Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Literarally Dystopian

Languages, unlike math, are not static. Languages are more like a garden and, even a well-tended garden, grows and changes. Arithmetic, for instance, will always be the stable path through the garden. Two plus two will always equal four. No matter what words we may happen to use for those terms.

I hate to say it, but I'm sure I contributed, back in the 80s and early 90s, to what has happened with the word "literally." [By the way, that word in the title is not or supposed to be "literally." It is what it's spelled as.] When I was teenager and in my early 20s, I loved to use the word ironically. For instance, after a visit to Niagara Falls in the middle of winter without proper protective gear (I had literally never been anywhere where I couldn't deal with the cold, which includes skiing in Colorado), my ears froze and, as I would say, literally fell off my head (You know, it was a take on "I froze my ass off," but I would say "I froze my ears off"). I would follow that up with, "No, seriously. I froze them off and had to super glue them back on." See, it was ironic because the followup was completely unexpected.

So, now, due to continued misuse, "literally" means both "literally" and "figuratively," its exact opposite on the color wheel. This is like how some people believe that "no" means "no" but, sometimes, it also means "yes." But we tell those people they're wrong, that "no" always means "no." Maybe, we need to launch a "literally" means "literally" campaign.

Which brings me to dystopians and why I hate the concept of them just like I hate the constant misuse of the word literally. Our current understanding of the word is that it means the opposite of utopian. In fact, the more common term used to be anti-utopian (that's what Brave New World was called when it was released back in the 1930s), which makes it sound like that's what it should be. By that logic (current logic), dystopian means something that is a horrible place to live (and, you know, we'd have to call so many places on Earth, right now, dystopias if that's really what it meant). But, if you look at books like Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, you will see that those societies were not horrible places to live. So why do we call those books dystopians when they are nothing like the dystopian books of today? Because we no longer use the word as it was originally intended.

Let's take the apple as an example. Here is a nice apple that looks like an apple should:
We'll call this the Utopia Apple. The perfect apple. You want to eat it, right?

Our current understanding of dystopia is this:
This is not the apple you want to eat. It's rotten, and you can see that it's rotten. You don't want to live there.

However, the original understanding of dystopia was more like this:
From the outside, it looks fine. It looks good. It's only when you get into it that you can see that there's something wrong with it. The idea of a dystopia was that it looked like a utopia from the outside. Everyone seemed fine and happy, or at least content, and secure. It wasn't until you got inside that you could see that there was something inherently wrong with the society.

That's the power of a book like Brave New World. The people within the society are happy. Even the slaves. They like the way they live. There are only a few that even have an idea that there might be something wrong, and they don't know what it is, just that something doesn't seen quite right. It's bringing in outsider that the rottenness is brought to light at all.

Somehow, during the 80s (yeah, we're back there again) and the surge of post-apocalyptic literature, it became synonymous with dystopian literature and it just kinda stuck even though the two started out as two separate things, kind of like figuratively and literally. So, yeah, just as I don't like that we feel compelled use literally for something it shouldn't mean, I don't like that we feel compelled to use dystopian for something it shouldn't mean.

And, yes, it gives me an automatic negative bias against anything "dystopian" written after, probably, 1980. It may be that Fahrenheit 451 was the last true dystopian written for all I know.

What I do know is that I got tired of reading post-apocalyptic stories back in the 80s, and I have no interest in them now. I especially have no interest in reading post-apocalyptic stories being tossed around as dystopian, like Hunger Games. I mean, come on, that society looks rotten from the outside. The only case you can make for it as a true dystopian is if you only look at the Capitol, but that is a city, not the society.

Now that I've said all of that: None of that is to say that I just won't read dystopian or post-apocalyptic stories. It is to say that I'm starting out with a bias against them. If you want to write a dystopian story, make it a real dystopian story. If you just want to write about people living in horrible conditions, write about Afghanistan or Somalia. And if you want post-apocalyptic... well, I don't know. I suppose I feel like that's been done to death, so you're gonna have to convince me. Or at least ask nicely.


  1. Whenever someone gets upset about something like this, it's important to note that words change meaning over time. If you talked with someone from Shakespeare's day you'd almost think they were speaking another language when really you're both speaking English. Literally. And figuratively maybe.

    1. "Decimate" and "Ironic" are a couple of other words it occurs to me where people often get a bee in their bonnet saying people aren't using it the "right" way anymore, not understanding that language is liberal, not conservative; it's shaped and reshaped by society at any given time. Language when you think about it is pretty arbitrary to start with. One day someone decided the thing over our heads is called "sky" and it's "blue". They could easily have said it's bleep-blorp and phrendangle and then thousands of years later that's what we'd be calling it.

    2. I did actually start out the post by pointing out that language is growing thing, so I do get that. Unfortunately, it usually grows in the direction of the lowest common denominator, and I don't have to be okay with that.

      It's like the popular notion that paleontologists believe that dinosaurs were killed by an asteroid, which is actually just a popular notion and not one that paleontologists ever grabbed onto. Paleontologists are pretty convinced that dinosaurs were not wiped out by an asteroid, but that doesn't stop people from believing the inaccurate notion that they were. The dystopian thing is fairly similar, and just because a majority of people believe that something is some particular thing or way does not make it so.

    3. I don't see any harm in making the definition more inclusive. If you think about it, in the time of Brave New World they didn't have nuclear weapons, global warming, or any of that to make apocalypses possible. Pretty much all they had was a deus ex machina like in the Bible. If they had maybe they would have included that in the original definition.

    4. It's funny that you mention nukes. Huxley believed in his BNW vision, that it was more like a prophecy than a work of fiction. After nuclear weapons, though, he sort of regretted having written the book to early because, he said, nukes changed everything and, probably, his vision of the world to come would happen even sooner than he thought.

  2. The word "dystopia" caught my eye in the dictionary long before Hunger Games came out. I recall that dictionary defined the word as "a place of utter wretchedness." So according to that defintion, Panem and all the other dystopian settings are aptly named. Maybe we should consider "Brave New World" and Farenheit 451 quasi-topias or semi-topias.

    As for post-apocalyptic stories, I hope we're all not living in one a few decades down the road. The climate change reports, however, suggest otherwise.

    1. Yes, that is what you will find everywhere is the current definition of dystopia and, by that, we can just look around on Earth and find those, well, everywhere. But that was not how the word was originally used or intended to be used.

      Remember how everyone laughed at Waterworld when that came out?

  3. From "Archer":

    Cheryl: Defibrillator? That's a made up word.

    Clerk: They're ALL made up.

    Cheryl: You just blew my mind.


    I try not to worry too much about whether words are used "right" or not. That matters if you're trying to classify something for a reason - -like when you and I debate what poetry is versus prose. If you were running a bookstore and wanted a dystopian section and a postapocalyptic section, the distinction would be more important, but if everyone decides (as they have) that one is the other, you'd probably end up following them rather than spending your entire day in Andrew's Booke Shoppe telling them "no, that's over there, in dystopian."

    I was surprised to learn that 'literally' no longer means just 'literally,' but, then, I once hypothesized that the incredible agility of English as a language is why countries that speak English seem to be so great at innovating and creating: it teaches us to think and think and think. When someone says "I literally froze my ears off," you have to work your way through that to decide what they mean and then how to respond, which heightens our mental agility.

    In other words: USA! USA!

  4. Briane: The dystopian thing actually does affect me as a reader. Being someone that ascribes to the separation of meaning of the two terms, I do like things that are actually dystopian. I like books like 451 and BNW; they usually have something to say. Post-apocalyptic books are usually just about survival in the new, horrible world, and I have little interest in that (in a general sense). So calling something I don't particularly like something I do like is, well, kind of tricksy.

    It would be like me handing you an eggplant burger and inviting you to taste to my hamburger.
    (I'm assuming you would not want an eggplant burger. I wouldn't want an eggplant burger.)