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Author: David W. Sisk
Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz
Date: 2005
New Dictionary of the History of Ideas
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Dystopia is utopia's polarized mirror image. While utilizing many of the same concepts as utopia—for example, social stability created by authoritarian regimentation—dystopia reads these ideas pessimistically. Dystopia angrily challenges utopia's fundamental assumption of human perfectibility, arguing that humanity's inherent flaws negate the possibility of constructing perfect societies, except for those that are perfectly hellish. Dystopias are solely fictional, presenting grim, oppressive societies—with the moralistic goal of preventing the horrors they illustrate.

A single literary work serves as the origin for both utopia and dystopia, the latter by critical examination of the social structures it presents as desirable and good. Thomas More's Utopia (1516) depicts a fictitious country named for Utopus, its first conqueror. Having reshaped a savage land into an ideal Page 607  |  Top of Article society through planning and reason, King Utopus's benevolent reign fulfills Plato's ideal of the philosopher-king expressed in The Republic (c. 400 B.C.E.). Derived from the Greek ou ("not" or "no") and topos (place), a utopia is "no place," a land that does not exist. In addition to its social structure, utopia's pronunciation irresistibly suggests "eutopia" (eu topos), a "good place" free from civil conflict and social inequality—so a utopia is a good place that does not exist, but which is shown to be possible through social engineering.

By contrast, a dystopia (dis topos) is a "bad place," deliberately written to frighten the reader; the fact that it, too, is fictitious offers scant comfort, because it is equally possible. More's fictive land has eliminated most class distinctions, but with a concomitant loss of individual freedom and artistic creativity. John Stuart Mill used the term "dystopia" as early as 1868 (Hansard Commons, 12 March) but critics struggled for much of the twentieth century with such unwieldy terminology as "anti-utopia," "utopian satire," "reverse utopias, negative utopias, inverted utopias, regressive utopias, cacoutopias … non-utopias, satiric utopias, and … nasty utopias" (Lewis, p. 27), to say nothing of "George Knox's 'sour utopias in the apocalyptic mode' and George Woodcock's 'negative quasi-Utopias'" (Aldridge, p. 5). Given this confusing proliferation of generic labels, J. Max Patrick may be forgiven for believing that he created the term dystopia in 1952 as the appropriate categorization for Joseph Hall's 1605 Mundus Alter et Idem (Negley and Patrick, p. 298). Patrick unquestionably picked the winner, and dystopia has eclipsed these other labels as the term of choice for a burgeoning literary genre. As dystopian fiction has become more widespread and popular since the end of World War II, critics have grown comfortable in classifying dystopias based on their own generic qualities, rather than explicitly by contrasting them against utopias. The term dystopia has also grown more familiar and is commonly used to refer to any dark or unpleasant future. Finally, by the end of the twentieth century, critics seemed to have abandoned the effort to segregate dystopia from science fiction, the larger literary genre to which dystopia belongs.

Goals of Dystopian Fiction

Dystopia walks a fine line between evoking the sensations of fear and inducing a sense of futility. A dystopia must arouse fear, but fails if it completely overwhelms the reader, leaving no room whatsoever for hope of amelioration. Finding crumbs of hope within powerful dystopias can be difficult, but they are present: for example, both the Afterword of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and the Appendix on Newspeak in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) are written in the past tense, obliquely informing the reader that the totalitarian regimes of Gilead and Oceania were not invincible and ultimately fell. Depictions of grim futures mask dystopia's basic optimism. Dystopia is a fundamentally didactic genre, of which the old saw "the best is the enemy of the good" is truly spoken. By proving that a completely perfect society is not possible—showing the awful results of what happens if the goal is social perfection rather than incremental social improvement—dystopia shocks the reader into accepting humanity's flaws as ineradicable and thereby working toward a better society rather than an ideal one.

Film still from 1984 (1956), directed by Michael Anderson. George Orwells 1949 novellater transferred to filmtells the story of a totalitarian regime that controls its population through constant governmental surveillance. Adhering to the rules Film still from 1984 (1956), directed by Michael Anderson. George Orwell's 1949 novel—later transferred to film—tells the story of a totalitarian regime that controls its population through constant governmental surveillance. Adhering to the rules of the dystopia, however, the appendix to Orwell's work suggests that the oligarchy was not sustained. COLUMBIA/THE KOBAL COLLECTION

Nineteenth-century Dystopias

The utopia reached its greatest popularity in the nineteenth century. As the proud confidence of the nineteenth century crumbled when faced with the horrors of the twentieth, the utopian impulse has faltered, and dystopia has grown to be the more vital and relevant of the two genres. Dystopia began to evolve as a separate literary genre late in the nineteenth century as writers published anti-utopian "answers" and "replies" attacking utopian works. Edward Bellamy's highly popular socialistic utopia Looking Backward (1888) incited such direct refutations as Richard Michaelis's Looking Further Forward (1890) and Conrad Wilbrandt's Mr. East's Experiences in Mr. Bellamy's World (1891). Other writers attacked Bellamy's utopian ideals without targeting Looking Backward directly, and in so doing produced much more absorbing fiction. Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column (1890) and Jack London's The Iron Heel (1907) reverse the utopian dream of ideal society by creating repressive totalitarian oligarchies determined to hold power at any cost. H. G. Wells wrote on both sides of the divide. Like Bellamy, Wells attracted direct "replies" with such utopian fictions as When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) (revised and reprinted in 1910 as The Sleeper Awakes) and A Modern Utopia (1905), but unlike Bellamy, Wells also wrote anti-utopian fiction, including The First Men in the Moon Page 608  |  Top of Article
Film still from Things to Come (1936), directed by William Cameron Menzies. Based on H. G. Wellss novel The Shape of Things to Come, the Ultimate Revolution (1933), this film adaptation was one of the first to depict a dystopian society. THE KO Film still from Things to Come (1936), directed by William Cameron Menzies. Based on H. G. Wells's novel The Shape of Things to Come, the Ultimate Revolution (1933), this film adaptation was one of the first to depict a dystopian society. THE KOBAL COLLECTION (1901), The War in the Air (1908) and The Shape of Things to Come, the Ultimate Revolution (1933). Wells's influence on dystopian fiction has been more substantial than Bellamy's. Writers wishing to deconstruct Wells's assumptions of human social perfectibility aided by technological innovation (such as E. M. Forster, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, and Orwell) found it impossible to fully do so in mere parodies or refutations, so instead they wrote standalone fictions that depict the horrid, repressive societies that they believed would arise if Wells's ideas were carried to their ultimate conclusions.

Twentieth-Century Dystopias

The twentieth century itself lent strength and scope to the development of dystopian fiction, as horrific events and movements rendered the utopian ideal increasingly absurd and made it possible for dystopias to posit terrible fictive societies. The most powerful dystopias from this period firmly cemented the genre as independent from utopia and remain relevant to the present day: Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1920), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). All three of these novels present totalitarian oligarchies (Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-four) or dictatorships (We). Other dystopias appearing at this time include Wells's The Shape of Things to Come, one of the first dystopias to be filmed, as Things to Come (1936). Writing as Murray Constantine, Katharine Burdekin published Swastika Night, which was based on the premise of the Nazis taking over the world, in 1937. Cyril Connolly's dystopian short story "Year Nine" appeared in 1938 and seems to prefigure some of the same approaches Orwell explored at greater length in Nineteen Eighty-four (although Connolly's story, unlike Orwell's novel, is mordantly funny).

At midcentury, dystopia crossed the Atlantic—or rather, reemerged in the United States nearly fifty years after Jack London's The Iron Heel (1907). Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano (1952), Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), David Karp's One (1953), and Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) all took the dystopia in different directions, primarily away from the focus on repressive totalitarian societies that dominates the earlier British dystopias. Bradbury's and Vonnegut's dystopias focus on the impact of the repressive culture on the individual protagonists (Montag the Fireman in Fahrenheit 451, Paul Proteus in Player Piano) rather than on the horrific sweep of the entire society; both also foreground human dependence on machines as contributing factors in the creation of repressive societies. Britain did not abandon the dystopia. While Erika Gottlieb opens her recent study with Page 609  |  Top of Article the assertion that "[d]ystopian fiction is a post-Christian genre" (p. 3), Anthony Burgess recasts an explicitly Christian conflict in A Clockwork Orange (1962, filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971): in Alex's struggle against state-imposed behavioral conditioning, Burgess recasts the opposing views of mankind argued in the fifth century between St. Augustine of Hippo (who held that humanity is permanently stained by original sin) and the heretical British monk Pelagius (who denied original sin and argued that humans can create perfect societies). Writ large, the utopist's perspective is Pelagian, while the dystopist's is Augustinian (Kumar, p. 100). Burgess went on to publish a second dystopia, which grew out of an appreciation of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four published in that year—the first half of 1985 comments on Orwell's fiction, while the second shows a dystopian society in which trade unions have become the rulers of England (now TUCland, after the Trade Union Council that holds all real power).

Recent Directions

Although usually set in the future, typically the near future, dystopian fictions invariably reflect the concerns and fears of the writer's contemporaneous culture. As a given fear fades over time, dystopias founded upon it lose their ability to disturb (e.g., Burdekin's Swastika Night: the possibility of a world dominated and controlled by the Nazis, powerfully affective in 1937, has lost its force since the end of World War II). The reverse is also true, in cases where reality has caught up with ideas that were once utterly fantastic. Arguably, Huxley's Brave New World is a more powerful dystopia now than when published in 1932, given that genetic engineering, use of designer drugs, and relentless vapid entertainment media have evolved from fictions to facts. The shifting foci of dystopias display the changing philosophical preoccupations of the late twentieth century, revealing through grim fictions what their creators feared and wished to prevent.

Three interrelated trends have dominated dystopian fiction since the 1970s, although prefigurations of all three emerged before that time. The first is a concern over technological advances progressing beyond human ability to manage them effectively, if at all. As with the eponymous Machine in E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" (1909) and the computer EPICAC in Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano (1952), several dystopias have shown societies turned horrific as people cede responsibilities to machines, or in which repressive regimes seize and hold power through deployment of advanced technologies. Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (1966, filmed in 1973 as Soylent Green) shows an overpopulated Earth dependent on government-sanctioned cannibalism, while Philip Dick's 1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (filmed as Blade Runner by Ridley Scott in 1982) questions whether an individual's humanity inheres in biology or in behavior. In Andrew Niccol's Gattaca (1997), deliberate genetic manipulation (including discrimination based on DNA) produces a population in which undesirable characteristics cannot emerge. The Terminator trilogy (The Terminator, 1984; Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991; Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, 2003) shows a terrifying world in which a self-aware computer works to eliminate the human race. The Matrix trilogy (The Matrix, 1999; The Matrix Reloaded, 2003; The Matrix Revolutions, 2003) envisions a postapocalyptic society in which humans have been spared solely to provide energy for the dominant machines—and are kept ignorant through a collective hallucination, the Matrix.

The postapocalyptic dystopia allows the writer to sweep away the complexities of civilization and concentrate instead on small groups of survivors—often showing them struggling to re-create the very circumstances that originally brought on apocalypse. Because these fictions tend to take place far in the future, they sometimes fail to be understood as dystopias. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) broke this ground early. Other examples of postapocalyptic dystopias include Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog (published 1969, filmed by L. Q. Jones in 1975), Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (1980), Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002). Though the first of George Miller's Mad Max movies was little more than a series of chase scenes, the second and third installments (Mad Max II: The Road Warrior, 1981; Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, 1985) are clearly dystopian: chaos reigns, the strong dominate the weak, and scarce commodities like gasoline are prized far more than human life. Alan Moore's and David Lloyd's collaboration on V for Vendetta (1998) presents an Orwellian postapocalyptic England in graphic novel format.

The most intriguing development since the 1970s has been the proliferation of dystopian fictions exploring gender issues. Early examples include Thomas Berger's Regiment of Women (1973) and Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974). Suzy McKee Charnas's four-volume Holdfast Chronicles began with the publication of Walk to the End of the World in 1974, continued with Motherlines in 1978 and The Furies (1994), and concluded in The Conqueror's Child (1999). Set long after a global environmental catastrophe that has destroyed civilization, Charnas's fiction presents an oppressive patriarchal village (the Holdfast), a nomadic culture of women who can reproduce without men (the Riding Women) and a group of ex-slave women who have escaped the Holdfast (the Free Fems). All of these groups are presented as morally defective: in the changing relationships between them, Charnas suggests that oppression and using power for its own sake are intrinsic human flaws, irrespective of gender. Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower (1993) largely agrees, but acknowledges that women, children, and ethnic minorities suffer most during social upheaval. Butler's dystopia revolves around Lauren Olamina, a young black woman who suffers from hyperempathy. As American civilization decays, Lauren leads a small group of refugees to safety while instructing them in her self-created religion, "Earthseed." But the sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998), shows the Acorn community destroyed and its people killed or enslaved by fundamentalist Christians. Lauren is forced to choose between rescuing her followers (including her daughter) and saving Earthseed from destruction.

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (a film version appeared in 1990) is much more narrowly focused on a patriarchal dystopia in which fertile women are reduced to breeder-slaves. Offred, Atwood's first-person narrator, only Page 610  |  Top of Article dimly understands how the ultra-fundamentalist Republic of Gilead has come to be, but she gives a firsthand look into the horribly repressive techniques necessary to keep the oligarchs (Commanders) in power. The first two of Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue novels (Native Tongue, 1985; Native Tongue II: The Judas Rose, 1987) create a patriarchal but not overtly religious dystopia, one in which a few hundred Linguists are responsible for all communication between humanity and dozens of alien races; while all of humanity hates the Linguists, it is the Linguist women who are even more thoroughly oppressed. Elgin foregrounds the feminist concern with language as a tool of patriarchal repression, and she shows her Linguist women building a "women's language," Láadan, intended to be the tool of their liberation.

See also Genre ; Technology ; Utopia .



Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. 1st American ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1963.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper and Row, 1947.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four. London: Secker and Warburg, 1949.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Translated by Gregory Zilboorg. Boston: Gregg Press, 1975.


Aldridge, Alexandra. The Scientific World View in Dystopia. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984.

Booker, M. Keith. Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994.

——. The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Gottlieb, Erika. Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Terror and Trial. Montreal and Ithaca, N.Y.: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001.

Kumar, Krishan. Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Lewis, Arthur O., Jr. "The Anti-Utopian Novel: Preliminary Notes and Checklist." Extrapolation: A Science-Fiction Newsletter 2, no. 2 (May 1961): 27–32.

Negley, Glenn, and J. Max Patrick, eds. The Quest for Utopia: An Anthology of Imaginary Societies. New York: Henry Schuman, 1952.

Sargent, Lyman Tower. British and American Utopian Literature, 1516–1985: An Annotated, Chronological Bibliography. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, vol. 831. New York: Garland, 1988.

David W. Sisk

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424300211