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.

Some academic circles distinguish between anti-utopia and dystopia. As in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopia does not pretend to be utopian, while an anti-utopia appears to be utopian or was intended to be so, but a fatal flaw or other factor has destroyed or twisted the intended utopian world or concept.

Origin of the word Edit

The first known use of the term dystopia appeared in a speech before the British Parliament by Greg Webber and John Stuart Mill[2] 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".[3] 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". Thus, dystopia refers to an imagined place where almost everything is bad, perhaps a play on the term utopia that was coined by Thomas More.

Common traits of a dystopian society Edit

The only trait common to all dystopias is that they are negative and undesirable societies, but many commonalities are found across dystopian societies. In general, dystopias are seen as visions of "dangerous and alienating future societies," often criticizing current trends in culture.[4] It is a culture where the condition of life suffers from deprivation, oppression, or terror.[5]


Many dystopias, found in fictional and artistic works, can be described as a utopian society with at least one fatal flaw;[6] 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”.[7]


Most dystopias 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). For example, the novel Brave New World's class system is prenatally designated in terms of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons, and in We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, 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." In the lower castes, in Brave New World, single embryos are "bokanovskified", so that they produce between eight and ninety-six identical siblings, making the citizens as uniform as possible.[8]

Some dystopian works emphasize the pressure to conform in terms of the 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, as in Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron. Similarly, 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.[9] Moreover 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.

Social GroupsEdit

In a typical dystopia, there is a total absence of any social group besides the state, as in We, or such social groups being subdivisions of the state, under government control, for example, the Junior Anti-Sex League in 1984.

Among social groups, 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).[10] 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.[11]


The society frequently isolates the characters from all contact with the natural world. Dystopias are commonly urban,[12] 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.


Dystopian politics are often characterized as one of several types 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.[13][14] These governments often assert great power over the citizens, dramatically depicted in 1984 as the authority to decree that Two + two = five.[15]

In When the Sleeper Wakes, H. G. Wells depicted the governing class as hedonistic and shallow.[16] George Orwell contrasted this to the world of Jack London's The Iron Heel, where the dystopian rulers are brutal and dedicated to the point of fanaticism, which he considered more plausible;[15] this is, indeed, more typical of dystopias in general.

Utopian politics are often considered as idealistic in practice towards the society in which they are dictated and enacted.[17] Dystopian politics, however, are considered flawed in some way or have negative connotations amongst the inhabitants of the dystopian “world”. Dystopian politics are portrayed as oppressive.

Dystopias are often filled with pessimistic views of the ruling class or government that is brutal or uncaring ruling with an “iron hand” or “iron fist.” These dystopian government establishments often have protagonists or groups that lead a “resistance” to enact change within their government.[18]

Examples of dystopian politics in literary fiction can be read in Parable of the Sower, 1984, and V for Vendetta. Dystopian politics are portrayed in films such as Fahrenheit 451, Brazil and THX 1138.

In some dystopian societies, such as that of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange there is little government control and the people themselves cause chaos: in the videogame Bioshock, based on Objectivist principles, the antagonist Andrew Ryan built an underwater city where "the artist would not fear the censor... where the great would not be constrained by the small", ie. a capitalist utopia. Science, technology, and business were all essentially powered by competition. When Frank Fontaine, a mobster turned businessman, begins to overturn Ryan Industries' domination of the "free" market, however, Ryan panics and begins to use more heavy-handed methods of control, leading to civil war.


The economic structures of dystopian societies in literature and other media have many variations, as the economy often relates directly to the elements that the writer is depicting as the source of the oppression. However, there are several archetypes that such societies tend to follow.

A commonly occurring theme is that the state is in control of the economy, as shown in such works as Ayn Rand's Anthem, Lois Lowry's The Giver, and Henry Kuttner's short story The Iron Standard. Some dystopias, such as 1984, feature black markets with goods that are dangerous and difficult to obtain, or the characters may be totally at the mercy of the state-controlled economy. Such systems usually have a lack of efficiency, as seen in stories like Philip Jose Farmer's Riders of the Purple Wage, featuring a bloated welfare system in which total freedom from responsibility has encouraged an underclass prone to any form of antisocial behavior. Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano depicts a dystopia in which the centrally controlled economic system has indeed made material abundance plentiful, but deprived 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.[19]

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.[20]

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.

Characteristics of dystopian fiction Edit

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

The back storyEdit

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 HeroEdit

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.[21]

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.

The ConflictEdit

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.[22]

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 who has no intentions of moving forward.

Climax and dénouementEdit

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 Edit

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.[23] 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.

Depictions of dystopias in various media Edit

Dystopias are a common theme in many kinds of fiction. The lists linked below contain extensive lists of works with dystopian themes.

See also Edit

External linksEdit


  1. Cacotopia (κακό, caco = bad) was the term used by Jeremy Bentham in his 19th century works ([1], [2])
  2. Exploring Dystopia, last accessed on 19 March 2006, see also [3]
  3. Oxford English Dictionary
  4. City Life - Future Cities: Utopia or Dystopia. (2007). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved January 30, 2007, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online:
  5. dystopia. (n.d.). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved January 27, 2007, from website:
  6. Encyclopedia of Utopian Literature. Mary Ellen Snodgrass. p. xii
  7. science fiction. (2007). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved February 1, 2007, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online:
  8. William Matter, "On Brave New World" p 95, Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, ISBN 0-8093-1113-5
  9. Jack Zipes, "Mass Degradation of Humanity" p 189, Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, ISBN 0-8093-1113-5
  10. William Matter, "On Brave New World" p 94, Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, ISBN 0-8093-1113-5
  11. Gorman Beauchamp, "Zamiatin's We" p 70, Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, ISBN 0-8093-1113-5
  12. Eric S. Rabkin, "Avatism and Utopia" p 4, Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, ISBN 0-8093-1113-5
  13. Moylan, Tom. “ ‘Look into the Dark’: On Dystopia and the Novum”. Learning from New Worlds. Ed. Patrick Parrinder, Durham: Duke University Press, 2001
  14. Kaplan, Carter. “The Advent of Literary Dystopia.” Extrapolation. 40.3 (1999): 200 – 212
  15. 15.0 15.1 William Steinhoff, "Utopia Reconsidered: Comments on 1984" p 147 Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, ISBN 0-8093-1113-5
  16. William Steinhoff, "Utopia Reconsidered: Comments on 1984" p 153 Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, ISBN 0-8093-1113-5
  17. "Utopia." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 11 February 2007. <>
  18. 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
  19. 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
  20. William Matter, "On Brave New World" p 98, Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, ISBN 0-8093-1113-5
  21. Gorman Beauchamp, "Zamiatin's We" p 62-3, Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, ISBN 0-8093-1113-5
  22. Gorman Beauchamp, "Zamiatin's We" p 57, Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, ISBN 0-8093-1113-5
  23. John Clute and Peter Nicholls, "Dystopia" The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p 361 ISBN 0-312-13486-X

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