Violence and Dystopia

Today I’m talking about violence in dystopia.  If you would like to read more of my thoughts (and some insightful comments) on the dystopian genre: check out my posts about the present popularity of dystopia and the role of the strong female hero in dystopia.

**As a warning, I have to use a couple spoilers in order to actually talk about this, so beware if you are concerned with spoilers about The Hunger Games, Divergent, Partials, or the Chaos Walking series.**

Dystopia is a fairly violent genre and that violence in dystopian lit seems to span a range of cultural notions about violence.  Since this post would be out of control if I talked about all of them, I want to focus on the relationship between violence and government in dystopias.

First, we see governments using violence as a means of social control.  In The Hunger Games, for example, the Capitol pits its citizens against one another in a fight to the death in order to retain its tenuous control over the districts.  Having the districts direct their violence towards one another serves to prevent the districts from turning their superior manpower and resources into violence against the Capitol.  In Divergent, the Erudite and Dauntless leaders conspire together to turn the Dauntless into a mind-controlled army who will kill off any resistance.  This allows the Erudite to rebel against the established order without getting their own hands dirty and also gives them access to the best, most obedient soldiers.  Can’t get much more social control than mind control.  In Partials (which I am about 3/4 of the way through), the Senate launches “rebel” attacks on their own town.  By doing so, the government tries to scare their populace into unity (and thus compliance with unpopular fertility measures) by creating a shared enemy.

These pictures of government-sanctioned violence shouldn’t come as much surprise, since we have seen plenty of violent governments in recent history.  What is interesting is that these examples do not (initially) involve the government directly inflicting violence on its own people, mainly because no one dares to rebel against the government’s order in these societies.  Rather, the government requires/forces/prods its citizens killing one another to distract from their actual discontent with the government.  This sort of violence seems to serve the purpose of reinforcing how corrupt, unjust, and dystopian these societies actually are and to justify the next government-related type of violence– war or revolution.

The Hunger Games trilogy and the Chaos Walking trilogy both feature all-out revolutions/wars (I am leaving off books in incomplete series because the wars haven’t started yet).  This is probably the closest that dystopian violence gets to being regenerative… in that it is used to regenerate society and set it on the path to a new, more peaceful and just order.  At the same time, however, the individual characters suffer tremendous loss and personal suffering as a result of war violence.  Katniss may gain the hope of a new future without famine and the games, but only at the cost of losing her sister, her spirit, and Peeta’s sanity.  Todd and Viola may save the New World from self-destruction, but Todd ends up in a coma, tons of innocent people and Spackle are killed, and perhaps worst of all, Todd is forced to lose his innocence through killing another person.  The price of violence is incredibly high in dystopian societies and often it is incredibly senseless.  I can’t think of a better incident of senseless violence than when Aaron kills Manchee in The Knife of Never Letting Go.  In the end, though, we are given the message that this violence is justified and worthwhile because it results in the ousting of a unjust (and often violent) regime.

The ultimate message, then, seems to be that violence is both contextual and costly.  Violence for no reason or for means of social control is bad, but violence in support of revolution is ok… though either way people will die, lives will be changed, and not necessarily for the better.

Feel free to share your thoughts on dystopian violence in the comments!