Dystopian literature is a genre of fiction set in future or near-future societies where life and social structures are in calamitous decline. Authors of dystopian literature typically use the setting to examine social and political systems and contemplate what would happen if these systems were amplified. The result is often a society in shambles, with rampant oppression, violence, poverty, and revolution.
The etymology of the word dystopia (dis-TOE-pee-uh) describes these settings succinctly but perfectly. By combining the Ancient Greek dys, meaning “bad” + topos, meaning “place,” dystopia literally means “bad place.”
The Characteristics of Dystopian Settings
Many dystopias share similar characteristics, including:
- Economic challenges: There’s widespread poverty that the citizens must endure, or there are massive gaps in wealth that create a ruling class of elites and relegate everyone else to a life of scarcity and hardship.
- Environmental damage: Environmental devastation wreaks havoc on the lives and fates of the characters. This destruction might take the form of major weather events, like earthquakes or floods; climate change and its disastrous effects; or the ramifications of pollution, overpopulation, or disregard for the planet and its finite resources.
- Government influence: Typically, there’s either no government overseeing law, order, and civilization, or there’s a domineering government that operates a police state and controls and monitors the lives of all citizens.
- Loss of freedom or individual identity: A dystopian society often robs its citizens of their basic freedoms and/or individualism. It reduces them to sheep who must blindly follow the dictates of a tyrannical and unjust system.
- Propaganda: The existing power structure in a dystopia produces propaganda to keep the citizenry in line. Such propaganda might present a deceptive “everything is fine“ picture of life in order to control the population, or it might incite fear and terror and, thus, generate an excuse to engage in further domination and subjugation.
- Survival: The characters in a dystopian setting are in a fight to survive the oppressive conditions in which they find themselves. They must resort to extreme measures to protect themselves and those around them, which usually means rebelling against the powers that be.
- Technology: Advancements in technology tend to play a key role in controlling or tracking the citizens of a dystopia. Rather than solving problems, technology creates them—damaging relationships, reinforcing hierarchies and power structures, and reducing quality of life.
Subsets of Dystopian Literature
Dystopian literature is itself a subgenre of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction takes place in settings that could potentially be a reality but are hypothetical at the time of writing. This hypothetical quality separates speculative fiction from works of pure science fiction or fantasy. Speculative fiction possesses certain plot points that root them to existing realities. The narratives are not as hyper-focused on science, technology, supernatural elements, and other hallmarks of science fiction and fantasy literature. Instead, they center around the human responses to these themes.
There are also subsets of dystopian fiction. Some works combine both a eutopia—an idealized, perfect world—and a dystopia. Ectopian fiction takes place in a dystopia or eutopia and emphasizes environmental issues, such as the preservation or destruction of the story’s natural environment. Feminist dystopias utilize their settings to critique male-dominated social and political structures and the relationship between gender identity and power.
Dystopias vs. Eutopias
Eutopias are the opposite of dystopias because they’re idealized worlds that readers find pleasing and appealing. They are visions of perfect societies that are usually in line with the author’s personal philosophies and belief systems. Conflict still exists in utopian fiction, but it typically arises from human foibles and misunderstandings rather than from the setting itself.
While both dystopias and eutopias can contain satirical elements as a way of humorously critiquing someone or something, satire is far more common in a utopian setting, as the picture-perfect world is, by nature, more conducive to lightness and humor than the bleakness painted by a dystopia.
The Function of Dystopias
This setting/genre of literature examines the weaknesses in social and political systems and the complexity of human nature. Magnifying these subjects within a dystopian setting allows the author to illustrate what might happen if power runs unchecked and/or if existing structures of governance and social order stop working for the greater good. Dystopias expose the inherent flaws in systems, societies, and people.
Authors of dystopian literature can use these settings to warn readers (and society at large) about the potential outcomes of current methods of governance or ways of life. They can insert their own beliefs into the story as commentary on the possible consequences of a present aspect of modern life or human behavior.
Dystopias in Popular Culture
Dystopias provide fertile ground for writers to create compelling and enduring stories, both in literature and in movies and television.
The 1927 German expressionist classic Metropolis takes place in what first appears to be a flashy urban eutopia. But, the privileged Freder discovers a bleak dystopia under the city, populated by the impoverished and marginalized, and he attempts to change things for the better.
The 1979 movie Mad Max and its sequels unfold in a dystopia with no law and order, where lone wolf Max Rockatansky sets out to stop a ruthless motorcycle gang and restore some semblance of justice.
The 2013 dystopian adventure Snowpiercer, based on the graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette, is set on a constantly running passenger train, which has become the home of the remaining world population after an environmental catastrophe. The members of the lower-class portion of the train stage a revolution against the upper-class members—specifically against Wilford, the mythic inventor and caretaker of the train’s perpetually running engine.
There are several television shows that involve dystopias. Westworld is set in a futuristic amusement park where visitors can experience their fantasies through artificial consciousness; Black Mirror is an anthology series often set in dystopian worlds; and The Last Man on Earth is a rare dystopian comedy about a man who is seemingly the only survivor after a deadly virus decimates the world population.
Writers Known for Dystopian Literature
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake
- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
- Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
- Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
- Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
- Lois Lowry, The Giver
- George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm
- Veronica Roth, Divergent
Examples of Dystopias in Literature
1. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Atwood’s 1985 novel takes place in a dystopian society called Gilead, a near-future version of the United States. In this world, a theocratic male government runs a ruthlessly totalitarian state that subjugates women into various classes and roles. One of those roles is handmaid, a woman who must bear children for the Gileadean elite. Offred is the handmaid at the center of the story, and she describes her life before and after the events that robbed women of their basic human rights and liberties.
2. Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
Butler’s 1993 novel unfolds in 2020s-era America, where climate change, economic disparities, and corporate malfeasance leave society in shambles. Lauren Oya Olamina is a young woman with the unique ability to feel others’ pain and emotions, which inspires her to develop a new belief system called Earthseed. After the destruction of her Los Angeles home, Lauren and other survivors travel north across a violent landscape, eventually settling in Northern California and founding an Earthseed community.
3. Cormac McCarthy, The Road
McCarthy’s 2006 novel follows the journey of a father and son as they traverse a violent and sparse America decimated by an unnamed catastrophe. They search for food and clean water, pushing their meager belongings in a shopping cart as they skirt ruthless bandits and meet fellow stricken survivors along the way. They eventually make it to the sea, with the father falling increasingly more ill and the boy facing the prospect of a life on his own.
Further Resources on Dystopias
The Artifice asks “What Is the Purpose of Dystopian Literature?”
Book Riot does a deep dive into the specifics of speculative fiction.
A Study of Dystopia as a Literary Genre looks at the various subgenres of dystopian fiction.
O has a list of 20 Dystopian Novels Everyone Should Read.
Goodreads offers a comprehensive list of popular dystopian novels.