The word dystopia is a combination of the Latin root dys-: “bad” or “abnormal” and the Greek root -topos: “place.” The term anti-utopia is also sometimes used. Dystopian literature therefore tells stories about bad places; specifically, it is literature about possible future or near-future societies that will result if current or hypothetical political, environmental, and technological trends are amplified by history into overarching principles of social organization. Usually dystopias are dominated by a sinister political elite, but the evils of dystopias are also sometimes attributed to ignorance, poverty, overpopulation, commercialism, or technology run amuck.
Though the genre of dystopian literature has precedents dating back to such satirical works as Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) and Voltaire's Candide (1759), the genre in its modern form was defined by three works: George Orwell 's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Aldous Huxley 's Brave New World (1932), and Evgeny Zamyatin 's We (1924). Together these titles represent the most widely discussed science-fiction novels of the 20th century. All three exhibit the essential themes and motifs of the dystopian genre: a totalitarian state that uses technology, modern compartmentalized bureaucracy, total surveillance, and engineered sexual norms to control every aspect of people's lives. In the case of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the state even constructs the very “thought crimes” that lead individuals to their criminal dissensions. Each novel portrays the unsuccessful efforts of protagonists who struggle with the authority of the state, with the understanding that the protagonists’ efforts transcend mere individualism and aspire to nothing less than the struggle to maintain humanity itself. At this level, dystopian literature takes on the task and methods of Menippean satire, not only offering a warning of bad times to come, but advancing a diagnosis of the intellectual myths and the philosophical credulousness that make dehumanization possible. A host of dystopian works variously explore these problems, bringing with them varying perspectives on the criteria of human nature and speculating on possible technological and bureaucratic methods of social control. Drugs, poverty, lobotomy, consumerism, relentless propaganda, laissez-faire capitalism, micro-managed bureaucracies, police states, psychological theory, book burning, ecological disaster, computer-generated false realities, psychopathic computers, runaway robots, forced immigrations—there are as many ways to dehumanize the human race as there are authors seeking to publish novels on the subject.
Some critics explain dystopian literature as a dialectic development of the utopian literary genre; others see the form as an outcome of Menippean satire. Both perspectives are correct. Dystopian literature clearly represents a response to the claims advanced by utopian literature, while an examination of the distinctions Page 94 | Top of Articlebetween satire and dystopian literature underscores their shared philosophical project. Both forms pursue the analysis of intellectual mythology through portraying the conflict, brutality, ignorance, intolerance, euphemism, and passivity that are the result of positivism, scientism, and various modern orthodoxies; both forms are literary. Perhaps as an outgrowth of their metaphysical activity, Menippean satire and dystopian literature explore the limits of idiosyncratic humor. Although the humor of literary dystopia is often manic and bizarre, it functions (as it does in satire) as a source of normalizing understanding through which dichotomies of right/wrong and good/evil are identified and established. Nevertheless, the humor of dystopia is usually dark and pessimistic, reflecting alarm, paranoia, confusion, and hysteria, while satire is often simply clever or funny. The key distinction, however, is in the way the two forms analyze intellectual mythology. Dystopian literature locates conceptual confusion in the future and portrays hypothetical institutions that illustrate the sociological ramifications of intellectual mythology and modern orthodoxy. While dystopian literature essays prognostication and prophecy, satire locates conceptual confusion and intellectual mythology in the present and provides a diagnosis—the emphasis is not on the possible future histories of individuals and societies, but on the specific forms of the philosophical credulousness, the conceptual confusion, and the misapprehensions of language that produce intellectual mythology.
A host of dystopian works can be approached through identifying the modernist myths they are attacking. In That Hideous Strength (1945), C. S. Lewis demonstrates that the psychology of the scientific corporate institution is the culprit. Lewis's scientific bureaucracy emerges where human identification is displaced by a system that divorces people from the core tradition of their own humanity. The hegemony of the scientific bureaucracy is rooted in an environment of fear, politicized science, and overwork, and the institution works to enhance these conditions. Lewis suggests that the university is the ideal context in which this dystopian corporate psychology can germinate and evolve. In the novel Bend Sinister (1947), Vladimir Nabokov identifies mechanistic ontological theory as the root of dystopia. The plot of Bend Sinister follows the movements of a philosophy professor who is pursued by a despot seeking an endorsement of his party's theory of human nature, which emphasizes the practical virtue of dumbing down the population to a consistent generalized level. In A Clockwork Orange (1962), Anthony Burgess perfectly realizes the generic dynamics of intellectual myth and dystopia. In this work, the myth is predicated on the absolute vindication of the inner child. Burgess portrays a society that assumes the realization of one's immediate desires is the one legitimate goal of all individuals. Where conflicts occur, torture and conditioning are the essential means through which social equilibrium can be identified and restored. Burgess's evil protagonist, who is himself the subject of torture and conditioning, ironically represents the novel's greatest advocate of such measures. Torture and conditioning is the direct and simple solution that appeals to the selfish and immature mind, and in this dystopia (as in many others), it is the selfish and immature mind, vindicated by the intellectual pretensions and Paleolithic symbology of the authoritarian state, that holds sway.
The dystopian genre has continued in subsequent decades to be an important element of science fiction. Of particular note in this regard is the work of the British science-fiction writer John Brunner, who produced a sequence of impressive dystopian satires that included Stand on Zanzibar (1968), The Jagged Orbit (1969), The Sheep Look Up (1972), and The Shockwave Rider (1975). In addition, writers with literary reputations outside the realm of science fiction—such as Angela Carter, P. D. James, Iain Banks, John Updike, T. C. Boyle, and Margaret Atwood —have also produced dystopian works, while the genre has, in the early years of the 21st century, become particularly prominent in the realm of Young Adult fiction, where Suzanne Collins 's Hunger Games trilogy (2008–2010) has been but the most successful of many such works.
Booker, M. Keith. Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide. Westport, CT: Green-wood, 1994.
Booker, M. Keith, ed. Critical Insights: Dystopia. Ipswich, MA: Salem Press, 2013.
Kaplan, Carter. Critical Synoptics: Menippean Satire and the Analysis of Intellectual Mythology. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2000.
Kumar, Krishan. Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.
Moylan, Tom, and Raffaella Baccolini, eds. Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. London: Routledge, 2003.