Did I just Create a Dystopia?



Totally dystopia-y. Pic by Christian Spies: https://unsplash.com/@seelove


Well, did I?

When you write a book, you take a certain view of it. You know what broad genre it slots into, and maybe even the kind of reader you have in mind. What they don’t tell you, however, is that other people will take a view of the book when it’s published, and decide on their own labels for it.

I don’t mean they will decide whether they like it or not (which happens too – imagine, not liking my book!). But they will actually peg a certain box to drop it into, which may not be one you had in mind.

This has probably always been the case, but I think it must be particularly obvious for writers today. These days, people can describe a book online in their own words with great ease. What’s more, they can also tick certain boxes to show what sub-category they see the book belonging to: horror, steampunk, whatever. And what’s more, the sites themselves make their own decisions on where to plonk the book, perhaps using algorithmic hocus-pocus (which is the technical term).

And so it is that you might see certain keywords attached to your book that take you a bit by surprise. Obviously I expected The Machinery to fall under the broad fantasy category, which it has by and large (despite having a bit of a sci-fi element with the Machinery itself). But when I drill down a bit through the categories, I don’t think I ever really saw it as a ‘dystopia’, a word that has been applied to it a few times now in different contexts.

Now, I should firstly say that I can absolutely see where this comes from, and I’m not offended by it. The Machinery and its soon-to-be-published sequels certainly have dark aspects: there’s a lot of political skulduggery, murders, a sense of paranoia that is heightened by the Watchers, a kind of weird police force with magical masks that can see into a person’s soul (plenty of merchandising opportunities there!). But I think I see it as more of a kind of weird fantasy with almost supernatural undertones, rather than a dystopia per se.

The definition of dystopia is “an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one”. In my novels, the leaders of society are chosen by a machine, which they never see. However, the vast majority of people see this as a positive: the Machinery has throughout history chosen people who contributed to the success of their country, in terms that mean something to the citizens. That’s not to say they’re all happy: there is a significant body of people called Doubters, who for various reasons don’t support or believe in the Machinery. On balance, though, the Machinery and its selections are seen as being a good thing, and the people are largely happy with their lot.

That’s not to say see it as a good thing. Maybe the difference is that I know where the books are heading: I hope the theme is ultimately positive, emphasising the ability of people to help themselves.

All that being said, I can see why the name is being used: the Machinery is breaking, after all, and there is no doubt the book is on the dark side. The point is not that I disagree with people who call it a dystopia: it’s more that I see it as another example of how an author’s relationship changes with their book when it is published, and people can stick it in whatever box they please. It’s a strange feeling, and one we all have to get used to.

But still – if people are reading it, they can call it what they want!



Author: gerrardcowan

I'm an author and freelance journalist. My fantasy trilogy, 'The Machinery', is being published by HarperCollins.

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