A guide to dystopian fiction

You can’t move for dystopia these days. There was a time a decade or so ago when there was only me – and a few other socially dysfunctional types – who you’d find banging on about dystopian fiction, boring friends senseless with obsessive talk of meltdown and apocalypse. Nowadays, every man and his disturbed dog teaches a KS3 unit on dystopian texts. And this is a good thing. I don’t want to sound like one of those losers who starts shunning a band the second everyone else ‘discovers’ them and they become popular. It’s just amusing to witness a niche genre go mainstream. So what caused this? Three words: The. Hunger. Games. As well as 9/11. But I’m getting ahead of myself already. Let’s take a few paces backwards…

It would be wise to start with a definition of dystopia. But before that we need to be formally introduced to the concept of utopia. The term was coined for the title of the 1516 fictional work written by Sir Thomas More. A simplistic synopsis of this deeply enigmatic text is that it imagines an island and depicts its perfect religious, political and social values; a haven of religious tolerance. With profound irony, as fans of Wolf Hall will know, More was executed by Henry VIII in 1535 for… refusing to support Henry’s schism with Rome. Conventional wisdom has it that the word Utopia is derived from the Greek for “good” and “place. This is completely wrong, according to John Carey, whose anthology The Faber Book of Utopias is the indispensable starting place for those wanting to know more about the genre:

Utopia means nowhere or no-place. It has often been taken to mean good place, through confusion of its first syllable with the Greek eu as in euphemism or eulogy.

As a result of this widespread misconception, we get the invented word dystopia (perhaps in 1851 via John Stewart Mill) meaning bad place, more specifically defined by the COD as:

noun (dis-ˈtō-pē-ə) 

  1. an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one

  2. The opposite of utopia

Carey argues very persuasively that the correct definition of utopia could render dystopia irrelevant because ‘imaginary good places and imaginary bad places are all utopias, or nowheres’. Sensibly though, he recognises the pedantry involved in this and generally reserves utopia for good and dystopia for bad, despite the muddled etymology. As he eloquently puts it: ‘to count as a utopia, an imaginary place must be an expression of desire. To count as a dystopia, an imaginary place must be an expression of fear’.

So now we’ve cleared that up we can concentrate on the role of utopian and dystopian fiction. To my mind, there is an obvious earlier fictional model of utopia, which would have had a deep influence on Thomas More: Genesis. I’m willing to argue that the Garden of Eden acts a model for all subsequent utopias (and therefore dystopias). As the site of perfection incarnate, we might contend that the Fall of Man in the Old Testament acts as a prelude to the first dystopian fiction, where mankind is constantly falling from grace.

Utopian fiction, however, has also fallen into spectacular decline. An explanation about the absence of utopian societies in modern fiction is straightforward: utopias are unmitigatedly dull. Without conflict, narratives become tedious. Indeed, most purported ‘utopias’ in contemporary fiction (passages of Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, for example) instead satirise the concept of a perfect human or societal existence.

And what of the dystopian text? As I’ve previously mentioned, this Mr Hyde of genres has found increasingly popularity in recent years, having long ago vanquished its Dr Jekyll precursor. The conventions of this doom-laden text:

  • Society is collapsing
  • The end of the world is nigh
  • Human misery is widespread
  • Any remaining elites rule in a brutal, totalitarian manner
  • Hope appears futile, but there is a glimpse of a future

And the message? A central tenet of the dystopian genre is the notion that mankind’s hubristic behaviour has invited catastrophe upon the human race.  Given this moral message, it is tempting to see dystopian texts as a prophetic vision of the future, with the simple and stark warning: “carry on in this manner and here’s what you will end up with”.

Tempting but wrong. The belief that dystopia acts primarily as a prophecy is not one I endorse. Instead, I would argue that the futuristic element of the dystopian text is more typically a disguised version of the present day.  Thus Orwell is not really looking forward to an imagined year of 1984, but instead presenting an allegorical representation of the bleakness of 1948 (note the simple numerical anagram that gives the book its title).


In this sense, dystopian texts teach us not about the future but instead allow us to ponder past and present conflict within societies. Their increasing popularity, particularly from the start of the 20th Century onward, reflect our preoccupations with the seismic changes of the age:

  • Scientific and technological advances
  • Increasingly secular societies
  • Catastrophic World Wars
  • Threat of nuclear apocalypse
  • Rise of totalitarian regimes
  • Prevalence of ecological disasters
  • New forms of terrorism

Which takes us back to Suzanne Collins and The bloody Hunger Games. As the following little graphic shows, there is a direct link between conflict in society and a spike of dystopian fictions:


Virtually everything, then, appears to fit in the dystopian pigeonhole. Not quite. You see, there’s a lot out there that, in my opinion, is incorrectly labelled as a ‘bad place’. So what doesn’t count? There’s often a bit of overlap, and you’ll probably be able to find an exception to my rules but here goes:

  1. Superheroes don’t count – Although Gotham, for example, may have dystopian elements, protagonists in a dystopian texts are reluctant or innocent-eyed archetypal everymen. They are not superpowered beefcakes. They don’t wear capes. There is no arch villain.
  2. The supernatural is not what scares us – one evil character does not a dystopia make. It is everyday life that terrifies us, not some Gothic depiction of the satanic.
  3. Disaster movies are not dystopian – the world may be in danger but the government (although often stupid) doesn’t want the people to suffer. Dystopian worlds aren’t just under threat: they are changed beyond recognition.
  4. We can’t blame aliens – dystopias are often futuristic but without the tyrannical society they are just… science fiction.
  5. Dystopia doesn’t normally happen on a small scale – bad things can happen on an island or in a city; in a dystopia, more often than not, the society or planet is under a repressive system. Unless it’s an obvious microcosm of course.

Dystopian texts can be disturbing, spellbinding and beautifully melancholic and misanthropic. Sadly they can also descend into cliche or the other obvious flaw of becoming a novel of ideas rather than one overly concerned with plot or character (Burgess’s The Wanting Seed being a classic example). This is a rather predictable list butmy five Nightmare Island Texts, in no particular order, would be:

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

I’d also recommend:

  • The Iron Heel by Jack London
  • A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry
  • Uglies by Scott Westerfield

And the following films:

  • Children of Men
  • They Live
  • Rollerball (the original)
  • Idiocracy
  • The Running Man
  • Battle Royale
  • Mad Max 2

Thanks for redaing,





One thought on “A guide to dystopian fiction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s