Dystopian Archetypes – 2. Divided Population

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

One of the recurring plot devices in dystopian literature is the ‘Divided Population’. This is to be expected, given that dystopian stories (and their more up-beat counterpart, utopian stories) are, at their heart, socio-political narratives. Population structures and methods of control are, therefore, a key aspect of many dystopian stories.

We see this archetype in classic dystopias, such as 1984, Brave New World and Divided Kingdom, as well as in modern dystopias, like Hunger Games and Divergent. My WIP, Divided Elements, also draws heavily on this archetype in its exploration of identity, loyalty and rebellion.

The prevalence of the ‘Divided Population’ archetype is arguably due to the fact that it draws on two long-established and fundamental philosophies:

  • Divide and Rule (politics)

[The] gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into pieces that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy. The concept refers to a strategy that breaks up existing power structures, and especially prevents smaller power groups from linking up, causing rivalries and fomenting discord among the people. (wikipedia)

  • Self vs Other (sociology/psychology)

…when individuals that identify closely with their own ethnic or religious beliefs begin to gain the mentality that those who are different from them are problematic. This can lead to extreme separation, alienation, and exclusion of the person or of people that is seen as different or unusual to the typical lens of one’s societal views. Othering can be described as discrimination of people or a population that is different than the collective social norm; since they are different they are also seen as deviant or in need of being cultured by the group that is othering them. (wikipedia)

 

Despite the common reference to these philosophies, many dystopian stories present the archetype differently. The main axes along which these stories differ are:

  • The basis on which the population is divided
  • Whether the division is reinforced by a geographic divide
  • Whether the division is static or dynamic (i.e. whether people can change which division they belong to)
  • Whether the division is absolute or imperfect (i.e. whether there is opportunity for inconsistencies within the divide)
  • Whether an additional class or group exists outside the division

 

1984

In 1984, the divide is socio-political – with the population generally inhabiting the same space (albeit in separate (yet, accessible) neighbourhoods) but divided into three hierarchical classes: The proles (proletariat), outer party (bureaucracy) and inner party (oligarchy). The divide is maintained organically – with each new generation born into the class of their parents. No additional class or group exists outside these divisions – rebellion comes from within the structure.

In Hunger Games, the divide is predominantly geographic and labour-based. The population is divided into 12 districts and each district is responsible for fulfilling a mandated role in resource production – District 12’s core industry is mining, District 4’s core industry is fishing. Like 1984, the divide is maintained organically with each new generation born into their district and, therefore, role. Unlike 1984, however, the Districts are equal in power/standing, with the true political divide presented between the Districts and the Capitol. A 13th district is later discovered existing outside the core division, and it from within this district that the rebellion is built and sustained.

brave new world

In Brave New World, the divide is biological – the population ‘hatched’ into a hierarchy of five castes of different intellectual magnitude. Stemming from this biological divide is the division of labour – whereby members of each caste are conditioned for roles appropriate to their level of (manipulated) competence. Like 1984, their is no geographical divide – but the strict hierarchical model means that interactions between castes is distasteful at best, social suicide at worst.

As a counterpoint to this manipulated world, there exists a more organic world – the ‘savage reservation’ –  where the population is not divided. This world (and its inhabitants) serve as a the key narrative device to illustrate the differences between the two ways of living.

In Divided Kingdom, the divide is based on personality types – the population divided into four types (represented by a different humor: blood (red), phlegm (blue), black bile (green) and yellow bile (yellow)). This divide is also geographic, with each type occupying a designated quarter that is quarantined from the others by security walls. There is no hierarchy – all types are equal in power and standing.

Unlike the above examples, the division is not static, but continually manipulated – with children born into a type (and quarter) and then taken for assessment and re-assignment (if necessary) at a predetermined age. A fifth group, not sanctioned by the state or part of the greater population structure, is known as the White – consisting of people who embody all four personality types and none of them, they are able to roam freely between the four quarters, reviled in some, revered in others.

divergent

In Divergent the divide is also personality-based and geographic. The population is divided into five factions based on personality types (Abnegation, Dauntless, Candour, Erudite and Amity) and each faction occupies its own part of the city. Movement between the different parts is allowed (although, seemingly uncommon?). While there is no specific hierarchy, in that each group is equal in general power and standing, one faction is given responsibility for leadership (the pivot on which much of the action in the story turns).

The division is not static – with children born into a type and then taken for assessment when they reach a predetermined age in their teenage years. Unlike Divided Kingdom, where membership is mandated by the state, in Divergent, the assessment is used as guidance only – with candidates allowed to choose which faction they wish to join (or remain in). The divisions are largely imperfect: A candidate more suited to one faction can nonetheless choose membership in another;  A candidate who fails their faction initiation test ultimately becomes ‘factionless’, joining a loosely-organised group occupying their own part of the city; A candidate who is predisposed to more than one faction is labelled ‘divergent’.

 

So, as you can see, despite the common theme of a ‘divided population’, each of these stories is able to present a unique narrative by mixing up the other key considerations. I’m hoping to do the same with my own novel, Divided Elements. 

 

Find this post useful? Let me know in the comments!

Advertisements
Dystopian Archetypes – 2. Divided Population

Dystopian Archetypes – 1. High Tech Utopia vs Savage Natural World

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently, I finished reading two YA dystopian novels that, while very different to each other, contained a common thread that I have identified as one of the core themes of dystopian literature – The High-tech utopia vs the Savage natural world.

 

Ready Player One and Under the Never Sky both have this as the dominant characteristic of their respective physical worlds. In Ready Player One, the dichotomy takes the form of an online virtual reality called OASIS versus the crumbling urban infrastructure of an environmentally wasted city. In Under the Never Sky, it takes the form of pristine ‘Dweller’ pods and virtual ‘Realms’ versus the aether-blighted wastelands.

RPO & UTNS

In both, the high-tech virtual world is presented as the Utopia – although this is less pronounced in Ready Player One (whereby OASIS is more a kind of advanced Second Life platform) than Under the Never Sky (whereby the Realms are virtual worlds that dominate existence and provide a life free of fear, injury and consequence). Similarly, both present the ‘real’ world as uninhabitable, hostile and dangerous. This clear polarity allows both stories to set up the high-tech world as the false utopia (another core dystopian theme that I will explore in a later post). Again, Ready Player One does this less successfully than Under the Never Sky, the latter showing the inherent flaws of an overly-designed society and virtual existence through the character development of Aria, the novel’s protagonist.

Perhaps the best and well-known example of this dichotomy is found in Brave New World, where the engineered and scientifically-advanced society of Bernard is set in stark contrast to the savage and organic world of John.

brave new world

The plot device is a useful one, in that it sets up the dystopian analysis of the ‘hidden’, almost insidious, dangers of technology. This is, of course, is an old and well-worn theme, seen most notably in robots gone wild texts (Robopocalypse and Terminator) and built on a kind of ‘technophobia’. At the core of these books, films and media is an implied discussion on the ethics of technological development.

Technoethics is a continually-developing field of thought and discussion. Whilst intuitively it may seem only a new consideration, debate about the immorality of new technology has been around as long as Socrates and Plato:

The move from one set of dominant information technologies to another is always morally contentious. Socrates lived during the long transition from a largely oral tradition to a newer information technology consisting of writing down words and information and collecting those writings into scrolls and books. Famously Socrates was somewhat antagonistic to writing and he never wrote anything down himself. Ironically, we only know about Socrates’ argument against writing because his student Plato ignored his teacher and wrote it down in a dialogue called “Phaedrus” (Plato). Towards the end of this dialogue Socrates discusses with his friend Phaedrus the “…conditions which make it (writing) proper or improper” (section 274b–479c). Socrates tells a fable of an Egyptian God he names Theuth who gives the gift of writing to a king named Thamus. Thamus is not pleased with the gift and replies,

If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. (Phaedrus, section 275a)

Socrates, who was adept at quoting lines from poems and epics and placing them into his conversations, fears that those who rely on writing will never be able to truly understand and live by these words. For Socrates there is something immoral or false about writing.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/it-moral-values/

As technological development continues to advance at a rapid rate and debates about moral imperatives and ethical considerations develop in response to stubborn resistance to change, this dichotomy of High Tech vs Savage Organic will remain a key inspiration for dystopian creators.

As I continue to draft Divided Elements and read a vast range of dystopian literature, I find myself picking up and analysing the core dystopian themes. Over the coming weeks and months, I will share my observations and insight with you all in the hope of generating some great discussion and unearthing new treasures to read.

Update: The second entry in this series is now available: Dystopian Archetypes – 2. Divided Population

Dystopian Archetypes – 1. High Tech Utopia vs Savage Natural World