First of all, I have internet again. Sweet, sweet internet. Oh, how difficult it has been to fill my idle hours without that connection to the world wide webs… I should be able to get back up to my two-times a week posting again. So, anyway, to the rant at hand!
The tone of the world sets the tone of the story (assuming we’re dealing with art that can tell a story). This seems obvious but it really can have a subtle influence. In a world of fiction, the artist has a great deal of control if not total control over the tone of the world. And quite often the artist’s own world experiences affect the tone of their world even if they aren’t aware of it. This can come back to issues with offense.
The tone of a world is a sliding scale between utopia and dystopia (similar but not the same as the sliding alignment scale). Where on that scale a world actually lands depends a lot on the fiction genre. Clearly no horror story is ever going to be told in a utopia. A story world of a modern-day urban fantasy has some tight restraints on that scale. Obviously no real world setting is going to be a utopia, but it probably won’t be completely dystopic either (I’m not saying that can’t happen; clearly a lot of the world is in pretty bad shape). It is unlikely any story would take place in a utopia either. Drama relies on Bad Things happening, and in a utopia, there are no Bad Things.
I’m not particularly a fan of worlds that take place in complete dystopias. In a complete dystopia, there are no happy endings. There is no changing the system. At best endings are bittersweet in that either 1) the Bad Things will return or 2) the world is no better at the end, only a different dystopia. To me, the primary reason to create a dystopia is to show that Good/Neutral Things are really Bad Things. Typically complete dystopias are usually the subject of more speculative/philosophical fiction. The stories themselves are somewhat philosophical nature to explore the worst outcomes. 1984 is a famous example of this kind of speculative dystopia. A secondary reason is that the artist thinks the world has to be dystopic for the kinds of stories the artist wants to tell/show. I can also understand that reason, and a lot of sci-fi is set in dystopian futures, although rarely a complete dystopia.
What I don’t care for are dystopian worlds for the sake of dystopian worlds (or, to quote TvTropes, crapsack worlds). That is, the stories don’t have to take place in a dystopian world; the artist just wanted the world to be a terrible place. I also don’t typically care for are stories that create dystopias to show that Bad Things are really Bad Things. We all know Bad Things are Bad Things, so I don’t see the need to create some media with that message. It doesn’t matter to me whether the artist intended to show Bad Things are really Bad Things, or that the artists/fans later try to defend the constant depiction of Bad Things as some sort of message.
For a few examples:
1) Dystopia as Philosophy – obviously, 1984. Also, Brave New World.
2) Dystopia to show Bad Things are really Bad Things – The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, which is about the lives of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. This is one of the few that I give a pass to because people were truly unaware of how terrible the real-life circumstances used as a model in the book were. So in this instance, people did not know Things were really Bad Things. Although in this case most people were more appalled by the gruesome and gross descriptions of the meat-packing industry at the time (it was a Bad Thing) and sadly less appalled by the squalor the immigrants lived in (which is a Worse Thing).
2) Dystopia as Narratively Necessary – I have very few examples of this, and I’m not even sure I think this is true. Maybe, in some incarnations, Gotham City. In the total dystopia incarnations, cops are corrupt or incompetent (except for a few who are weary of the fight), and the failure of the criminal justice system is rivaled in magnitude only by the failure of the mental health system, which results in rampant organized crime and violent, psychotic criminals who always seem to be on the loose. Even I’m not sure Gotham City has to be this bad, but Batman is at his darkest when his city is too.
3) Deliberately More Dystopic than Narratively Necessary –
a) The “Series of Unfortunate Events” books. Adults in that world are obtuse, selfish, incompetent, or outright evil, leaving the Baudelaire children having to fend for themselves. Spolier alert – It’s also heavily implied the world ends in pandemic apocalypse). However, I don’t necessarily object to this because the writer is pretty upfront about purposely creating a terrible world so that he (the writer) could torture these children. If Wikipedia is to be believed, he was surprised his publishers thought these were great children’s books.
b) The Hunger Games and sequels – holy cats is that world dark and terrible, and these books for young adults? The idle rich oppress the working poor and use their amazing technology to amuse themselves instead of feed the poor. Children are forced to fight to the death for the amusement of the idle rich and to the horror of the oppressed poor who have no choice but to watch. Also, lots of people are starving. And, spoiler alert, pretty much everyone Katniss knows and loves is killed and while the Rebellion wins, it’s clear they aren’t any better than the previous ruling class.
c) A Song of Ice and Fire – lordy, lordy, that is a crapsack world of epic proportions. At least it’s not marketed to young adults. Still, there are graphic depictions of violence and brutality of every kind and pretty much every single character has either been sexually assaulted or maimed/mutilated (and this includes the children!) if they haven’t been outright killed yet. I know that the fight between the Lannisters and Starks mirrors the actual historical fight known as the War of the Roses (between the royal families of the Lancasters and the Yorks), but I do not buy into the argument that just because history sucked, a fantasy world loosely based on history has to suck too. Fantasy is not history, or else Ye Olde Medieval Fantasy World wouldn’t have dragons.
b) and c) are the sorts of dystopias that make me wonder why the author went that route. We know oppression is a Bad Thing. We know violence and brutality are Bad Things. Obviously, these Bad Things have to be present in the two series presented above, but does the world have to be that dystopic? Obviously, I don’t think so. And personally, I find dystopic worlds hard to really care about because as soon as I do, a Bad Thing happens. And in a world of all the Bad Things, what is there to care about? Anyone can be killed/maimed at any time. That’s hard to get through after awhile (hence my general aversion to slapping a helping of Darker and Edgier on every damn thing).
4) More Dystopic than Intended –
Sometimes artists create worlds that are probably far more dystopic than they intended. This comes from the subtle implications in how the world is set up. The best example of this is the “Harry Potter” books (and yes, this makes me wonder about the fate our children since half of my examples have been marketed to kids). The story is of course about Harry Potter who must face down the evil Voldemort and save the wizarding world and by extension the Muggle world. Here’s the dystopia I don’t think the author intended – the world is horribly, terribly biased against Muggles. Yes, of course, the darker wizards like the Malfoys and Blacks think Muggles are inferior. But even the most benevolent of wizards is condescending to Muggles (Molly told a Healer that stitches were the stupidest thing she’d ever heard of). The wizards shut themselves away with all their magic because those Muggles just don’t deserve to have their limbs regrown and actively shun and impede technology. For crying out loud, is a ballpoint pen or a flashlight really that threatening to the wizarding way? Wizards are so isolated in general from Muggles that Arthur Weasley, who made a study of Muggles (oh, no, that’s not condescending at all), didn’t understand what the purpose of a plug was. And it’s not as though a child born a wizard can’t not go to Hogwarts; they have to learn how to use their magic or they’ll hurt someone. So all the wizard children are effectively assimilated into this new world. What if a wizard wants to go to a Muggle college? They can’t because Hogwarts doesn’t teach any of that Muggle math or science or literature or history. What happens when a child in a wizarding family is born without powers (a Squib)? They are shunned but nothing indicates they’re allowed to join the Muggle world. Even a wizard without powers is better than a Muggle.
At least in that case, I think that’s an example of an author not thinking through the consequences of their world choices, and possibly other people having way too much time on their hands. Then again, I don’t think it takes much of a critical look at the books to realize that Muggles really are portrayed as inferior in every way (Hermoine is not a Muggle; she’s a witch).
So anyway, that’s a brief rant on how world structure can influence the tone of a novel (or movie) in ways the artist intended or didn’t intend. I’m sure a lot of this is a matter of taste, as well. But for me, I think very few stories really require a completely dystopic world setting.