What is dystopian fiction?

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I get rather frustrated by how many times I see people misusing the word ‘dystopian’ (sometimes wrongly called ‘dystopic’). I thought it might be worthwhile putting down a definition for those who are interested in learning more.

Let’s start with the basics. The Oxford English Dictionary describes a ‘dystopia’ as:

An imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible.

There seems to be a general misunderstanding about the word, as though it relates to a world where things are merely bad, or even just different, or set in the future. Readers and writers should ask themselves what kind of book they’ve read recently in which something wasn’t bad. The nature of fiction and drama is rooted in conflict. Therefore the protagonist will always find themselves in a ‘bad’ situation. That’s what fiction is about.

A dystopia is an extreme example of this. Think of “The Hunger Games”. This series for young adults is set in a future where the world is a wreck, where society has largely collapsed, where the majority of people live in oppressed poverty and a few live in perfect luxury. This is a dystopia. Things are really bad, all the time. It may be set in the future, or in an alternate version of today, or in another world altogether. A classic example is “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, where people are oppressed by a totalitarian regime and in some cases don’t even know it, or have forgotten. (When the book was written in 1949, the year 1984 was the future). People are always watched, and their very thoughts are monitored. Dissenters are harshly punished. Similar novels are “Fahrenheit 451” (or you may have seen the great film “Equilibrium”), or Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta”.

Contrast with, say, a novel about war. War is very bad, but the world is not a dystopian world. It’s just an unhappy place with some hellish things going on. But imagine a world where war covers everything, where there are no safe places to hide, where there are no governments or civilizations left. That’s a dystopia, like the future world of the “Terminator” film series.

For a deeper understanding, we can look at the source of the word. It comes from the ancient Greek words for “bad place”. It is the opposite of a utopia, which actually means “not place” – because it refers to a perfect, ideal world that doesn’t exist. It may have been confused with a similar-sounding Greek word for “good” – eutopia, not utopia. There aren’t many books that are about true utopias because – as I pointed out above – fiction requires drama and conflict to be interesting and worthwhile. A perfect world would probably be pretty boring! And so often a dystopian world comes from a supposed utopian society, where certain people consider the world to be perfect, but actually underneath things are terrible. The world of “Nineteen Eight-Four” is actually a broken utopia, which in many ways is the same as a dystopia.

Dystopian societies are often ones that encourage people not to feel, or to speak out of turn. In the real world we recognise this as being silly – feeling is a part of being human – but philosophers around the world acknowledge that much of the bad things in our world happen because of emotional reasons. A science fiction writer might want to describe a ‘perfect’ world in which emotions or wrong words don’t cause offense, unrest or wars. Many dystopian novels address the issue of identity, and what it means for that to be suppressed. Invariably though, the characters in those books rebel. They want the freedom to be human. These worlds are often therefore bubbling underneath with violence waiting to happen.

Here are some great examples of dystopian fiction:

  • The Iron Heel, Jack London
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • Judge Dredd, the comic 2000AD
  • V for Vendetta, Alan Moore
  • Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K Dick
  • We, Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
  • The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
  • Divergent, Veronica Roth
  • The Drowned World, J G Ballard

In film, you could watch:

  • Robocop
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Blade Runner (based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”)
  • Divergent
  • The Hunger Games
  • I Am Legend
  • The Matrix
  • WALL-E
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Terminator Salvation
  • Equilibrium
  • V for Vendetta

Dystopian fiction is a great way to not only tell a great story, but also to highlight the things that are wrong with our world today. It might be how we rely too much on technology, or how corporations are running the world, or about how we are destroying the planet. Many dystopian fiction books feature ecological disasters that have made the Earth almost unlivable, making life hell for everybody. Sometimes this is a freak of nature, but often it’s a man-made problem. The books are holding a mirror up to our world to remind us what we’re doing wrong, and make us try to change things before it’s too late.

Feel free to comment with other examples of dystopian fiction, or to ask questions!

—db

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