What Defines Dystopian Fiction: Background information when reading What's Left of Me

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

What's Left of Me

The Hybrid Chronicles, Book One

by Kat Zhang

What's Left of Me by Kat Zhang
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Sep 2012, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2013, 336 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Cindy Anderson

Buy This Book

About this Book

Beyond the Book:
What Defines Dystopian Fiction

Print Review

John Stuart Mill Dystopian themes have appeared in literature throughout history, but the first use of the word is credited to John Stuart Mill. In 1868, during a speech to the British House of Commons, he played upon the well-known word, "utopia" (adding "dys," which is derived from a Greek word meaning "bad") and used it to criticize legislators who supported a policy with which he disagreed. He said that they were "dys-topians" because they were supporting a policy that was "too bad to be practical."

As to the word "utopia," it would have been familiar to Mill's audience because it had been around for over 350 years, having been coined by Thomas More (the Renaissance humanist and writer) who combined the Greek words for "good place" (eutopia) and "no place," (outopia) for the title of his 1516 book about an idyllic island society. His Utopia was not the first of its kind, however. Just as dystopian works existed before the word began to be used retroactively to describe them, there were many earlier works in the utopian vein - Plato's Republic (ca. 380 BC) is considered to be the first of these - but what is most striking is not just that both More's and Mill's terms stuck and survived, but that the word "dystopia," in particular, has made its way out of literary circles and into the common vernacular of young readers.

At its most basic, a dystopia is "anti-utopia." In other words - as A.H. Abrams succinctly puts it in A Glossary of Literary Terms - if an utopia is a "good place," then a dystopia is a "bad place." Utopian works typically grow out of the writer's criticism of modern life - its politics, economics, or the state of society as a whole. Utopian novels depict ideal nations where certain modern day problems have been solved, or don't exist, and life runs according to a new, superior plan. Dystopian novels on the other hand, tend to present an oppressive future where certain events - such as war or a population problem - have played out to the extreme and resulted in the development of a controlling government, or other authority, that restricts both personal freedom and individuality, and/or enforces unpleasant and confining regulations.

There are other interesting features that define modern dystopian novels. The setting is typically a future time or alternate reality, which allows the writer to create a society that is similar to our own, but with a major difference, such as an authoritative body that has gotten out of control, or a disease that is ravaging society. The dystopian society largely supports the rules and restrictions that have been set upon them, and sees them as necessary. This insures that like Addie/Eva in What's Left of Me, the protagonist cannot turn to family and friends for help, and feels that he or she is alone. Classic examples of 20th century dystopian novels following this form include Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953).

The catalyst for the controlling conditions in a dystopian society may be an apocalyptic event; however, the terms "dystopian" and "post-apocalyptic" are not synonymous. Erin Bowman, an author of young adult books, has set up a lighthearted flowchart for determining whether a fictional world is a dystopia, an "isolated dystopia" (her term) or post-apocalyptic. She doesn't consider crossovers; so for example, she puts The Hunger Games only in the post-apocalyptic category. Click on the tiny picture of the chart to see the larger version.

Picture of John Stuart Mill, who is credited with coining the word, "dystopia," from Popular Science Monthly

Article by Cindy Anderson

This article was originally published in October 2012, and has been updated for the August 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This article is available to non-members for a limited time. You can also read these articles for free. For full access become a member today.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Radium Girls
    The Radium Girls
    by Kate Moore
    In 1915, Austrian-born Sabin von Sochocky developed a luminescent paint that used radium to create a...
  • Book Jacket: Long Black Veil
    Long Black Veil
    by Jennifer Finney Boylan
    "This was a long time ago, before my first death, and none of us now are the people we were then. ...
  • Book Jacket: Proving Ground
    Proving Ground
    by Peter Blauner
    More than a decade after winning the 1992 Best First Novel Edgar for Slow Motion Riot, Peter Blauner...

Win this book!
Win News of the World

News of the World

A brilliant work of historical fiction that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust.

Enter

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Weight of Ink
    by Rachel Kadish

    An intellectual, suspenseful, and entertaining page-turner.
    Reader Reviews

Word Play

Solve this clue:

T's S I Numbers

and be entered to win..

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

A richly layered novel of hearts broken seemingly beyond repair and then bound by a stunning act of human devotion.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.