Dystopian fiction offers a speculative glimpse of the future, one often of a cataclysmic decline with characters battling their way through environmental ruin, technological control, and government oppression. As a sub-genre of science fiction, the popular dystopian novel can challenge readers’ views of current social and political climates, offer warnings, and in some instances, inspire action. But how is dystopian fiction determined? First, let’s define the difference between a utopian and a dystopian world.
What’s the Difference Between Utopia and Dystopia?
When Sir Thomas More coined the term “utopia” in his 1516 book Utopia, he was inadvertently shaping centuries of genre. With the advent of Utopia, which was about an ideal society on a fictional island, the dystopia concept was born.
Unlike utopian literature, dystopian literature explores and warns of the dangerous effects of created political and social structures on humanity (Hugh Howey’s Wool Trilogy), what leads society to its totalitarian outcomes, and the difficulty of correcting the situation. Often there’s no way back, and the character’s needs are stripped down to their basic elements of survival (Aral Bereux’s J Rae Books (Watcher Series)).
Utopian literature, on the other hand, often focuses on the individual and societal cost of maintaining a perfect world. Usually, one individual’s sacrifice is necessary for the utilitarian society to flourish (Ursula Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas), or there may be a hidden secret that must never be revealed (Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars and Childhood’s End).
What Is the Significance of Dystopian Fiction?
Margaret Atwood once said, “If you’re interested in writing speculative fiction, one way to generate a plot is to take an idea from current society and move it a little further down the road. Even if humans are short-term thinkers, fiction can anticipate and extrapolate into multiple versions of the future.”
The significance of dystopian fiction in literature can vary from educating and warning humanity about current social and political structures, to reflecting an author’s beliefs on the pitfalls of society (H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine), to critiquing behaviorism (Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange) and cautioning on oppressive regimes (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Orwell’s 1984).
5 Characteristics of Dystopian Fiction
Oftentimes, dystopian novels focus on central themes that generally fall under these categories:
1. Government control
Specifically, there is either an authoritarian ruling body or simply no government. The most obvious contemporary portrayal of the government control feature is Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.
Collins’ The Hunger Games takes place in a future nation built on the ruins of North America. The fictional Panem is ruled by President Snow’s totalitarian government, the Capitol. Just as our own society amasses vast amounts of wealth into the top one percent, Collins’ Capitol holds most of Panem’s wealth and uses this to control its citizens.
Each year, two children from Panem’s 12 poverty-stricken districts are mandatorily selected to participate in a televised death match called the Hunger Games.
George Orwell’s 1984 also presents the reader with a world under complete government control, known as the omnipresent surveillance of Big Brother, which enforces complete control over the citizens of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia – the three inter-continental superstates remaining after a world war.
2. Loss of individualism
The dangers of conformity are often written into classic dystopias such as 1984. How should the needs of society as a whole compare to individual needs? Authors writing in the dystopian genre will need to keep this question in mind.
Two examples are Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, written in 1953, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.
Fahrenheit 451 explores the censorship of books in a future society where increased technology and mindless entertainment dominate. The idea? To save the citizen from the misery of thinking freely, critiquing life, or being creative.
We, written in 1920, follows a spacecraft engineer living in One State. The citizens of One State wear uniforms and are referred to by number and are forever refused privacy or individual belief.
3. Environmental destruction
Often set in places that are inhabitable, the dystopian environmental story documents a warning of impending doom and destruction.
The one dystopian novel that comes to mind when discussing this characteristic, is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Written in 2006, the post-apocalyptic tale documents a father and son’s journey of survival to a more hospitable environment in which to live after an extinction-level event wipes out their old life.
James Dashner’s The Maze Runner series also chronicles the events of how a world is destroyed by solar flares and coronal mass ejections. In the first book, a group of teenage boys are stuck in The Glade and have to find their way out of an ever-changing maze.
4. Technological control
In a dystopian novel, the advancement of science and technology goes far beyond providing tools for improving everyday life. In this particular take on dystopia, technology is depicted as a controlling, ubiquitous, and inescapable force that creates fear-mongering tactics and a subservient culture. Oftentimes, the government can be seen herding the people like sheep.
Two standout authors capture this terrifying characteristic in the form of authoritarian bureaucracy: Huxley and Philip K. Dick.
Philip K. Dick’s 1968 short novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco where android robots are indistinguishable from humans, and mass extinction has led to artificial animals. Although it is supposed that the main character hunts down rogue AI before they can assimilate into society, the novel leaves the reader wondering if the protagonist is himself a sophisticated android hunting down the lesser AI and if humanity was in fact driven to extinction.
Philip K. Dick also warned of artificial intelligence advancements in Minority Report, where the Department of Precrime looks into the future to arrest potential criminals before they actually commit a crime.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was written in 1932 and explores the dangers of advancing technology too quickly. In the novel, the ruling World State uses powerful artificial reproduction conditioning technologies to control its citizen classes and their actions.
All three books have since been adapted to film and streaming services.
Dystopian and even utopian worlds require some level of survival to be built into the narrative in order to resonate with their audiences. Innate to the dystopian world are its inhabitants fending for themselves after a complete or almost complete destruction and devastation of their world.
One instance of survival is found in the pages of an early Stephen King novel, The Running Man. Written and first published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1982, the novel takes place in 2025 and follows the story of an impoverished man living under an oppressive government. The protagonist is to compete on a life-threatening game show to earn money to care for his family.
In the renowned Lord of the Flies by William Golding, a group of schoolboys finds themselves abandoned on a tropical island after their plane is shot down. Conflicts naturally emerge between the boys as they struggle to build a civilization and fight for survival. This dystopian novel has been widely distributed among literature programs for decades.
The warnings that dystopian fiction provides are the ultimate What Ifs of literature and narrative. The speculative glimpses of futures down the road, as Atwood explained, are a reflection of centuries of storytelling, often encompassing myth and morals to serve as a warning. As a sub-genre of science fiction, the challenge to a reader’s self-reflection is obvious and should inspire action, or at least, some level of growth as we question our own ability to survive while maintaining our integrity and more importantly, our humanity.