What are the ethics of writing novels about dystopian societies? Writing novels set in the future about undesirable or frightening societies that exist only in the writer’s mind begs at least three ethical questions:
First, are you clear that your book is unmitigated fiction?
Second, will your reader take your work as good advice?
Third, are you cautious about unintended messages slithering through your paragraphs, hoping to depress, destabilize, or stir violent action?
In the singular, a dystopia is defined as a “bad place.” In 1516, Sir Thomas More coined the term “utopia” in Latin as a blueprint for an ideal society with minimal crime, violence or poverty. Presumably, “dystopia” was created as an antonym for utopia. We can’t be happy all the time, right? While it’s not a hide-bound rule, most artistic works about dystopian societies are set in the future, making them a sci-fi and dystopian package deal. Arguably, the best literary examples include George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
The genre is big enough and its aim true enough to include such downers as dehumanization, totalitarian governments, dictatorships, and other cataclysmic declines in society. Some authors use the genre to stir up, damp down, or otherwise energize certain classes to roil about the environment, politics, economics, religion, psychology, ethics, science or technology. Note that ethics itself can be used to stir, ferment, distill, boil, roil, and spoon-feed ideas to the masses. In any event, dystopian novels almost always imagine societies substantially worse than the society in which the author writes. This begs the fourth ethical question—how does the author know what he or she is talking about?
Dystopias typically reflect contemporary sociopolitical realities and extrapolate worst-case scenarios as warnings for necessary social change, or caution. I’m not sure this begs a question, but are writers of dystopia trying to educate us or entertain us? Sure, they always implicate contemporaneous concerns and fears. Are they inspired by our worst imaginings, our dread of near-term realities? If so, do readers of dystopia literature always distinguish between entertainment and reality? If not, we ought to tell those authors to be more careful, more thoughtful, and more ethical.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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