What is dystopian literature?
Dystopias derive from the concept of Utopia, a name coined in Greek by Sir Thomas More in 1516 for his book which describes a fictional island in the Atlantic ocean. There an ideal society exists with a perfect socio-politico-legal system. Some groups have attempted to use More's work as a realistic blueprint for societies; however, between the idea and the reality there is usually a great difference. So, because of the problematic issues of utopias and because of modern attempts to employ technology to benefit society, a number of dystopias, or anti-utopias, that present a negative view of the future with societies in which there is a controlled state that is often repressive, under the guise of being beneficial to order, have been written about.
- Dystopian literature has the following characteristics to its narratives:
- Dreams of a perfect society are hampered by fears of consequences
- Individualism is repressed with active and passive coercion.
- Alienation and isolation
- Removal of religion and cultural traditions
- Pessimitic points of view
- The emergence of rebellion on the part of one group or an individual.
Well-known examples of dystopian literature are Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and Lois Lowry's The Giver, Jack London's The Iron Heel, Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano and "Harrison Bergeron." In all these works the government is extremely repressive and individualism is lost;in Brave New World, Huxley's work in which he expresses his fear of technology surpassing humanity, people are even genetically controlled and then conditioned throughout their lives. In all these works, the individual's mind is controlled; so, often there are one or more people who attempt rebellion. In Brave New World, for instance, John the Savage tells Mustapha Mond, "Nothing costs enough here." Further, he declares,
"But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."
As stated above, dystopian literature is the opposite of utopian, or ideal world, literature. That being said, it is usually very dark, seemingly hopeless for the protagonist who has the unenviable position of saving or redeeming society by accomplishing an impossible task. There is almost always the element of an oppressive leadership that uses, abuses, and controls members of the community through fear of reprisal or punishment that will be carried out on family and friends. The Hunger Games trilogy is, perhaps, the most popular at the moment. There is a recent Horn Book article (just google dystopian and Horn Book) that describes the genre and gives a good list of some of the more recent books and series published.
In simple terms a dystopia is the opposite of a Utopia, which is not a paradise but rather an ideal world.
So a distopia is sort of the worst case scenario, so George Orwells 1984 could be described as a Dystopia - because for Orwell the nanny state, big brother and room 101 are all of his worst fears about modern life.
There are more subtle ways and indeed even zombie movies could be said to be dystopian -think of it as the societal worst case scenario.