed as a satirical technique.