A dystopia is a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a 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 introduces the term Robot and the modern Robot concept along with the first Androids due to being organic, and is the first elaborate depiction of a machine take-over.; Nineteen Eighty-Four, which takes place in a totalitarian invasive super state; Brave New World, where the human population is placed under a caste of psychological allocation; Fahrenheit 451, where the state burns books out of fear of what they may incite; Blade Runner in which genetically engineered replicants infiltrate society and must be hunted down before they injure humans,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, and Soylent Green, where society suffers from pollution, overpopulation, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans, and a hot climate. Much of the population survives on processed food rations, including "soylent green".
- 1 Etymology
- 2 History
- 3 Common themes
- 4 Literary characteristics of dystopian fiction
- 5 Notable examples
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Dystopia represents a counterpart of utopia, a term originally coined by Thomas More in his book of that title completed in 1516. "Utopia" is derived from the Greek words eu (ευ), "good", ou (οὐ), "not", and topos (τόπος), "place." "Dystopia" retains the topos, but combines it instead with Ancient Greek: δυσ-, "bad, hard".
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 A Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess, 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."
Although dystopias vary significantly across and within artistic forms and genres, many focus on similar kinds of sociopolitical dysfunction.
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 Rollerball. Some dystopias, such as 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 'Biting 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 when everyday life seems to have nothing to live for.
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 upper and lower 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 reestablishing 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, the escape of a pregnant woman from OneState 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 The Handmaid's Tale, on the other hand, takes place in a future United States under a Christianity-based theocratic regime.
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.
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), rampant crime met by summary justice or vigilantism (e.g. Judge Dredd, Mad Max), or blood sports (e.g. Battle Royale, and The Running Man).
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 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. 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".
Literary characteristics of dystopian fiction
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As fictional dystopias are often set in a future projected virtual time and/or space involving technological innovations not accessible in actual present reality, dystopian fiction is often classified generically as science fiction, a subgenre of speculative fiction.
Because a fictional universe has to be constructed, a selectively told backstory of a war, revolution, uprising, critical overpopulation, or other disaster is often introduced early in the narrative. This results in a shift in emphasis of control, from previous systems of government to a government run by corporations, totalitarian dictatorships or bureaucracies; or from previous social norms to a changed society and new (and often disturbing) social norms.
Because dystopian literature typically depicts events that take place in the future, it often features technology more advanced than that of contemporary society.
Unlike utopian fiction, which often features an outsider to have the world shown to him/her, dystopias seldom feature an outsider as the protagonist. While such a character would more clearly understand the nature of the society, based on comparison to their society, the knowledge of the outside culture subverts the power of the dystopia. When such outsiders are major characters—such as John the Savage in Brave New World—their societies cannot assist them against the dystopia.
The story usually centers on a protagonist who questions the society, often feeling intuitively that something is terribly wrong, such as Guy Montag in Ray Bradbury's novella Fahrenheit 451, Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, or V in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. The hero comes to believe that escape or even overturning the social order is possible and decides to act at the risk of their own life; this may appear as irrational even to him/her, but they still act. The hero's point of view usually clashes with the others' perception, most notably in Brave New World, revealing that concepts of utopia and dystopia are tied to each other and the only difference between them lies on a matter of opinion.
Another popular archetype of hero in the more modern dystopian literature is the Vonnegut hero, a hero who is in high-standing within the social system, but sees how wrong everything is, and attempts to either change the system or bring it down, such as Paul Proteus of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Player Piano or Winston Niles Rumfoord in The Sirens of Titan.
The Domination is perhaps unusual in featuring members of the upper caste of the dystopian society (the von Shrakenbergs, Myfwany, Yolande Ingolfsson, various Draka military members) as among the protagonists although serfs (Marya and Yasmin, from among conquered people) questioning that society are also included, along with international enemies of that dystopian society (such as Lefarge). This may be an example of the anti-hero.
There is usually a group of people somewhere in the society who are not under the complete control of the state, and in whom the hero of the novel usually puts their hope, although often he or she still fails to change anything. In Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four they are the "proles" (Latin for "offspring", from which "proletariat" is derived), in Huxley's Brave New World they are the people on the reservation, and in We by Zamyatin they are the people outside the walls of the One State. In Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, they are the "book people" past the river and outside the city.
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The destruction of dystopia is frequently a very different sort of work than one in which it is preserved. Indeed, the subversion of a dystopian society, with its potential for conflict and adventure, is a staple of science fiction stories. Poul Anderson's short story "Sam Hall" depicts the subversion of a dystopia heavily dependent on surveillance. Robert A. Heinlein's "If This Goes On—" liberates the United States from a fundamentalist theocracy, where the underground rebellion is organized by the Freemasons. Cordwainer Smith's The Rediscovery of Man series depicts a society recovering from its dystopian period, beginning in "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" with the discovery that its utopia was impossible to maintain. Although these and other societies are typical of dystopias in many ways, they all have not only flaws but exploitable flaws. The ability of the protagonists to subvert the society also subverts the monolithic power typical of a dystopia. In some cases the hero manages to overthrow the dystopia by motivating the (previously apathetic) populace. In the dystopian video game Half-Life 2 the downtrodden citizens of City 17 rally around the figure of Gordon Freeman and overthrow their Combine oppressors. Destruction of the fictional dystopia may not be possible, but—if it does not completely control its world—escaping from it may be an alternative. In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the main character, Montag, succeeds in fleeing and finding tramps who have dedicated themselves to memorizing books to preserve them. But ironically, the dystopian society in Fahrenheit 451 is destroyed in the end — by nuclear missiles. In the book Logan's Run, the main characters make their way to an escape from the otherwise inevitable euthanasia on their 21st (22nd) birthday (30th in the later film version). Because such dystopias must necessarily control less of the world than the protagonist can reach, and the protagonist can elude capture, this motif also subverts the dystopia's power. In Lois Lowry's The Giver, Jonas, the main character, is able to run away from "The Community" and escapes to "Elsewhere", where people have memories.
Sometimes, this escape leads to the inevitable: the protagonist making a mistake that usually brings about the end of a rebel society, usually living where people think is a legend. This concept is brought to life in Scott Westerfeld's novel Uglies. The main character accidentally brings the government into the secret settlement of the Smoke. She then infiltrates the government to escape, but chooses to join the society for the greater good.
The collapse of a dystopian dictatorship, sometimes, has an ambiguous ending that is unclear as to final result of the revolution. The protagonist succeeds in causing the overthrow of society, but no new society has been established as a replacement. The legacy is open ended, as in the movie version of V For Vendetta. The rebels were secretly aided by disillusioned officials of the ruling tyrannical regime, but no one faction maintained dominance after the fall of the dystopian society. The remaining hard-core regime loyalists were eliminated or ineffective. The audience is left to their own conclusions.
Climax and dénouement
The story is often (but not always) unresolved even if the hero manages to escape or destroy the dystopia. That is, the narrative may deal with individuals in a dystopian society who are unsatisfied, and may rebel, but ultimately fail to change anything. Sometimes they themselves end up changed to conform to the society's norms, such as in With Folded Hands, by Jack Williamson. This narrative arc to a sense of hopelessness can be found in such classic dystopian works as Nineteen Eighty-Four. It contrasts with much fiction of the future, in which a hero succeeds in resolving conflicts or otherwise changes things for the better.
- Alternate history
- Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction
- Failed state
- New world order (politics)
- New World Order (conspiracy theory)
- Self-fulfilling prophecy
- Social science fiction
- Soft science fiction
- Utopian and dystopian fiction
- "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.
- δυσ-, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
- 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.), cites "1868" writing by John Stuart Mill: "1868 J. S. MILL in Hansard Commons 12 Mar. 1517/1 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." 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.
- 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. Biting 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.
- "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.
- Gorman Beauchamp, "Zamiatin's We" 62–63, 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" 57, 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.
- John Clute and Peter Nicholls, "Dystopia", The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1995) 361. ISBN 0-312-13486-X.
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