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What Is A Dystopia?

By Antonia Čirjak February 11 2020

Standing against the apocalyptic world.
Standing against the apocalyptic world.
  • Sir Thomas Moore is credited for coining the term Utopia (having written a book under the same title) but was also one of the first to use the term dystopia.
  • Hunger Games are one of the most popular modern dystopian book series, which were made into highly successful movies.
  • In dystopian books and movies, those who rule are typically depicted as brutal, uncompromising and hedonistic.

A dystopia can be defined as a world or a society that is best described as frightening and imperfect in its every aspect. Dystopian worlds often appear in works of fiction. It is the opposite of utopia, an ideal world. Sir Thomas Moore wrote his work Utopia, thereby coining the term. Moore himself was one of the first to use the term dystopia as well.

There are plenty of characteristics of typical dystopian society. Corrupt, oppressive governments often lead them, people in them are dehumanized, and they are often the result of a cataclysmic event. That event can be a massive scale war or an environmental catastrophe. Dystopian societies are often the setting of fictional works that are set in the future. The term is sometimes even used to describe existing countries, mostly those that are experiencing some form of collapse.

Dystopias In Works Of Fiction

Some of the more famous works of fiction that feature dystopias are 1984 by George Orwell, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Dystopian fiction often reflects our own realities and serves as a cautionary tale. It is used to criticize modern politics and warn people that social change is needed. Dystopian stories reflect the predominant fears in society and transform them into stories about imaginary worlds. The consequences described in those worlds serve as a warning to the people in our reality.

1984 by George Orwell
1984 by George Orwell. Credit: Wachiwit / Shutterstock.com

As of recently, there has been a rise in the popularity of dystopian stories among literature and movies aimed at young adults. One popular series of books and movies are The Hunger Games, written by author Suzanne Collins. It describes a society where the ruling classes exploit the lower classes that live in horrible conditions. The lower classes are forced to fight amongst each other to provide entertainment for the tyrannical rulers.

Another popular series dealing with dystopian themes is the Divergent series. It also tells a story about a society plagued by social stratification, where the lower classes lead extremely difficult lives. This trend can be credited to young people becoming more aware of the dangers of today’s world, such as the environmental changes brought about by global warming.

Common Traits Of Dystopias

In dystopian fiction, the ruling classes are often portrayed as extremely shallow and living hedonistic lifestyles. They are often brutal and uncaring; they rule with an “iron fist.” While they start as having noble goals, their principles often have flaws that end up corrupting them and turning the society into a dystopia. Rulers in dystopian societies can often be compared to fascist dictators, and the heroes of these works usually lead some rebellion against them. The rebellion is needed to bring about change in society. Another aspect that often appears in these works is the criticism of capitalism. We can often see large corporations as the ones controlling the society, and as being the real bad guys.

the difficulties of living in a dystopia.
The difficulties of living in a dystopia.

The difference between social classes is a theme that often shows up in works of dystopian fiction. The contrast between the lavish lives of the ruling class and the everyday struggle of the working class is shown to illustrate the difficulties of living in a dystopia. Sometimes people are shown as being forbidden to have families or even names. In those cases, people refer to one another by using numbers. Interestingly, religious organizations can sometimes be the villains in the stories, while at other times, they can play the opposite role, of the ones being oppressed. 

Dystopias are portrayed as places where violence is considered a normal part of everyday life. Wars are being fought on various scales, crimes are being committed, and sports events are organized where people fight to the death. Most dystopias are separated from nature and are tied exclusively to urban areas. Since dystopian societies are often the result of a cataclysmic event, natural life is considered extinct in a lot of these stories.

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