Urban Druid writing contest: What's behind the dark-side fiction?

A dystopian writing contest, promoted by an Urban Druid image, is the latest in plumbing the dark side. Why the cultural fascination with dark future worlds?

Murray Close/Lionsgate/AP
The 'Hunger Games' movies star Jennifer Lawrence.

While upbeat stories are never out of style, the buying power fueled by teen angst has lead to the popularity of dystopian themed books and films – from "The Hunger Games" to the latest social media hit “Urban Druid” to the upcoming Batman film, and even some new fiction writing contests.

“The Hunger Games really did crystalize a moment in time that captures the teen angst that develops,” said Lori Benton, group publisher for the trade division at Scholastic. “There are so many themes in the literature that teens relate to the social dynamics of middle school, leaving their parents as they become young adults. The onset of teenage angst is huge. The world is looking like such a rosie place.”

Ms. Benton added that for adults the dystopian theme may be on the rise because, “It can be a little bit indicative of the free-floating anxiety that’s out there in the world.”

While many people would take that sort of anxiety as a  cue to watch the film “Happy Feet” one more time, others choose instead to wallow in the dystopia for a while.

Urban Druid” is a very visual expression that is becoming a popular wallow on social media. The image is that of a black and white, grainy image of a person in a gas mask and plasticine rain poncho, with that looks like a steampunk staff and a bowl helmet with long, slender horns protruding off to the sides.

That image is the checkered flag dropping on the start date for posting submissions for the Secure Contain Protect (SCP) Foundation, a tongue-in-cheek free Wiki site, gears-up for a new Dystopian Writing Contest.  The SCP Dystopia Contest has no entry fee, is open to members and begins Nov. 14, online only.

“For reference, dystopia is defined by Google as "an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one," the SCP website states as part of its contest rules page. 

SCP by it’s own description is a “collaborative urban fantasy writing website.”

Even as Doctor Who Season Eight takes classic sci-fi fans on an intergalactic tour of various dystopian themed episodes, funny time lords appear to be more of an anomaly than de rigueur.

As evidenced by books, films, video games, and writing contests, the focus seems to be on less hopeful characters, more bleak backdrops and outcomes than the good doctor usually offers.

The website Utopia and Dystopia devotes a scattershot listing of music, videos, television and film things dystopian.  Frankly, it would be faster to list video games not done in a dystopian theme than to run the gambit from Bioshock to Infamous and Sunset Overdrive. 

There's also a specific emerging dystopian genre known as "Cli-Fi," which is science fiction focused on global climate change. 

“Over the past decade, more and more writers have begun to set their novels and short stories in worlds, not unlike our own, where the Earth's systems are noticeably off-kilter,” reports Angela Evancie for NPR.

That’s because “when novelists tackle climate change in their writing, they reach people in a way that scientists can't,” says NPR.

"You know, scientists and other people are trying to get their message across about various aspects of the climate change issue," Judith Curry, professor and chair of Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, tells NPR. "And it seems like fiction is an untapped way of doing this – a way of smuggling some serious topics into the consciousness" of readers who may not be following the science.

Readers on sites like GoodReads spend a lot of time discussing the cultural obsession with “dystopian and doomsday plot lines.” 

 “I suppose Dystopia tales, along with their cousins, disaster tales, (plane crash, sinking ship, earthquake, etc.) are great ways to take your average person and put them under the pump, becoming either hero or villain,” posted Adam, a Good Reads member in a lengthy public discussion on the topic. “Dystopia stories just do this on the largest of scales.”

For those who still can’t quite picture the definition of “dystopian” the recipe in films lately calls for a healthy helping of steampunk genre, ash smudged populaces, urban decay, rebel forces driven into the shadows, and overlords – lots and lots of overlords.

Think of films such filled with the sterile, post-social-apocalypse cynicism and the rise of technology as in: The Hunger Games, Divergent, Interstellar, or V for Vendetta.

For kids, think of Wall-E.

With kids in mind, a slightly less hardcore, more mainstream contest comes from Scholastic Publications which just closed the entries Oct. 16 for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1" "Change the World" Writing Contest” designed to draw entries from kids in grades 6 through 12.

At least Scholastic took the approach of shifting teen thoughts from a dark future, toward seeking a solution. The writing prompt was: “Imagine you have the power to fix the biggest problem in the world. In two pages or less, describe what the problem is and what you would do to fix it.”

Another dystopian short story competition is being sponsored by the Lady In the Loft website (3,000 words, deadline 15 April). But for those who are looking for a real challenge, they might want to enter the next Lady in the Loft writing contest, the one about a utopian world (3,000 words, deadline June 15).

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