Theory Post: The Problem with Serial Dystopias

Posted: November 25, 2014 in Theory Posts
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It feels a little on the nose to post about dystopias today, but hopefully you’ll forgive me for that–it’s just what was scheduled.

Mockingjay, Part 1 came out last Friday and made millions of dollars over the weekend. I haven’t gotten around to seeing it yet, although I probably will. I enjoy the films; I think they’re good adaptations. You know, unlike The Giver movie, which was a terrible travesty.


But I’ve been thinking about The Hunger Games recently and trying to figure out why they pose something of a problem. And why the ending feels so choppy and disjointed. It’s a problem I have with a lot of contemporary (mostly YA) dystopian fiction. Divergent is another big, blockbuster example of this. (I still haven’t read the Pure trilogy by Julianna Baggott, which is supposed to be really fantastic, so shame on me.)

It occurred to me that this difficulty with endings might be symptomatic of a dystopian series, i.e., not just a standalone novel. Although dystopian novels–like all good fiction–should have compelling characters, they’re at heart idea stories. Fahrenheit 451: what if books were illegal? Brave New World: what if we did away with traditional reproduction? The Giver: what if we suppressed our emotions? Even The Hunger Games is an idea story: what if a society reinstated the Roman Coliseum?  Same with Divergent: what if we were divided by our dominant personality traits? These setups reflect our anxieties and they also afford us an opportunity to ask questions about the nature of our humanity. A typical dystopian novel meditates on the outcomes of a society’s choices and leaves us with a relatively ambiguous ending.

However, in a fiction series, that can’t happen. We might end with ambiguity in the first novel, but the story picks up again in the next book. And traditionally, it does this as a linear continuance of the existing narrative, i.e., we don’t shift POVs or timelines. Which changes the nature of the story. It ceases to be an exploration of the dystopian state and instead becomes a full struggle between the individual (hero, at this point) and the society. In other words, my theory is: extended dystopian narratives must at some point become revolution narratives. What choice does the author have? If the character surrenders to the state, the story ends. If the state destroys the character, the story ends. If the character lives out the rest of a quiet life hiding from the state, the story ends.*

Is a revolution narrative inherently problematic? Not necessarily. But it requires a different kind of plotting and a different conception of character and it’s hard to make those adjustments midstream. Consider how much of the novel Mockingjay is devoted to setting up the nature of the rebellion. It makes for an ungainly structure–and it’s an incredible amount of information to invest in one book.

Moreover, any extended exploration of the dystopia requires a more thorough deconstruction of that dystopia. This is where, for example, the Divergent series falters. Once we get outside the wall, we need an explanation for why what’s happened has happened–the characters need to know why their lives are the way they are. The problem is, these narratives are rarely satisfying. They diminish our ability to see ourselves in the dystopia–which is one of the major requirements of the subgenre.

We find an interesting exception in The Giver sequels, which deal predominantly with life outside the Community. Lowry maintains the quiet, meditative tone of the first book throughout Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son. Interestingly, she also doesn’t take on the entirety of the dystopia as she continues the story. She keeps the narrative localized and personal. Jonas doesn’t storm back home and overthrow the order. He tries to live a new life, which presents new challenges. In Son, Lowry examines another aspect of the Community through Claire–but she uses a character shift and separate timeline to provide us with a more nuanced point of view. So perhaps not all dystopian narratives end in revolution. Perhaps, rather, the kinds of stories the authors choose to tell–and the kinds of characters on whom they focus–create part of the difficulty.

*A much more interesting outcome would be if the character joined the state, but I’ve yet to see that in a series (No, Peeta does not count). It would satisfy my greatest disappointment with The Hunger Games, which is that we should see the events from the POV of an average Capital citizen.

What do you think of dystopian series? Are they satisfying? What you think of the transition to revolutionary fiction?


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