A dystopia (from the Greek δυσ- and τόπος, alternatively, cacotopia, kakotopia, or anti-utopia) is an imaginary community or society that is undesirable or frightening. It is literally translated as "not-good place", an antonym of utopia. Such societies appear in many artistic works, particularly in stories set in a future. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society. Dystopian societies appear in many sub-genres of fiction and are often used to draw attention to real-world issues regarding society, environment, politics, economics, religion, psychology, ethics, science, and/or technology, which if unaddressed could potentially lead to such a dystopia-like condition.
Famous depictions of dystopian societies include:
- R.U.R. (which introduced the concept of robots and the word "robot" for the first time)
- Nineteen Eighty-Four, which takes place in a totalitarian invasive super state
- Brave New World, where the society’s energy is forcibly directed into drug-addled consumerism and hedonism in place of traditional morality
- Fahrenheit 451, where the state burns books to create apathy and disinterest in the general public
- A Clockwork Orange, where the state uses psychological torture to reform violent youths
- Blade Runner in which engineered "replicants" infiltrate society and must be hunted down before they injure humans
- The Matrix, in which the human species is trapped in a virtual reality world created by intelligent machines
- The Hunger Games, in which the government controls its people by maintaining a constant state of fear through forcing randomly selected children to participate in an annual fight to the death
- Logan's Run, in which both population and the consumption of resources are maintained in equilibrium by requiring the death of everyone reaching a particular age
- Soylent Green, where society suffers from pollution, overpopulation, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans, a hot climate, and much of the population survives on processed food rations, including "soylent green"
- Internment, the imprisonment of people, commonly in large groups, without trial
- The Giver, An isolated society where emotion, arts, free will and even color are sacrificed in favor of productivity and efficiency.
Dystopia is derived from the term Utopia, which was originally coined by Thomas More in his book of that title completed in 1516. "Utopia" is derived from the Greek words ou (οὐ), "not", and topos (τόπος), "place". In the 17th century, the term came to be applied to any place or society considered perfect or ideal, possibly by confusion with the Greek prefix eu- (as in eutopia "good place"), which would have coincided in English pronunciation.
Dystopia was coined as the antonym of this latter meaning developed by Utopia to refer to an "imagined bad place", replacing the prefix with Greek Ancient Greek: δυσ- "bad". It was first used by J.S. Mill in one of his Parliamentary Speeches 1868 (Hansard Commons).
Decades before the first documented use of the word "dystopia" was "cacotopia" (using Ancient Greek: κακόs, "bad, wicked") originally proposed in 1818 by Jeremy Bentham: "As a match for utopia (or the imagined seat of the best government) suppose a cacotopia (or the imagined seat of the worst government) discovered and described." Though dystopia became the more popular term, cacotopia finds occasional use, for example by Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, who said it was a better fit for Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four because "it sounds worse than dystopia".
The first known use of dystopian, as recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary, is a speech given before the British House of Commons by John Stuart Mill in 1868, in which Mill denounced the government's Irish land policy: "It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable."
In "When the Sleeper Wakes", H. G. Wells depicted the governing class as hedonistic and shallow. George Orwell contrasted Wells's world to that depicted in Jack London's The Iron Heel, where the dystopian rulers are brutal and dedicated to the point of fanaticism, which Orwell considered more plausible.
Whereas the political principles at the root of fictional utopias (or "perfect worlds") are idealistic in principle and successfully result in positive consequences for the inhabitants, the political principles on which fictional dystopias are based, while often based on utopian ideals, result in negative consequences for inhabitants because of at least one fatal flaw.
Dystopias are often filled with pessimistic views of the ruling class or government that is brutal or uncaring ruling with an "iron hand" or "iron fist". These dystopian government establishments often have protagonists or groups that lead a "resistance" to enact change within their government, as is seen in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta.
Dystopian political situations are depicted in novels such as Parable of the Sower, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451; and in such films as Metropolis, Brazil, Battle Royale, FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions, and Soylent Green.
The economic structures of dystopian societies in literature and other media have many variations, as the economy often relates directly to the elements that the writer is depicting as the source of the oppression. However, there are several archetypes that such societies tend to follow.
A commonly occurring theme is that the state plans the economy, as shown in such works as Ayn Rand's Anthem and Henry Kuttner's short story "The Iron Standard". A contrasting theme is where the planned economy is planned and controlled by corporatist and fascist elements. A prime example of this is reflected in Norman Jewison's 1975 film Rollerball. Some dystopias, such as that of Nineteen Eighty-Four, feature black markets with goods that are dangerous and difficult to obtain, or the characters may be totally at the mercy of the state-controlled economy. Such systems usually have a lack of efficiency, as seen in stories like Philip Jose Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage", featuring a bloated welfare system in which total freedom from responsibility has encouraged an underclass prone to any form of antisocial behavior. Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano depicts a dystopia in which the centrally controlled economic system has indeed made material abundance plentiful, but deprived the mass of humanity of meaningful labor; virtually all work is menial and unsatisfying, and only a small number of the small group that achieves education is admitted to the elite and its work. In Tanith Lee's Don't Bite the Sun, there is no want of any kind - only unabashed consumption and hedonism, leading the protagonist to begin looking for a deeper meaning to existence.
Even in dystopias where the economic system is not the source of the society's flaws, as in Brave New World, the state often controls the economy. In Brave New World, a character, reacting with horror to the suggestion of not being part of the social body, cites as a reason that everyone works for everyone else.
Other works feature extensive privatization and corporatism, where privately owned and unaccountable large corporations have effectively replaced the government in setting policy and making decisions. They manipulate, infiltrate, control, bribe, are contracted by, or otherwise function as government. This is seen in the novels Jennifer Government and Oryx and Crake and the movies Alien, Avatar, Robocop, Visioneers, Idiocracy, Soylent Green, THX 1138, WALL‑E and Rollerball. Rule-by-corporation is common in the cyberpunk genre, as in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (as well as the film Blade Runner, loosely based on Dick's novel).
Dystopian fiction frequently draws stark contrasts between the privileges of the ruling class and the dreary existence of the working classes.
In the novel Brave New World, written in 1931 by Aldous Huxley, a class system is prenatally designated in terms of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons, with the lower classes having reduced brain-function and special conditioning to make them satisfied with their position in life.
Some fictional dystopias, such as Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, have eradicated the family and deploy continuing efforts to keep it from re-establishing itself as a social institution. In Brave New World, where children are reproduced artificially, the concepts "mother" and "father" are considered obscene. In some novels, the State is hostile to motherhood: for example, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, children are organized to spy on their parents; and in We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the escape of a pregnant woman from One State is a revolt.
Religious groups play the role of the oppressed and oppressors. In Brave New World, for example, the establishment of the state included lopping off the tops of all crosses (as symbols of Christianity) to make them "T"s, (as symbols of Henry Ford's Model T). Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, on the other hand, takes place in a future United States under a Christianity-based theocratic regime. One of the earliest examples of this theme is Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World, about a futuristic world where the Freemasons have taken over the world and the only other religion left is a Roman Catholic minority.
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? humans on Earth practice Mercerism, employing "empathy boxes" to connect to each other in a way that emphasizes their humanity and their difference from the androids, which are incapable of empathy.
In The Notre Dame de Paris Mosque by Russian author Elena Chudinova the Muslim immigrants become the main demographic and political force in the European Union and transform it into Sharia Eurabia.
In the Russian novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, first published in 1921, people are permitted to live out of public view twice a week for one hour and are only referred to by numbers instead of names.
Some dystopian works, like Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron", emphasize the pressure to conform to ruthlessly egalitarian social norms that discourage or suppress accomplishment or even competence as forms of inequality. Similarly, in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the dystopian society represses intellectuals with particular force.
Violence is prevalent in many dystopias, often in the form of war (e.g. Nineteen Eighty-Four); urban crimes led by gangs (often of teenagers) (e.g. A Clockwork Orange); rampant crime met by summary justice or vigilantism (e.g. Mad Max); or blood sports (e.g. Battle Royale, and The Running Man). The Hunger Games and Divergent are recent examples of dystopias centered on war and violence. Also explained in Suzanne Berne's essay "Ground Zero", where she explains her experience with the aftermath of 11 September 2001.
Fictional dystopias are commonly urban and frequently isolate their characters from all contact with the natural world. Sometimes they require their characters to avoid nature, as when walks are regarded as dangerously anti-social in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, as well as within Bradbury's short story "The Pedestrian." In C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, science coordinated by government is directed toward the control of nature and the elimination of natural human instincts. In Brave New World, the lower classes of society are conditioned to be afraid of nature, but also to visit the countryside and consume transportation and games to stabilize society. E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" depicts a highly changed global environment which forces people to live underground due to an atmospheric contamination.
Excessive pollution that destroys nature is common in many dystopian films, such as Avatar, Robocop, Wall-E, and Soylent Green. A few "green" fictional dystopias do exist, such as in Michael Carson's short story "The Punishment of Luxury", and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. The latter is set in the aftermath of nuclear war, "a post-nuclear holocaust Kent, where technology has reduced to the level of the Iron Age".
- Alternate history
- Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction
- Societal collapse
- New world order (politics)
- New World Order (conspiracy theory)
- Self-fulfilling prophecy
- Social science fiction
- Soft science fiction
- Utopian and dystopian fiction
- Cacotopia (κακό, caco = bad) was the term used by Jeremy Bentham in his 19th century works (, )
- "Definition of "dystopia"". Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, Inc. 2012.
- "Definition of "dystopia"". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. 2012.
- Cf. "Dystopia Timeline", in Exploring Dystopia, "edited and designed by Niclas Hermansson; Contributors: Acolyte of Death ('Gattaca'), John Steinbach ('Nuclear Nightmare'), [and] David Clements ('From Dystopia to Myopia')" (hem.passagen.se), Niclas Hermansson, n.d., Web, 22 May 2009
- Fromm, Erich: 1984 (Afterword), p. 316. New American Library (a division of Penguin Group), 1977.
- Harper, Douglas. "Utopia". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2009-05-24.
- Mill, John Stuart (1988). Public and parliamentary speeches - Part I - November 1850 - November 1868. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-415-03791-3. Retrieved 2015-02-16.
- κακόs, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
- Bentham, Jeremy. (1818). Plan of Parliamentary Reform, in the form of a catechism.
- Beaumont, Matthew. (2006). Cacotopianism, the Paris Commune, and England's Anti-Communist Imaginary, 1870-1900. ELH, 73(2): 465-487.
- "Dystopia". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a "dystopia" is: "An imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible; opp. UTOPIA (cf. CACOTOPIA). So dystopian n., one who advocates or describes a dystopia; dystopian a., of or pertaining to a dystopia; dystopianism, dystopian quality or characteristics." The example of first usage given in the OED (1989 ed.) refers to the 1868 speech by John Stuart Mill quoted above. Other examples given in the OED include:
1952 NEGLEY & PATRICK Quest for Utopia xvii. 298 The Mundus Alter et Idem [of Joseph Hall] is...the opposite of eutopia, the ideal society: it is a dystopia, if it is permissible to coin a word. 1962 C. WALSH From Utopia to Nightmare 11 The 'dystopia' or 'inverted utopia'. Ibid. 12 Stories...that seemed in their dystopian way to be saying something important. Ibid. ii. 27 A strand of utopianism or dystopianism. 1967 Listener 5 Jan. 22 The modern classics Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four are dystopias. They describe not a world we should like to live in, but one we must be sure to avoid. 1968 New Scientist 11 July 96/3 It is a pleasant change to read some hope for our future is trevor ingram ... I fear that our real future is more likely to be dystopian.
- "ADJOURNED DEBATE. (Hansard, 12 March 1868)". Hansard.millbanksystems.com. Retrieved 2014-06-08.
- See also Michael S. Roth, "A Dystopia of the Spirit" 230ff., Chap. 15 in Jörn Rüsen, Michael Fehr, and Thomas Rieger, eds., Thinking Utopia, Google Books Preview, n.d., Web, 22 May 2009.
- William Steinhoff, "Utopia Reconsidered: Comments on 1984" 153, in Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, eds., No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. ISBN 0-8093-1113-5.
- William Steinhoff, "Utopia Reconsidered: Comments on 1984" 147, in Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, eds., No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. ISBN 0-8093-1113-5.
- "Utopia", The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., 2004, Dictionary.com, Web, 11 Feb. 2007.
- Mary Ellen Snodgrass, Encyclopedia of Utopian Literature, ABC-Clio Literary Companion Ser. (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio Inc, 1995) xii. ISBN 0-87436-757-3 (10). ISBN 978-0-87436-757-7 (13).
- Jane Donawerth, "Genre Blending and the Critical Dystopia", in Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, ed. Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan (New York: Routledge, 2003).
- Howard P. Segal, "Vonnegut's Player Piano: An Ambiguous Technological Dystopia," 163 in Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, eds., No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. ISBN 0-8093-1113-5.
- Lee, Tanith. Don't Bite the Sun. Bantam Books:1999.
- William Matter, "On Brave New World" 98, in Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, eds., No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. ISBN 0-8093-1113-5.
- William Matter, "On Brave New World" 95, in Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, eds., No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. ISBN 0-8093-1113-5.
- Gorman Beauchamp, "Zamiatin's We" 70, in Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, eds., No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. ISBN 0-8093-1113-5.
- William Matter, "On Brave New World" 94, in Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, eds., No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. ISBN 0-8093-1113-5.
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, McClelland and Stewart, 1985. ISBN 0-7710-0813-9.
- S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, eds., No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. ISBN 0-8093-1113-5.
- Berne, Suzanne. "Patterns for College Writing". Ground Zero: 182.
- "Avatism and Utopia" 4, in Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, eds., No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction.ISBN 0-8093-1113-5.
- Self, W. (2002) p. V of introduction to Hoban, R. (2002) Riddley Walker. Bloomsbury, London.
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- Dystopia Tracker, predictions about the future and their realisations in real life.
- Dystopic, dystopian fiction and its place in reality.