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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Vol. 4 > A Creative Exploration and Analysis of Contemporary Dystopian Fiction
A Creative Exploration and Analysis of Contemporary Dystopian Fiction
Author: Munira Ezzi
Munira Ezzi examines the relationship between young adult readers and dystopian fiction

Abstract

What makes a dystopian fiction so popular? What creates a memorable opening? More importantly, what are the conventions of dystopian fiction? There is now an increasing number of scholarly works that explore contemporary dystopian fiction. It has become apparent that dystopian fiction today seems to target a specific audience, namely young adults. Besides the more obvious reasons for the stereotypical anti-social teen interest in doom and despair, there lies a more important message, both politically and spiritually. So then, if you are to write a dystopian novel of your own, what are the guidelines for the novel to be both successfully dystopian and successfully inspirational to the young adults who are bound to stumble upon it? This paper looks at the way popular dystopian novels of the decade have made an impact and moves on to explore the beginnings of contemporary dystopian novels, before finally concluding on how effective these guidelines are for future use.

 

Key Words: Creative Writing, Contemporary Dystopian Fiction, Conventions of Dystopian Fiction, Young Adults

 

Introduction

In this exploration of dystopian fiction, I aim to highlight key elements of the openings in contemporary dystopian novels. The focal texts of this study will be Veronica Roth’s Divergent (2013), Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (2011) and James Dashner’s The Maze Runner (2013). I believe that analyzing the openings of these novels will help to discover elements that are core to the popularity and appeal of dystopian fiction today.

I will first define what dystopia means to a contemporary reader and then examine how dystopian fiction has changed in terms of its implications. I will then provide a list of the key elements which I find are essential in helping to build a dystopian fiction piece of work. This will help establish the extent to which they can be used as a guideline for future writers interested in writing dystopian fiction.

 

What is Contemporary Dystopian Fiction?

There is no single definition of what dystopian fiction is today but Balaka Basu, Katherine Broad and Carrie Hintz suggest that, broadly, dystopia is the creation “of a non-existent society” (2013:2). To understand dystopia, we must first understand utopia. The word utopia derives from the Greek meaning of “eu” (or “ou”) and “topos” translating to “good place” (Wilde 2017:1).

Ruth Levitas explains that, “utopia is an expression of what is missing, of the experience of lack in any given society or culture” (Levitas 2000:26). Essentially the two definitions are not far from each other, they stem from the same outlook and yet they are exact opposites. Let us use H.G. Wells’, The Time Machine (1895) as an example. Wells creates a world in the distant future in which all traces of evil seemed to have vanished, there is only love and ease of life. By displaying what can be interpreted as a “perfect world” devoid of hate and greed, Wells presents a world that expresses the lack of love, the presence of dangerous hierarchical structures and segregation, in a historical social context. As readers continue through the novel, however, they soon come to realize that this world is not entirely perfect. Although these future beings define beauty and love, there is no substance beyond this, they have no purpose and no particular goal. Wells then introduces another race in his utopia that lives underground and is an embodiment of contempt, hate and has lived a life of servitude.  They live in darkness and come out only at night to consume those that are unintelligent enough to wander during moonlight. The relationship between the two races can be looked at in further depth to understand the various assumptions Wells attempts to make about the future of the society (Parrinder 1972:35). The Greek word “ou” can also mean “no” as in “no place”, meaning a utopia is a place that doesn’t exist. Traditionally, the former translation has become much more utilized when describing utopia but a utopia is just a title for a fictitious world (Wilde 2017). When combining the two definitions, it is suggested that a utopia is a world of perfection that doesn’t exist. We can assume this again has two meanings: the first being that no perfect world exists, and the second that it is a depiction of a perfect world that is fictitious. Wells’ utopia is not completely devoid of imperfection, and if the time we currently live in is evidence that the world is neither perfect nor imperfect, the question arises is there a perfect world without flaw?

Like utopias most dystopian novels contain imaginary worlds that are based on but otherwise completely different to our own. On the other hand, Sara Day, Miranda Green-Barteet and Amy Montz suggest that dystopian literature relies on “futures in which utopian societies have failed” (2016:8). The underlying feature, however, that is usually agreed upon when defining dystopia, is that it not only portrays a dark future but, more importantly highlights the deterioration of a political structure (Lacy, Palumbo and Sullivan 2014:104). Therefore, dystopian settings are built upon the author’s world’s imperfections and are created to be considerably worse than our own (Basu, Broad and Hintz 2013:2). This only distorts the line between utopia and dystopia further as some utopias are read as a “totalitarian political project” and, as highlighted by Levitas, there seem to be more apocalyptic novels rather than utopian hopes for the future (2000:27-29). Orwell’s 1984 (1949) is an appropriate example of this totalitarian state in which the protagonist Winston Smith attempts to rise up against “Big Brother”, only to fail by realizing that there is no escape from this state of society. In one sense the novel displays a dystopia, but its attempt to portray the totalitarian state is utopian.

Dystopian fiction today increasingly targets a much younger audience. Possibly because, the vulnerability that comes with the age enables a much more engaged reading of the text. The messages that Basu, Broad and Hintz state that are displayed in these novels, provide a safety net for these vulnerabilities and “an escape from the stricture of social convention,” (2013:5). They also have a way of connecting with their readers lived experiences by portraying similar, or ideal values, pressures and goals (Day, Green-Barteet and Montz 2016:29). So, although the novels display a society that is beyond reality, readers of this genre have found this to be an attraction. Perhaps, as Basu, Broad and Hintz suggest, it is because of the “unequivocal clarity of their message” (2013: 5). 1984 (Orwell 1949) is a classic example of explicit portrayal of political injustice. Orwell’s work, however outdated, still proves to be relevant in society today, but contemporary dystopian fiction seems to have outgrown the explicit writing styles that Orwell portrays. Instead, novels such as The Hunger Games (THG) (Collins 2011) and Divergent (D) (Roth 2013), which are about political degradation, act also as groundwork for other questions such as rebellion, romance, hope, feminism and much more.

In THG Panem, the capitol district, is upper class whilst the other twelve districts suffer under the rule of President Snow. To keep everyone in order, Snow conducts annual “Hunger Games” in which two tributes of the opposite sex are chosen from each district to participate in a fight for survival. At the end of these games only one tribute survives. The survivor is guaranteed enough food to help their home district survive for at least a year. THG is notorious for the representation of a protagonist who can defy the current state of that world, and successfully bring about a better society (Day, Green-Barteet and Montz 2016: 18). Notably, Katniss Everdeen who is only 16 years old herself, by the end of the trilogy becomes a figurehead for the “Mockingjay”, a rebellion group set out to destroy President Snow, and bring an end to the games. For this society, the end of the games is the beginning of their utopia. Through a series of trials and tribulations, eventually this is the outcome, despite many sacrifices. The idea of such a rebellion is suitable for a younger audience, as they are considered the generation that can entice change by standing up for what they believe in. Possibly the direct address to young adults, by having an identifiable young protagonist, is to further encourage this act of social change and stand against social injustice (Day, Green-Barteet and Montz 2016: 7). It is important to bear in mind, however, that 1984, although following this idea of standing up for social change, is not categorized as a young adult dystopian novel and this could be one explanation for its tragic ending. The utopia within dystopia as displayed by the ending in THG on the other hand, may explain why young adult dystopian novels seem to have happier and more hopeful endings, edging towards brighter possibilities and outcomes.

This is not true for all novels, another example of adult dystopia being Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (DAD?) (1968) with an ending that lies somewhere between tragic and hopeful. There is also the question of character, as we now move on to explore, and whether the characters are represented the same in young adult and adult dystopia.

In addressing young adults then, the reader must be able to identify with the protagonist. This connection usually comes from their personality, their individuality and their struggle to apprehend this individuality. If the reader’s age is close to the protagonist’s there is a sense of relatability, they are most likely going through the same conflicts. For example, in Roth’s D, the protagonist, Beatrice Prior hopes to find an answer to where she belongs in society through the aptitude test that she will be taking. She hopes that it will answer the question “Who am I?” (Basu, Broad and Hintz 2013:19) and place her into one of the four groups that her world consists of. At 16 years old, she is having to make a tough, life altering decision which she cannot go back on. Thus, the young adult dystopian fiction inevitably lends itself to the “coming of age” novel. It parallels the struggle a 16-year-old in the present society has, when told to choose their career path and undeniably shows the identity crisis they may go through by being put under this pressure. In doing so, it seeks to answer or at least shape a path for the protagonist that should help in answering the question of identity for the reader (Day, Green-Barteet and Montz 2016: 44). Through the first novel, it becomes clearer that Beatrice cannot be contained to just one faction as it were, as she has many traits that show flexibility of character. At first, Beatrice is hesitant to accept this but, she soon realizes, when she and the other divergents are under threat for being different, that her individuality is what makes her. Young readers can feel a sense of satisfaction from learning that they too like Beatrice can be themselves even if they don’t fit in.

 

Writing Dystopian Fiction

The Character

Julia Bell suggests that when writing  “without character there is no story” (2001: 95). In dystopian fiction, the characters are the primary element that the reader empathizes with and therefore need to be strongly thought out. THG is an essential text in displaying a strong dystopian protagonist. Katniss Everdeen, as Sonya Fritz says, is “characterized from the opening pages of the trilogy as a survivor” (Day, Green-Barteet and Montz 2016: 22). She is a headstrong individualist and a powerful young woman. This is only emphasized by the huge fan base of the novel and its film adaptations: fans who strive to be the hero they see represented. The term “hero” (Oxford University Press 2018) defines a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities; so by definition, the protagonist must carry out an act of bravery, show success in their endeavours and have moral principle in their actions. Katniss shows bravery by volunteering to take her younger sister’s place in the games and immediately displays an empathetic character who has now sacrificed her life for a loved one. She then goes on to win the hunger games and to defy, as well as exceed expectations by being the first tribute to come out of the games alive with a fellow tribute. Her choice not to kill her fellow tribute and instead walk out alive together displayed an act of nobility and inevitably led to her becoming a figurehead for a revolution, and for young female readers a significant role model. She wasn’t afraid to do what was right, no matter the consequences.

Roth’s D also centres around Beatrice Prior who at first introduction, tells the reader that she should not be self-indulgent. She cares little about how she looks because she is selfless. However, she then also shows courage by leaving her family, her faction and her life behind to go into a faction that is the complete opposite to the one she belonged to. She then successfully passes dangerous tasks and life-threatening ambushes to become a member of the new faction. After noticing a flaw within the system Beatrice strives to correct it, creating havoc and eventually a revolution. (Day, Green-Barteet and Montz 2016: 42). These characters are vital in connecting to the fragile and yet resilient teenage hearts that are constantly challenged; more so, they challenge the regular male heroes and create a bigger social impact by flouting gender role expectations.

The Maze Runner (TMR) (Dashner 2013) on the other hand is interesting in this debate because the protagonist is not initially female. Instead the novel introduces an all-male society trapped in a life size maze, with walls that shift every night and creatures that keep them engulfed at the center of the maze, leaving them with no way out.  Thomas the protagonist, disrupts the order of things since he wants to be a Runner, someone who explores the maze during the day to find an exit and make it back by sunset. Gender roles are flouted here in another way, through for example the relationship between the characters and the influence the maze has on them. Lee Min Ho, one of the novels main characters is a Runner who comes across as a leader, yet is a quiet and collected character who only speaks if needed. Half way through the novel, a female protagonist Teresa is introduced. Teresa, is the only female amongst the large group of boys which again flouts gender expectations. On her arrival, the boys receive a piece of paper that warns them, “she’s the last one. Ever” (Dashner 2013: 56). From here, Teresa’s role in the story seems to be more significant than her actions. The boys agree that “she came, and everything has been do-or-die”, implying that the arrival of the girl signifies changes. It is only through her that the boys can disrupt the norm and enact change to get out of the maze.

On the one hand these characters are heroes, and on the other empathy arises from their victimization. Each of the protagonists overcome so many obstacles to get to where they are, readers can sympathize with their efforts. Both Katniss and Beatrice are protagonists who come from lower class families that are struggling. If we take a closer look at the two stories they are almost the same in the structure of their storyline. Both protagonists make life changing decisions which threaten their life. They naïvely but intentionally decide to do something that angers those in charge and puts their lives in more danger. Their love interests initially try to change their minds but end up joining them to fight against the antagonist/s before they start something that there’s no backing out of. This brings back the question of utopia and dystopia. Ernst Bloch describes utopia as reaching for a better life, suggesting that “people in the street look as if they are thinking about something else entirely. The something else is predominantly money, but also what it could be changed into” (1986: 33). These protagonists are working towards the same ideal, a better life, one in which they can live together with their family and not have to worry about food or being judged based on who they are. This heroism presents a sense of utopianism rather than dystopia.

 

The Beginnings

It could be argued that the most important part of any novel is the opening. The opening sentence, paragraph and chapter must be intriguing and energetic (Stern 1991: 94). They should engage and hold a reader’s attention for them to want to read on. There are components that exist in the beginnings of the novels that can distinguish dystopian fiction from another genre. Knowing what these are, help to replicate the powerful openings of dystopian fiction that create everlasting effects on young adult readers

1. The Life Changing Day

Readers are immediately introduced to the event that will have the greatest impact on the protagonist’s life. In THG, this event is signalled in a short sentence “this is the day of the reaping” (Collins 2011: 3). Similarly, in D, Beatrice says that “today is the day of the aptitude test” (Roth 2013: 2). In TMR, however, Dashner introduces the protagonist in the moment that he arrives at the maze. The event is occurring already, and it is only revealed at the end of chapter one, with the phrase “welcome to the Glade” (Dashner 2013: 4). In the case of TMR, the readers have no choice but to ask questions. They are thrust into a confusing situation along with Thomas and therefore discover things as they read on, just like the protagonist. The revealing of the Glade towards the end of the chapter works better in this circumstance. Whereas, with THG and D, introducing the situation earlier on works equally effectively because it sets a tone of apprehension. Readers are aware that an explanation will be given soon, that will set the novel in context about this event, and define the future events of the novel.

2. Subjective Narrative

Much of young adult fiction tends to be written from a first-person narrative as is displayed in THG and D. A subjective narrator can be the key to dystopian fiction in highlighting the protagonist’s sense of individuality. Through their thoughts, the reader can feel their inner conflict and empathize with their decisions. With Katniss in THG, her relationship with her mother is not a particularly positive one. This is demonstrated when she says “my mother was beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me” (Collins 2011: 3), illustrating the undermining nature of Katniss’ behaviour as well as suggesting superiority over her mother. Her mother seems like a faded figure as she will later appear to be, through further description. On the other hand, the omniscient narrator in TMR suggests that Thomas, “wanted to cry, but no tears came” (Dashner 2013: 1) when he finds he can’t do anything but wait for the box to open. Although we can’t hear Thomas’ thoughts we know that he is in a state of complete disarray and confusion, along with other mixed emotions. Readers can sympathize with his situation but it gives a feeling of watching what is going on rather than living it.

3. Introduction to Key Characters and Conflicts

In the case of the example texts, most of the key characters are introduced within the first few chapters but this is not necessarily the case for all novels. In many cases, like THG, key characters are more apparent to the reader. For example, Prim is introduced even before we are aware of Katniss’ name. Indirectly this shows the importance of her character and how throughout the story, Prim’s life is put before her own. She then meets Gale, beyond the forbidden district gate, foreshadowing a love that will never happen. Katniss’ inner conflicts are displayed through both her dialogue and her actions. Her conversation with Gale about running away, which then becomes more important to her as time goes on, is viewed against her taking care of her family. Her inner conflict is subtle but present nonetheless. Talking about the games she says that, “Tonight. After the reaping, everyone is supposed to celebrate” (Collins 2011: 12) There is a tone of discontentment in this statement. The supposition that everyone should be celebrating because their children have not been chosen, whilst another family’s child has, makes her unhappy and questions the capital’s system.

In other cases, like D, the characters are introduced, but are less apparent. For example, Tobias, member of the dauntless faction and the later love interest of Beatrice, is introduced in the second chapter at the dinner table, as topic of conversation: “...two years ago, Marcus’ son Tobias left us for the dauntless, and Marcus was devastated” (Roth 2013: 34). Although he is only briefly mentioned, this little bit of information is vital for his character’s appearance later in the novel.  In D, the protagonist’s inner conflicts are revealed early on as well. Beatrice displays her desire to leave Abnegation, “I feel the guiltiest for wanting to leave them” (Roth 2013:3), but at the same time, her not wanting to leave out of guilt presents the reader with the conflict she faces, choosing an identity which she is comfortable in. This immediately builds a connection with a young reader who may be in the same situation as her.

TMR, presents a tension filled beginning in which Thomas’ inner conflict is revealed before anything else. He suddenly appears in a place that is unfamiliar to him, with no clear self-identity but his name. He must find out literally who he is and what he is supposed to do, presenting fear, doubt and so many questions for both the protagonist and the reader. Here, despite the third person narrative, the heightened action makes up for the lack of knowledge, as the readers are in the same position as the protagonist. When there is the initial interaction between Thomas and the boys in the Glade, readers can assume that these are important characters as they are placed within the action too.

This inner conflict at the beginning of the novel is vital for the readers to be able to trust the protagonist and want to read on to find out more about them as the story moves along. In these example texts these protagonists display unhappiness, and this signals the need for change. It also signals the welcoming attitude that they are most likely to have, when change comes later in the novel.

Not all dystopian fiction follows these rules so rigidly. However, these few elements seem to be repeated through the mainstream contemporary young adult genre. The repetition of these elements creates a familiarity that readers recognize and can come back to with the satisfaction of predictability: the knowledge that they will find a hero who is willing to risk everything even if they don’t have much to begin with; that the hero will fight against all odds to protect everything they love and, when and if it comes down to it, fight for the good of everyone out of the goodness of their hearts.

If we return to protagonists in 1984 and DAD?, the beginnings are almost entirely different. There isn’t any indication that the protagonist’s life will suddenly change or that something important will happen to them. The early chapters in both these novels merely set the scene of the societal state and both these novels are in third-person narrative. Certainly, not all adult dystopian fiction is written in third-person narrative, The Time Machine is an example of a first-person narrative. However, is there a reason why there are more third person narratives in the adult dystopian genre? Do adults need to detach themselves from the realm of possibilities and is the hero fighting social injustice only for young adults?

 

Reflections

Earlier, it was discussed that dystopian fiction shows the reader a world with political degradation and social disaster. Erika Gottlieb suggests that by doing this, the writer, “assumes the role of witness protesting against the ‘worst possible worlds’ of terror and trial in a world that is but should not be” (2001: 1). In other words, a political situation that is present in society today can be extrapolated in fiction and taken further to produce the worst possible world. However, after a closer look at young adult dystopian fictions, the term dystopia should no longer be so rigidly used to describe a world that is so far off from our own. It can be seen as an extrapolated version of our world, but only to a certain extent. There are still protagonists who are willing to fight for change, and there is good in people to rise up against the bad. Levitas’ postmodern interpretation of utopia can include young adult dystopia in its ambiguous territory. If “utopia in the postmodern era has largely fixed its new location in the solitary, private individual body” (2000: 34), then for young adult reading, dystopian fiction presents a utopian experience, especially with a first-person narrative, as the reader embodies the protagonist and conquers obstacles while they do, feeling strong heroic and accomplished.

Raffaella Baccolini states that “it’s important to engage with the critical dystopias of recent decades as they are the product of our dark times” (2004: 521). Producing critical dystopias is becoming more difficult. There is more tolerance of race, religion and sexuality. This is not to say that dystopian fiction is dying but rather that to create original content with accuracy presents a new challenge. Social and Political structure in society will always allow for dystopian fiction, but Yvonne Coppard and Linda Newberry warn writers to be careful because “other writers’ styles, especially, the rhythm of their prose, can be infectious” (2013:82).

The general outline of a dystopian fiction seems to follow a repetitive linear narrative where the protagonist who belongs to a working-class family rises in angst and decides enough is enough. As a writer, this is very difficult to avoid because these characteristics lend themselves to the making of hard working and determined figureheads. Following Levitas’ utopian function in the late capitalist society, however, proposing the idea that desire is central to utopia, shouldn’t writers consider alternative roles, such as a middle-class protagonist who has the same values as a working-class protagonist (2000: 35)? This would certainly challenge the writer but are there only societal problems with the working class? Perhaps middle-class wealth might allow the protagonist to deal with intense inner conflict about his or her identity in association with this wealth or his status, and to help others. I don’t doubt there are many representations of such a character, I only mean to suggest that we widen the scope of characteristics of the young adult dystopian protagonist so that they reach all types of young adult readers. Ultimately, “what makes a character interesting is not the way that the world impacts the character, but the way in which the characters impact the world” (Bell 2001: 96).

The main aim of conducting this review was to examine how the elements that I have discovered in contemporary dystopian fiction help to provide groundwork in producing dystopian writing. Writing is a difficult process and the biggest “misapprehension about writing is that it is as instant and effortless as its master practitioners would have us believe” (Bell and Magrs 2001: 211). In assessing to what extent these elements help to create dystopian fiction I want to conclude that it is relative. On the one hand the elements do not prove to be rigid, when looking at the character Thomas for example, in TMR, a male protagonist surrounded by other male protagonists. Teresa, although not subject of the narrator’s voice, is still a significant and unexpected female protagonist who entices change, but appears much later in the novel. On the other hand, some elements hold certain limitations; for example, the female protagonists being too alike one another. To portray a female protagonist that displays strength and resilience in the same way Katniss or Beatrice do, without replicating their characters, poses a difficult task. The elements help to establish the basic character of the hero, but to define their unique features and still create a trusted protagonist cannot be defined by any guidelines. The character, as mentioned before, needs a lot of work and thought.

Finally, what makes dystopian fiction so popular? There is no definitive answer to such a broad question. However, we can collate a few findings from this very brief study: dystopian fiction is primarily for young adults; it has underlying utopian tones; it has an ability to connect to a reader; and it contains valiant, rebellious heroism.

 

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Munira Ezzi is a BA English and Creative Writing graduate from Coventry University. Now based in London, her interests include: travel writing, book reviewing and blogging. She was previously the president of Coventry Words Magazine Society, and co-editor of the seventh edition. She has also had other editing roles throughout the university and now works freelance as proof reader and editor.

 



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