A dystopia is the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian. Examples of dystopias are characterized in books such as Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Other examples include The Iron Heel, described by Erich Fromm as “the earliest of the modern Dystopian”, and the religious dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale. Dystopian societies feature different kinds of repressive social control systems, various forms of active and passive coercion. Ideas and works about dystopian societies often explore the concept of humans abusing technology and humans individually and collectively coping, or not being able to properly cope with technology that has progressed far more rapidly than humanity’s spiritual evolution. Dystopian societies are often imagined as police states, with unlimited power over the citizens.
The word derives from Greek: δυσ-, “bad, hard”, and Greek: τόπος, “place, landscape”. It can alternatively be called cacotopia, or anti-utopia.
The word dystopia represents a counterpart of utopia, a term originally coined by Thomas More in his book of that title completed in 1516.
The first known use of dystopian, as recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary, is a speech given before the British House of Commons by John Stuart Mill in 1868, in which Mill denounced the government’s Irish land policy: “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 favour is too bad to be practicable.”
Many dystopias found in fictional and artistic works present a utopian society with at least one fatal flaw,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.” People are alienated and individualism is restricted by the government. An early example of a dystopian novel is Rasselas (1759), by Samuel Johnson, set in Ethiopia.
In the novel Brave New World, written in 1931 by Aldous Huxley, a class system is prenatally designated in terms of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons. 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 ” 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.
Some dystopian works emphasize the pressure to conform in terms of a requirement not to 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.
Concepts and symbols of religion may come under attack in a dystopia. In Brave New World, for example, 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). But compare Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, wherein a Christianity-based theocratic regime rules the future United States.
In some of the fictional dystopias, such as Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, the family has been eradicated and continuing efforts are deployed to keep it from reestablishing itself as a social institution. In Brave New World, where children are reproduced artificially, the concepts “mother” and “father” are considered obscene. In some novels, the State is hostile to motherhood: for example, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, children are organized to spy on their parents; and in We, the escape of a pregnant woman from OneState is a revolt.
Fictional dystopias are commonly urban and frequently isolate their characters from all contact with the natural world. Sometimes they require their characters to 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. A few “green” fictional dystopias do exist, such as in Michael Carson’s short story “The Punishment of Luxury”, and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. The latter is set in the aftermath of nuclear war, “a post-nuclear holocaust Kent, where technology has reduced to the level of the Iron Age”
In When the Sleeper Wakes, H. G. Wells depicted the governing class as hedonistic and shallow. George Orwell contrasted Wells’s world to that depicted in Jack London’s The Iron Heel, where the dystopian rulers are brutal and dedicated to the point of fanaticism, which Orwell considered more plausible.
Whereas the political principles at the root of fictional utopias (or “perfect worlds”) are idealistic in principle, intending positive consequences for their inhabitants, the political principles on which fictional dystopias are based are flawed and result in negative consequences for the inhabitants of the dystopian world, which is 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.
Dystopian political situations are depicted in novels such as Parable of the Sower, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451; and in such films as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Brazil, FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions, and Soylent Green.
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 plans the economy, as shown in such works as Ayn Rand’s Anthem and Henry Kuttner’s short story The Iron Standard. A contrasting theme is where the planned economy is planned and controlled by corporatist and fascist elements. A prime example of this is reflected in Noman Jewison’s 1975 Rollerball film. Some dystopias, such as Nineteen Eighty-Four, 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 only a small number of the small group that achieves education is admitted to the elite and its work.
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.
Other works feature extensive privatization and corporatism, where privately owned and unaccountable large corporations have effectively replaced the government in setting policy and making decisions. They manipulate, infiltrate, control, bribe, are contracted by, or otherwise function as government. This is seen in the novel Jennifer Government and the movies Alien, Robocop, Visioneers, Max Headroom, Soylent Green, THX 1138, WALL-E and Rollerball. Rule-by-corporation is common in the cyberpunk genre, as in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (made into the movie Blade Runner) and Snow Crash’.
In dystopian literature 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 that of their equivalents in contemporary industrialized society.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, for example, the Inner Party, the upper class of society, also has a standard of living that at least appears lower than the upper classes of today.
In contrast to Nineteen Eighty-Four, 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.
In Ypsilon Minus by Herbert W. Franke, people are divided into numerous alphabetically ranked groups. Similarly, in Brave New World, people are divided into castes ranging from Alpha-Plus to Epsilon, with the lower classes having reduced brain function and conditioning to make them satisfied with their position in life.
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. 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.
Destruction of the fictional dystopia may not be possible, but—if it does not completely control its world—escaping from it may be an alternative. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the main character, Montag, succeeds in fleeing and finding tramps who have dedicated themselves to memorizing books to preserve them. But ironically, the dystopian society in Fahrenheit 451 is destroyed in the end — by nuclear missiles. 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.
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