A dystopia (from the Greek δυσ- and τόπος, alternatively, cacotopia, kakotopia, or simply anti-utopia) is a community or society that is undesirable or frightening. It is translated as "not-good place", an antonym of utopia, a term that was coined by Sir Thomas More and figures as the title of his best known work, Utopia, published 1516, a blueprint for an ideal society with minimal crime, violence and poverty.
Dystopian societies appear in many artistic works, particularly in stories set in the future. Some of the most famous examples are George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. 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, or technology. However, some authors also use the term to refer to actually-existing societies, many of which are or have been totalitarian states, or societies in an advanced state of collapse and disintegration.
Though several earlier usages are known, dystopia was deployed as an antonym for Utopia by J. S. Mill in one of his Parliamentary Speeches 1868 (Hansard Commons) by adding the prefix "dys" (Ancient Greek: δυσ- "bad"). It was used to denounce 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."
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 most 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". Some scholars, such as Gregory Claeys and Lyman Tower Sargent, make certain distinctions between typical synonyms of dystopias. For example, Claeys and Sargent define literary dystopias as societies imagined as substantially worse than the contemporaneous society in which the author writes, whereas anti-utopias function as criticisms of attempts to implement various concepts of utopia.
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 a 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 society, as is seen in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta.
Dystopian political situations are depicted in novels such as We, Parable of the Sower, Darkness at Noon, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, The Hunger Games 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, State Capitalism versus a free market economy which is also dystopian as shown in such works as Ayn Rand's Anthem and Henry Kuttner's short story "The Iron Standard". 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; both byproducts of capitalism, 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. Corporate republics 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 some dystopian works, such as Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, society forces individuals to conform to radical egalitarian social norms that discourage or suppress accomplishment or even competence as forms of inequality.
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 blood sports (e.g. Battle Royale, The Running Man, The Hunger Games and Divergent). 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 promote economic activity. Lois Lowry's "The Giver", in a manner similar to Brave New World, shows a society where technology and the desire to create a utopia has led humanity to enforce climate control on the environment, as well as to eliminate many undomesticated species, and to provide psychological and pharmaceutical repellent against basic human instincts. E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" depicts a highly changed global environment which forces people to live underground due to an atmospheric contamination. As Angel Galdon-Rodriguez points out, this sort of isolation caused by external toxic hazard is later used by Hugh Howey in his series of dystopias of the Silo Series.
Excessive pollution that destroys nature is common in many dystopian films, such as The Matrix, 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".
Contrary to the technologically utopian claims, which view technology as a beneficial addition to all aspects of humanity, technological dystopia concerns itself with and focuses largely (but not always) on the negative effects caused by new technology.
Typical dystopian claims
1. Technologies reflect and encourage the worst aspects of human nature. Jaron Lanier, a digital pioneer, has become a technological dystopian. “I think it’s a way of interpreting technology in which people forgo taking responsibility,” he says.
“‘Oh, it’s the computer that did it, not me.’ ‘There’s no more middle class? Oh, it’s not me. The computer did it’” (Lanier). This quote explains that people begin to not only blame the technology for the changes in lifestyle but also believe that technology is an omnipotence. It also points to a technological determinist perspective in terms of reification.
2. Technologies harm our interpersonal communication, relationships, and communities.
- decrease in communication within family members and friend groups due to increased time in technology use
- virtual space misleadingly heightens the impact of real presence; people resort to technological medium for communication nowadays
3. Technologies reinforce hierarchies - concentrate knowledge and skills; increase surveillance and erode privacy; widen inequalities of power and wealth; giving up control to machines). Douglas Rushkoff, a technological utopian, states in his article that the professional designers “re-mystified” the computer so it wasn’t so readable anymore; users had to depend on the special programs built into the software that was incomprehensible for normal users.
4. New technologies are sometimes regressive (worse than previous technologies).
5. The unforeseen impacts of technology are negative. “ ‘The most common way is that there’s some magic artificial intelligence in the sky or in the cloud or something that knows how to translate, and what a wonderful thing that this is available for free. But there’s another way to look at it, which is the technically true way: You gather a ton of information from real live translators who have translated phrases… It’s huge but very much like Facebook, it’s selling people back to themselves… [With translation] you’re producing this result that looks magical but in the meantime, the original translators aren’t paid for their work… You’re actually shrinking the economy.’”
6. More efficiency and choices can harm our quality of life (by causing stress, destroying jobs, making us more materialistic). In his article “Prest-o! Change-o!,” technological dystopian James Gleick mentions the remote control being the classic example of technology that does not solve the problem “it is meant to solve.” Gleick quotes Edward Tenner, a historian of technology, that the ability and ease of switching channels by the remote control serves to increase distraction for the viewer. Then it is only expected that people will become more dissatisfied with the channel they are watching.
7. New technologies cannot solve problems of old technologies or just create new problems. The remote control example explains this claim as well, for the increase in laziness and dissatisfaction levels was clearly not a problem in times without the remote control. He also takes social psychologist Robert Levine’s example of Indonesians “‘whose main entertainment consists of watching the same few plays and dances, month after month, year after year,’ and with Nepalese Sherpas who eat the same meals of potatoes and tea through their entire lives. The Indonesians and Sherpas are perfectly satisfied.” Because of the invention of the remote control, it merely created more problems.
8. Technologies destroy nature (harming human health and the environment). The need for business replaced community and the “story online” replaced people as the “soul of the Net.” Because information was now able to be bought and sold, there was not as much communication taking place.
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Dystopias typically reflect contemporary sociopolitical realities and extrapolate worst-case scenarios as warnings for necessary social change or caution. Dystopian fictions invariably reflect the concerns and fears of its contemporaneous culture. Due to this they are a subject of social studies. Syreeta McFadden notes that contemporary dystopian literature and films increasingly pull their inspiration from the worst imaginings of ourselves and present reality, making it often hard to distinguish between entertainment and reality.
In a 1967 study Frank Kermode suggests that the failure of religious prophecies led to a shift in how society apprehends this ancient mode. Christopher Schmidt notes that while the world goes to waste for future generations we distract ourselves from disaster by passively watching it as entertainment.
In recent years there has seen a surge of popular dystopian young adult literature and blockbuster films. Theo James, actor in Divergent, notes that "young people in particular have such a fascination with this kind of story", saying "It's becoming part of the consciousness. You grow up in a world where it's part of the conversation all the time – the statistics of our planet warming up. The environment is changing. The weather is different. There are things that are very visceral and very obvious, and they make you question the future and how we will survive. It's so much a part of everyday life that young people inevitably — consciously or not — are questioning their futures and how the Earth will be. I certainly do. I wonder what kind of world my children's kids will live in."
- 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 ("Archived copy". Archived from the original on 26 March 2006. Retrieved 2006-03-19., )
- "Definition of "dystopia"". Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, Inc. 2012.
- "Definition of "dystopia"". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. 2012.
- 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.
- 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.
- "Dystopia". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.) 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.
- 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.
- "The Utopia Reader".
- 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.
- 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.
- Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World.
- Galdon Rodriguez, Angel (2014). "Urban and Natural Spaces in Dystopian Literature Depicted as Opposed Scenarios". Ángulo Recto. Revista de estudios sobre la ciudad como espacio plural. 6 (2). doi:10.5209/rev_ANRE.2014.v6.n2.47585.
- Galdon Rodriguez, Angel (2014-12-19). "Espacios urbanos y naturales como escenarios opuestos en la literatura distópica". Ángulo Recto. Revista de estudios sobre la ciudad como espacio plural. 6 (2): 85–100. ISSN 1989-4015. doi:10.5209/rev_ANRE.2014.v6.n2.47585.
- Self, W. (2002) p. V of introduction to Hoban, R. (2002) Riddley Walker. Bloomsbury, London.
- Rushkoff, D. (2002). Renaissance Now! Media Ecology and the New Global Narrative.Explorations in Media Ecology, 1(1), 21-32.
- Chandler, D. (2013, July 3). Technological or Media Determinism. Retrieved March 2, 2015, from http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/tecdet/tdet05.html
- Rosenbaum, R. (2013, January 1). What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web? Retrieved March 2, 2015, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/what-turned-jaron-lanier-against-the-web-165260940/?all&no-ist
- Heitman, B. (2011, April 13). The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood.(Books)(Book review). The Christian Science Monitor, 146-150.
- "Dystopian stories used to reflect our anxieties. Now they reflect our reality". The Guardian. 26 October 2015. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
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- "Why Do We Love Dystopian Stories So Much? The Cast of Divergent Explains". Time. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
- Baker, Stephen; McLaughlin, Greg (1 January 2015). "From Belfast to Bamako: Cinema in the Era of Capitalist Realism". Ireland and Cinema. Palgrave Macmillan UK: 107–116. doi:10.1057/9781137496362_10.
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- Hassler-Forest, Dan. Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age. John Hunt Publishing. ISBN 9781780991795. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
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