What is Dystopia?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Dystopia is an interesting play on the word utopia that was probably first used in the 19th century. Over time, it has generally come to mean fictional societies where the condition of life is unbearable or miserable; however, it may also mean fictional societies where economic quality of life is improved at the expense of losing basic liberties, such as the decision of when to fall in love or the loss of free speech. There are many fictional representations of the dystopia in literature, comic books, graphic novels, and films, and they continue to capture the imagination of people, perhaps even more so than utopian novels. Unfortunately, utopian societies, if they are truly perfect, may not have enough essential conflict, unless the society is contrasted with one that is clearly not utopian.

George Orwell's "1984" depicts a worldwide dystopia.
George Orwell's "1984" depicts a worldwide dystopia.

There can be different ways in which a society goes badly wrong in dystopian fiction. It could be that a government has seized control over the people and dictates their every move, their careers, and who lives or dies. Alternately, corporations may have taken control. In films like The Matrix, self-willed computer programs have enslaved humans so that they only exist in mental state and serve to power machines.

Dystopia is a common theme of graphic novels.
Dystopia is a common theme of graphic novels.

From this state, a central character typically emerges that perceives the evil of the dystopia and either attempts to thwart it or escape it. There may be some segment of the society that is rebelling against its controllers, or there may be a society that exists outside of the dystopia to which the hero can escape. For instance, in the 2006 film Children of Men the goal is to get one of the last pregnant women on earth to the ship Tomorrow, which may or may not exist, and is outside of societal control.

While a dystopia can end with the central character dramatically changing society, as does the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta, it may also end with the destruction of the character. The momentary perception that things were wrong may be an insight overpowered by a strongly dystopian world. Such instances occur in George Orwell’s 1984. Many times though, people derive greater satisfaction with the overthrow of a dystopia, and these may prove more uplifting and elicit better box office returns in films.

The natural provinces for dystopian work are sci-fi and fantasy genres, including steampunk and cyberpunk. This is usually because the dystopia must conceive of an alternate reality, and many of these stories are placed in the near future after some conceivable disaster like nuclear war or plague. Not all dystopias follow this format. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World technological advances have become the destroyer of personal liberty.

Some of the classic dystopian novels, not previously mentioned, include:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (made as the film Blade Runner)
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • The Giver by Lois Lawry

Films with dystopian themes are almost too many to mention but include:

  • Gattaca
  • Minority Report
  • Soylent Green
  • Serenity
  • Logan’s Run
  • WALL-E
  • Twelve Monkeys
  • Metropolis
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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