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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Raab

What is a dystopia?

What is a dystopia?

Information, thought, and freedom are restricted. Okay. Does that mean that anything short of anarchy is a dystopia? I wouldn’t think so. Does that mean that people are miserable in their oppression? In Brave New World and the nonfiction book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the answer is no. Is the restriction of information necessarily because it’s being withheld? Not necessarily, as McLean points out in Amusing Ourselves to Death, lack of information could come from having so much information that you can’t sort through it all so that in effect information ends up being restricted by the sheer volume of it. You don’t know where to start so you don’t.

In my novel, there’s a profession that are called Curators. They seem to function as librarians. But as we all know who use social media, curation can mean many things including restricting information. This is something I’m exploring through the eyes of my main character.

Besides restrictions on freedom, information, and independent thought, what else makes a story dystopian? According to some worship of a leader ... like zealous worship. So I guess an authoritarian society. That is scary. But to me, there is something scarier than that. In the Heart of Darkness, my favorite quote is “this papier-mache Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.” When you have something to blame, that makes something so much less scary. When there’s nothing driving evil, then you can’t just kill the figure head and everything gets better. In a dystopian story that has an authoritarian leader, all you have to do to resolve the dystopia is kill the leader. But what happens if there is no single person driving the oppression? To me that’s far more frightening and oppressive.

Some say that a dystopian story is characterized by loss of freedom, independent thought, and restriction of information. You may also see a leader who is zealously worshiped. There’s another characteristic that you may find in dystopian stories. Fear of the outside world. The only source of safety is within the confines of where you are. This keeps people from seeking outside information and thus dismantling the disinformation needed to maintain the dystopia.

In a weird way isn’t M Night Shyamala’s The Village a dystopia? They had a big lie to keep people in the village. They limited the freedom and restricted the information those in the village had. The limitation of information limited the thoughts of those in the village. They didn’t have dreams beyond their village. Their world and their lives were very small. Fear of an outside world can mean a lot of things, can’t it?

In my story, it means outside of what they call the shadowland (I may change the name). Anything outside of the Tower’s protective shadow (they’re in a desert so a shadow would actually be seen as protective) is frightening. But to those in the MC’s world, her sheltered privileged world, anything outside of that is frightening. Those in that world can’t imagine life outside of their own lives. They are housebound which is like an aristocracy. They are caged by their own privilege but will also do anything to maintain it. And by anything they do. This is not a story with lots of nice, happy people. I’m in no way saying that you need to feel sorry for these people for their cages. At least I wouldn’t feel sorry for them. The main character is nice to some but ... not really for particularly selfless reasons. I’m not sure anyone is particularly selfless. But. Dystopia.

If you live in a dystopia, do you think to yourself ... I’m living in a dystopia. Or. Do you just accept your surroundings as normal?

My guess is that for the most part you’d just accept it as normal up to a certain point of suffering as long as you didn’t have anything to compare it to or as long as you were distracted by other things.

This makes me wonder: when is the moment when someone thinks, this shit just isn’t right. Is this why those in power work so hard to gaslight those they control?

What opens your eyes to seeing that there are other possibilities?

When does the comfort of knowing what to expect become less valuable than the need to be free?

Tessa, my MC, finds herself a pawn in a game she didn’t know was being played. Who is controlling the game and to what end? This is only the beginning of the questions she asks as she desperately tries to save herself from being sacrificed.

In some dystopian stories, the story can be about the change into the dystopia and remembering what it was like before the change took it place, as my writing friend Cassidy Reyne and I were chatting about that a while back. (BTW. She writes s t e a m y romantic suspense). So we were chatting ... so helpful to have writing friends as a writer.

My story isn’t about the change to the dystopia. Many stories follow that storyline.

It’s not the story of the dystopian society changing to a better one. I’m not sure, given how this society works, that change from the dystopia would be that easy. No spoilers. So I won’t say why.

There’s no chosen one in my series. Sorry.

The place my main character Tessa lives in is pernicious and unpleasant and seductively easy just to give up ... and no one really knows the difference. Well. Not many people. And those who do ... they don’t seem to care or are too scared to leave. I don’t know.

Tessa, first, has to figure out how truly messed up the world she lives in before she can even contemplate what, if anything, she can do about it for herself ... let alone anyone else. Unfortunately for her in this world curiosity does kill the cat. And she’s compulsively curious. It’s just she can’t help herself. Moth. Flame. Questions demand answers. Riddles must be solved.

In my dystopia, I’ve been calling the area that is “protected” (controlled) by the central government the shadowland. That’s just for now. Not digging it. It’ll probably change.

Given that the setting is a desert, it does seem somewhat protective if a bit ironic which of course is what one would go for ... the irony of it all. The irony is that the Tower is anything but protective. But shadowland seems over done and obvious. I’m wondering if I should call it shadowclaim or penumbra or something else. What would the denizen have come to call it?

Place names always have a history, a reason for being called what they’re called. They’re named after an event or a person or something. For now I’m calling it the shadowland but ... I reserve the right to change it. Or ... I reserve the right to let me characters correct me on its actual name. Just saying.

But I digress.

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