A dystopia is defined as a community, society, or way of life that is absolutely negative to our perception of what is normal. It is the opposite of a utopia, wherein life is deemed to be almost perfect. In a dystopia, there is always an inherent danger or threat to life or other aspects such as freedom, identity, or religion.
A dystopia is often represented in many literary works. Themes vary, ranging from different types of oppression by the government. This theme differs from apocalyptic genres where, most of the time, an external force or an act of nature is the main adversary, and people are usually united towards a common goal.
This article aims to discuss the themes involved in dystopian literature, as well as its rich and storied history. Some of the more prominent writers as well as their works would be discussed in-depth, as well. As such, a discussion of how dystopian literature has evolved over the years.
The word dystopia finds its origins from the Greek terms which literally means “bad place”. Dystopia is also known by other terms such as cacotopia, or anti-utopia. The word was first introduced in 1818 by Jeremy Bentham as an opposite to utopia, although the word cacotopia, which bore the same meaning, was used instead.
In modern usage, cacotopias are generally used to describe works that are “worse than a dystopia”. Works such as Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell have been known to be described as such. Still, both terms can be utilised interchangeably when describing a genre with some form of discrimination or decline within the society as narrated by the author.
Dystopian literature typically involves governments that are tyrannical or authoritarian in nature. Among the “rules” of these ruling classes involve segregation, dehumanisation, the lack of due process or a usual justice system, or repression of ideas, religion, or other basic rights that should be enjoyed by all.
Many types of dystopian literature feature a strongman that leads the antagonist entity, and this force is the source of conflict within the story. The protagonist will be a part of the oppressed party, or would be disillusioned by the current society and would then spark a rebellion against the powerful force.
Most dystopian literature would also feature a past or ongoing calamity, whether it be a disease, war, or environmental disaster. Stories are often focused within a specific city or country, although some stories would require characters to travel to other locations of varying qualities as well.
These types of literature can be set in any time era, but the future is the most likely setting. This is due to the fact that most stories have their plots centred on real historical events or theoretical and exaggerated advancements in technology that triggered the events in the story.
Likewise, some dystopian literature also uses a plot device based on real historical events that had an alternate outcome. An example of this would be Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, which portrayed a world wherein Nazism ruled the world and won World War II.
While some dystopian literature features futuristic elements, many also blend in features reminiscent of post-apocalyptic or science fiction genres. These types of stories typically involve survivors scrummaging for supplies while staying under the radar of pursuers, or the population controlled in some way or form by machines run by the government.
Lastly, another popular theme of a dystopia is the fact that the main conflict of the story is hidden within a society that looks like, at least at the surface, a utopian community. One of the more popular examples of this is Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, wherein those over thirty years of age are killed without prejudice.
Perhaps one of the most prominent purposes of dystopian literature, aside from entertainment, is to provide a comparison, as satire or as a critique, or social and political issues relevant during the time. As such, points such as racism, commercialism, and social gaps are recurring themes within these novels, whether explicit or implicit in nature.
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The novel, broken down into four parts, sees the main character travel to different locations with people of varying flaws. An example of this appears in the fourth book, where the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms are forced to live separately, despite the acceptance of one of the later races of Gulliver, who is believed to be one of the former.
While focusing more towards fantasy, Gulliver’s Travels is considered as one of the earliest forms of dystopian literature as it tackled different types of societies with their own flaws, which makes living within their community impossible for Gulliver.
A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation, in the Year of Our Lord, 19—is a story about a city, called Amalgamation, where marriage between whites and blacks is encouraged. The story was written when there was a lot of racial tension in the country, and the novel is filled with anti-abolitionist views.
The context of religion is also heavily included in the book, the process of Amalgamation is presented as a religious process wherein blacks are perfumed in order to make their foul odour”. References to Jim Crow and the use of blackface can also be seen in the novel.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is one of the most popular pieces of dystopian literature, and it is credited with popularizing the concept of time travel as a plot device. In this book, the main character travels hundreds of thousands of years into the future, with humans diverging into two subclasses.
The conflict between the Eloi and the Morlocks are the main plot of the story, with the Morlocks, which feed on the innocent Eloi, serving as the antagonists. The novel symbolises how technology and convenience can make a person weak, and how others can capitalise on these weaknesses.
We is set in the future where names are replaced by a combination of numbers and letters. All citizens are constantly watched and live in glass houses. There are also public executions and bans against drinking alcohol, getting pregnant or having sex without permission, and other acts.
The conflict within the story involves inhabitants outside the walls of the city as well as the protagonist, who manages to bring down the oppressive government during a rebellion. Classic dystopian themes such as brainwashing for those who do not wish to comply are popularised by this novel.
Set in the year 2540, Brave New World tells the story of a future London where citizens are born through artificial means. The population is also distributed into castes, and the society is kept peaceful through the use of drugs.
Elements of segregation, totalitarianism, and conformity are heavy themes in the book. The novel is also notable for using Henry Ford, developer of the assembly line, as a deity-like being that heavily influenced the way that the government rules over the populace.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, A Novel is set 35 years in the future where the world is divided into super states after a great war. Just like Brave New World, the novel deals with issues such as mass surveillance, totalitarianism, excessive control, and propaganda.
The novel is also noteworthy for introducing Big Brother into the lexicon. In the novel, Big Brother is a personification of the ruling party and is used as a symbol of constant monitoring with the threat of punishment for those who do not comply with rules and what is deemed as acceptable behaviour.
Fahrenheit 451 is set in an American city wherein books are banned and burned. The story follows the protagonist as he becomes disillusioned with the censorship of education and knowledge. The story ends with the fall of the city and the rebels’ plan to rebuild society using what they have learned.
Ironically, the book was banned or at least partially censored due to its theme, as well as due to the use of obscene and vulgar language. This, in turn, led to its further popularity and cult following as it further stressed the theme of suppression and control that are being presented in the book.
Writing as Richard Bachman, both books portray a world where in the world is barely surviving with conflicts between the rich and the poor. All the while, the main characters become a catalyst for some if not most of the conflict between both classes.
In The Running Man, the protagonist is part of a game show where he is to be hunted down and killed while millions watch.
On the other hand, The Long Walk tells the story of an annual event where volunteers must walk continuously until only one remains alive.
Symbolising capitalism, consumerism, and the misuse of technology, M.T. Anderson’s Feed tells the story of a teenager living in a dystopian society wherein people can access information and perform other feats using an implanted device.
In the story, the ecology is also greatly damaged, and life is further complicated by one of the character’s access to the database malfunctioning, causing her body to shut down. The narrative then revolves around the reliance of people on technology and how it can greatly affect society. It also reflects how corporations can control people’s lives both directly and indirectly.
The Hunger Games, of which there were three books in the series, takes place in a city where “tributes” from surrounding districts must fight each other to the death. The concept is similar to Battle Royale, which is set in Japan and with students who are unwittingly pitted against each other.
As with many pieces of dystopian literature, the series covers topics of authoritarian governments, although it also satirises the rise of reality television as the games serve not only as a form of punishment for a past rebellion but as entertainment for the affluent Capitol residents as well.
Ready Player One follows the story of a teenager living in a world in the midst of social and economic collapse. Their only escape is through a virtual simulation program that promises riches for the first player to discover an Easter egg embedded within the program.
The novel which is rife with pop culture references such as video games and films. It also heavily represented the rise of technology and gaming, while also provides some very important social commentary, especially when it comes to the relationships formed between the main character and his fellow egg hunters.
The Girl with All the Gifts features a world wherein a fungal infection has taken over the world. Those infected become zombie-like creatures, while those who have survived are behind heavily guarded walls or are moving around in packs scavenging for supplies.
The story revolves around Melanie, an infected which still retains her memories. As characters help save Melanie while also surviving in the dangerous world, they are confronted by challenges to their morality as well as their own loyalties to their race.
Dystopian literature has evolved throughout the centuries, mirroring issues felt or projected to happen in current society. As world-changing events occur in different areas of life and society in general, more and more topics will become fodder for this particular genre of literature.
Dystopian literature is very popular nowadays, with many works being converted into different forms of media, especially in film and video games. As the youth has also been engaged in reading these types of literature, we can expect more novels and works featuring dystopian realities that reflect issues in real life.
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