From New World Encyclopedia

A dystopia (from the Greek δυσ- and τόπος, alternatively, cacotopia,[1] kakotopia, cackotopia, or anti-utopia) is the vision of a society that is the opposite of utopia. A dystopian society is one in which the conditions of life are miserable, characterized by human misery, poverty, oppression, violence, disease, and/or pollution.

While there have been actual societies which have experienced most if not all of these characteristics, the term dystopia is largely a literary term, referring to a class of literary works that serve as cautionary tales against some form of totalitarianism of the left or right.

Some academic circles distinguish between anti-utopia and dystopia. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopia because its leaders do not aspire to or use the rhetoric of utopia to justify their power. Orwell's Animal Farm is a classic anti-utopia, in which the pigs come to justify their leadership in the name of creating a utopian society.

The literature of dystopia draws on the human experience of the failure of states and ideologies to create the utopias, or even the more modest aims of good governance, often abridging human freedom in the name of some ideal that leads to authoritarian, even totalitarian consequences.

Origin of the word

Did you know?
Dystopia refers to a place too bad to be practicable, the opposite of utopia which is too good

The first known use of the term dystopia appeared in a speech before the British Parliament by Greg Webber and John Stuart Mill in 1868. In that speech, Mill said, "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 favor is too bad to be practicable." His knowledge of Greek suggests that he was referring to a bad place, rather than simply the opposite of Utopia. The Greek prefix "dys" ("δυσ-") signifies "ill," "bad" or "abnormal"; Greek "topos" ("τόπος") meaning "place"; and Greek "ou-" ("ου") meaning "not."[2] Thus, dystopia refers to an imagined place where almost everything is bad, a play on the term utopia that was coined by Thomas More.

Elements of a dystopian society

Dystopian societies are portrayed with different defining features. There are dystopias of the political left and right, religious and atheistic, futuristic or allegoristic. However, they share numerous concerns and characteristics. One thing they often share in common is that they resemble a utopian or harmonious society but with at least one fatal flaw;[3]. Whereas a utopian society is founded on the good life, a dystopian society’s dreams of improvement are overshadowed by stimulating fears of the “ugly consequences of present-day behavior.”[4]

Social control

While utopian societies seek to achieve social harmony, one defining feature of most dystopias is the desire to impose severe social restrictions on the characters' lives. This can take the form of social stratification, where social class is strictly defined and enforced, and social mobility is non-existent (see caste system). In Brave New World the class system is prenatally assigned into groups, either the Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, or Epsilons. In the lower castes, single embryos are "bokanovskified," so that they produce between eight and ninety-six identical siblings, making the citizens as uniform as possible.[5]

Another form of social control is expressed in We by Evgeny Zamyatin, where people are permitted to live out of public view for only an hour a day. They are not only referred to by numbers instead of names, but are neither "citizens" nor "people," but "ciphers."

Another feature of social control is the pressure to conform, sometimes expressed as a requirement to not excel. In these works, the society is ruthlessly egalitarian, in which ability and accomplishment, or even competence, are suppressed or stigmatized as forms of inequality. Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron is one such example. In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the dystopia represses the intellectuals with particular force, because most people are willing to accept it, and the resistance to it consists mostly of intellectuals.[6] In Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, the protagonist Dagny Taggart struggles to keep Taggart Transcontinental thriving in a world that spurns innovation and excellence. All of Dagny's opponents cite "equality of opportunity" and the "public good" as their justifications for opposing free market capitalism and competition.

Loss of Civil Society

One characteristic feature of dystopia a total absence of civil society. There are no social groups besides the state, as in We, or such social groups are subdivisions of the state, under government control, as the Junior Anti-Sex League in 1984.

In particular, independent religions are notable by their absence. In Brave New World, 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).[7]

The state may stage, instead, a personality cult, with quasi-religious rituals about a central figure, usually a head of state or an oligarchy of some sort, such as Big Brother in 1984, or The Benefactor of We. In explicitly theocratic dystopias, such as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, the religion is the state, and is enforced with the same vigor as any secular dystopia's rule; it does not provide social bonds outside the state.

Even more than religion, family is attacked by dystopian societies. In some societies, it has been completely eradicated, but clearly at great effort, and continuing efforts are deployed to keep it down, as in Brave New World, where children are reproduced artificially, where the concept of a "mother" or "father" is obscene. In others, the institution of the family exists, but great efforts are deployed to keep it in service of the state, as in 1984, where children are organized to spy on their parents. In We, the escape of a pregnant woman from the United States is a revolt; the hostility of the state to motherhood is a particularly common trait.[8]


The society frequently isolates the characters from all contact with the natural world. Dystopias are commonly urban,[9] and generally avoid nature, as when walks are regarded as dangerously anti-social in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. 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 stabilize society.

Political ideologies

Dystopian societies come in all forms of governments and political systems. These systems include, but are not limited to, Anarchism, bureaucracy, socialism, communism, chaos, excessive capitalism, fascism, totalitarianism, dictatorships and other forms of political, social and economical control.[10][11] However, they all share one political feature in common. The political system seeks to enforce a predominant ideology to the exclusion of all others. In their effort to enforce the prevailing ideology, these governments exert great power over the citizens, as dramatically depicted in 1984 as the authority to decree that Two + two = five.[12]

One corollary to the imposition of social control is the government use of censorship to promote its political ideology. In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the government prohibits reading and sends firemen to burn books, thus preventing critical thinking that might lead citizens to question authority. Jack London's The Iron Heel presents the dystopian rulers are brutal and dedicated to the point of fanaticism.[12]

Lack of social cohesion

While fanaticism is the more typical form of dystopian politics, an alternative version to social control is lack of social cohesion. In When the Sleeper Wakes, H. G. Wells depicted the governing class as hedonistic and shallow.[13] Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange depicts a society in which there is little governmental control and the people themselves cause chaos.

Economic coercion

A commonly occurring theme in dystopias is a Planned economy under state control. Such economic coercion generally is predicated on the loss of individualism and the amount of social control exerted by the government through the access to goods and services. Such concerns are generally an indictment of the excesses of collectivist societies. The works of Ayn Rand's, such as Anthem, as well as Lois Lowry's The Giver exemplify these concerns. Some dystopias, such as 1984, feature black markets with goods that are dangerous and difficult to obtain, another commentary on the problems of state-controlled economies.

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.[14]

Other works feature extensive privatization. In this context, big businesses often have far more control over the populace than any kind of government and thus act as governments themselves instead of businesses, as can be seen in the novel Jennifer Government. This is common in the genre of cyberpunk, such as in Blade Runner and Snow Crash, which often features corrupt and all-powerful corporations, often a megacorporation.

Variations on the theme of economic coercion are found in Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano and Philip Jose Farmer's Riders of the Purple Wage. Vonnegut portrays a centrally controlled economic system which has succeeded in providing material abundance for all, thus depriving the mass of humanity of meaningful labor; virtually all work is menial and unsatisfying, and even very few of the small group that achieves education is admitted to the elite and its work.[15] Farmer's work features a bloated welfare system in which total freedom from responsibility has encouraged an underclass prone to any form of anti-social behavior.

Typical Features of dystopian fiction

As the overwhelming majority of dystopias are set in projected futures, dystopia is generally considered a subgenre of science fiction.

The back story

Because a fictional universe has to be constructed, a selectively-told back story of a war, revolution, uprising, critical overpopulation, or other disaster is often introduced early in the narrative. This results in a shift in emphasis of control, from previous systems of government to a government run by corporations, totalitarian dictatorships or bureaucracies.

Because dystopian literature typically depicts events that take place in the future, it often features technology more advanced than that of contemporary society. Usually, the advanced technology is controlled exclusively by the group in power, while the oppressed population is limited to technology comparable to or more primitive than what we have today.

In order to emphasize the degeneration of society, the standard of living among the lower and middle classes is generally poorer than in contemporary society (at least in United States or Europe). In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Inner Party, the upper class of society, also has a standard of living lower than the upper classes of today. This is not always the case, however; in Brave New World and Equilibrium, people enjoy much higher material living standards in exchange for the loss of other qualities in their lives, such as independent thought and emotional depth.

The Hero

Unlike utopian fiction, which often features an outsider to have the world shown to him, dystopias seldom feature an outsider as the protagonist. While such a character would more clearly understand the nature of the society, based on comparison to his society, the knowledge of the outside culture subverts the power of the dystopia. When such outsiders are major characters—such as John the Savage in Brave New World—their societies cannot assist them against the dystopia.

The story usually centers on a protagonist who questions the society, often feeling intuitively that something is terribly wrong, such as Guy Montag in Ray Bradbury's novella Fahrenheit 451, Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, or V in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. The hero comes to believe that escape or even overturning the social order is possible and decides to act at the risk of life and limb; in some utopias, this may appear as irrational even to him, but he still acts.[16]

Another popular archetype of hero in the more modern dystopian literature is the Vonnegut hero, a hero who is in high-standing within the social system, but sees how wrong everything is, and attempts to either change the system or bring it down, such as Paul Proteus of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Player Piano. Another example of this type of hero is Freder, heir to the empire, from the 1927 movie Metropolis by Fritz Lang.

The conflict

In many cases, the hero's conflict brings him to a representative of the dystopia who articulates its principles, from Mustapha Mond in Brave New World to O'Brien in 1984.[17]

There is usually a group of people somewhere in the society who are not under the complete control of the state, and in whom the hero of the novel usually puts his or her hope, although often he or she still fails to change anything. In Orwell's 1984 they are the "proles" (Latin for "offspring," from which "proletariat" is derived), in Huxley's Brave New World they are the people on the reservation, and in We by Zamyatin they are the people outside the walls of the One State. In Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, they are the "book people" past the river and outside the city. Or in Anthem by Ayn Rand, it can be found as everybody being the same, and a government that has no intention of moving forward.

Climax and dénouement

The hero's goal is either escape or destruction of the social order. However, the story is often (but not always) unresolved. That is, the narrative may deal with individuals in a dystopian society who are unsatisfied, and may rebel, but ultimately fail to change anything. Sometimes they themselves end up changed to conform to the society's norms. This narrative arc to a sense of hopelessness can be found in such classic dystopian works as 1984. It contrasts with much fiction of the future, in which a hero succeeds in resolving conflicts or otherwise changes things for the better.

Destroying dystopia

The destruction of dystopia is frequently a very different sort of work than one in which it is preserved. Indeed, the subversion of a dystopian society, with its potential for conflict and adventure, is a staple of science fiction stories.[18] Poul Anderson's short story "Sam Hall" depicts the subversion of a dystopia heavily dependent on surveillance. Robert A. Heinlein's "If This Goes On—" liberates the United States from a fundamentalist theocracy, where the underground rebellion is organized by the Freemasons. Cordwainer Smith's The Rediscovery of Man series depicts a society recovering from its dystopian period, beginning in "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" with the discovery that its utopia was impossible to maintain. Although these and other societies are typical of dystopias in many ways, they all have not only flaws but exploitable flaws. The ability of the protagonists to subvert the society also subverts the monolithic power typical of a dystopia. In some cases the hero manages to overthrow the dystopia by motivating the (previously apathetic) populace. In the dystopian video game Half-Life 2 the downtrodden citizens of City 17 rally around the figure of Gordon Freeman and overthrow their Combine oppressors.

If destruction of the dystopia is not possible, escape may be, if the dystopia does not control the world. In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the main character succeeds in fleeing and finding tramps who have dedicated themselves to memorizing books to preserve them. In the book Logan's Run, the main characters make their way to an escape from the otherwise inevitable euthanasia on their 21st birthday (30th in the later film version). Because such dystopias must necessarily control less of the world than the protagonist can reach, and the protagonist can elude capture, this motif also subverts the dystopia's power. In Lois Lowry's The Giver the main character Jonas is able to run away from 'The Community' and escapes to 'Elsewhere' where people have memories.

Sometimes, this escape leads to the inevitable: The protagonist making a mistake that usually brings about the end of a rebel society, usually living where people think is a legend. This concept is brought to life in Scott Westerfeld's novel Uglies. The main character accidentally brings the government into the secret settlement of the Smoke. She then infiltrates the government to escape, but chooses to join the society for the greater good.


Dystopias are a common theme in many kinds of fiction, many of which have become the subject of popular films. Some of the terms have made their way into the popular lexicon, such as 1984, Big Brother, and Animal Farm.


  1. Cacotopia (κακό, caco = bad) was the term used by Jeremy Bentham in his nineteenth century works (Dystopia, Trauma: A Dystopia of the Spirit) Retrieved December 18, 2008.
  2. Richard C. Trahair, Utopias and Utopians: An Historical Dictionary (Greenwood, 1999, ISBN 0313294658).
  3. Mary Ellen Snodgrass. Encyclopedia of Utopian Literature. (ABC-Clio Inc., 1995. ISBN 0874367573), xii
  4. Encyclopedia Britannica Online: Science fiction
  5. William Matter, "On Brave New World." 95, in Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander. No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. (ISBN 0809311135)
  6. Jack Zipes, "Mass Degradation of Humanity," 189, in Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander. No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction.
  7. Matter, 94
  8. Gorman Beauchamp, "Zamiatin's We," 70, in Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction.
  9. Eric S. Rabkin, "Avatism and Utopia," 4, in Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction.
  10. Tom Moylan, “ ‘Look into the Dark’: On Dystopia and the Novum.” Learning from Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition, and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia, Ed. Patrick Parrinder. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001. ISBN 0822327732)
  11. Carter Kaplan, “The Advent of Literary Dystopia.” Extrapolation 40(3) (1999): 200 – 212
  12. 12.0 12.1 William Steinhoff, "Utopia Reconsidered: Comments on 1984," 147 in Eric S. Rabkin, et al. No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction.
  13. Steinhoff, 153
  14. Matter, 98
  15. Howard P. Segal, "Vonnegut's Player Piano: An Ambiguous Technological Dystopia" p 163, Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, ISBN 0-8093-1113-5
  16. Beauchamp, 62-63
  17. Beauchamp, 57
  18. John Clute and Peter Nicholls, "Dystopia" The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993. ISBN 031213486X), 361

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Beauchamp, Gorman. "Zamiatin's We." In Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander. No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. ISBN 0809311135
  • Bradbury, Ray. Farenheit 451. Ballantine Books, 1987. ISBN 0345342968.
  • Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls, "Dystopia." The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993. ISBN 031213486X
  • Donawerth, Jane. “Genre Blending and the Critical Dystopia.” Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, Ed. Raffaella Baccolini, Tom Moylan. New York: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0415966140
  • Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World (original 1932) and Brave New World Revisited. reprint ed. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005 (original 1958). ISBN 0060776099
  • Kaplan, Carter. “The Advent of Literary Dystopia.” Extrapolation 40(3) (1999): 200–212. ISSN 0014-5483
  • Matter, William. "On Brave New World." Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. ISBN 0809311135
  • Moylan, Tom. “ ‘Look into the Dark’: On Dystopia and the Novum.” Learning from Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition, and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia, Ed. Patrick Parrinder, Durham: Duke University Press, 2001. ISBN 0822327732
  • Orwell, George. Animal Farm. 1st World Library - Literary Society, 2004 (original 1946). ISBN 978-0451526342
  • Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Plume, 2003 (original 1946). ISBN 0452284236
  • Rabkin, Eric S., "Avatism and Utopia." 4. in Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander. No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. ISBN 0809311135
  • Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. Centenniel Ed., Dutton, 2005. ISBN 0525948929
  • Segal, Howard P. "Vonnegut's Player Piano: An Ambiguous Technological Dystopia," Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander. No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. ISBN 0809311135.
  • Steinhoff, William. "Utopia Reconsidered: Comments on 1984." Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. ISBN 0809311135
  • Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Utopian Literature. ABC-Clio Inc., 1995. ISBN 0874367573
  • Trahair, Richard C. Utopias and Utopians: An Historical Dictionary. Greenwood, 1999. ISBN 0313294658
  • Vonnegut, Kurt. Player Piano. (original 1951) The Dial Press, 1999. ISBN 0385333781
  • Zamyatin, Yevgeny, and Clarence Brown, trans. We. Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1993. ISBN 0140185852
  • Zipes, Jack. "Mass Degradation of Humanity." In Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, 189. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. ISBN 0809311135

External links

All links retrieved February 12, 2024.


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