SF/F Genre Glossary

Defining Dystopia

This is a continuation of the Science Fiction / Fantasy Genre Glossary Project posts. For the complete genre index click here.

Dystopia
Dystopia by ~daadaa

What is a Dystopia?

If a utopia describes is a perfect or harmonious society, then a dystopia is the illusion of a perfect society. The illusion masks the truth that society that is controlled by an oppressive regime that does not allow for individual freedom, and for those who do not have power, life is extremely difficult or dangerous.

Common Characteristics:

  • A class oriented society where the standard of living varies dramatically from top to bottom.
  • Protagonist who questions the societal values. An insider, not an outsider.
  • A totalitarian or authoritarian government that stresses conformity instead of individuality.
  • Some kind of oppressive societal control: bureaucratic, technological, corporate, philosophical/religious
  • Fear of the outside world is encouraged. An insular society.

Literary Examples:

  • Farenheight 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Further Reading:

The use of the term ‘dystopia’ in genre circles seems looser than the definition. It seems to be used as a catchall term  for a negative society. Would you still consider a society that does not appear outwardly Utopian, but features general chaos and turmoil, a Dystopia?

17 Comments

  1. In general, I would probably consider any negative/authoritarian society story a dystopia… but I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s really when a supposed utopia is actually wholly dysfunctional.

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that there’s a fine line between the genre of “dystopia” and the genre of “post-apocalyptic fiction”. In actual practice, much of the fiction that belongs in the former category also belongs in the latter (but not necessarily so vice versa) such that one could be forgiven for believing either that a) dystopians are a subset of post-apocalypse or b) that dystopia and post-apocalyptic are synonymous. In fact they are not.

    Post-apocalypse is any story when a massive disaster has caused the widespread and general breakdown of society (also usually with massive loss of life). Dystopia is when a repressive government exerts control over a usually insular and largely homogenized and socially ignorant society. It just so happens that many stories are in fact both.

    One thought I had, along those lines… after my recent mention of “Mad Max” as one part of my “Book of M” project… after I read up enough on the movie to state that with some confidence (it’s been years since I’ve seen any of the Mad Max movies)… I noted that the Wikipedia entry calls Mad Max a dystopia, when in fact I’d argue it’s really more of a “post apocalyptic” piece (wherein an oil crisis has lead to the widespread breakdown of society), and it’s that fact that got me thinking about the differences between these two apparently related genres.

    1. T.S. Bazelli Author

      A similar train of thought sparked my search for a definition. The world I’m writing about is dysfunctional, and it lacks that outwardly Utopian sheen. It may be closer to post-apocalyptic, using your definition, since technology is slowly killing the world, though the apocalypse hasn’t happened yet (it’s coming). I’m scratching my head about it, but not entirely worried about the taxonomy for now. 😉

      I agree, post-apocalyptic does not always equal a dystopia, but it frequently does.

      1. The thing is, I don’t think there’s a commonly-accepted genre label that makes a distinction between the “False Utopia” form of dystopia and the “Gritty, dirty, broken-down society” form of dystopia.

        Perhaps you could differentiate “Dystopian” fiction from “Anti-utopian” fiction? Although the latter sounds a little clunky.

        Maybe it’s best that both forms fall under the general category of “Dystopia”?

      2. T.S. Bazelli Author

        LOL I have no idea. I always associate noir with dark skies, and rain, and trench coats.

        Hmm perhaps you can help me find a better label when you read the story 🙂 Draft 3’s done. Next round’s coming shortly.

  2. I, for one, considered dystopia a catchall term for something negative. I even thought that an alien dominated society might be somewhat dystopic! (Is it?)

    I love your little enlightening posts like this, Tessa. Keep that up and keep ’em comin’!

    -BrownEyed

    1. T.S. Bazelli Author

      Sure an alien dominated society could be. I’m thinking of “V” the TV series. At first the aliens seem perfect and peaceful, but there’s something sinister going on behind the scenes. Thanks Brown Eyed 🙂

    2. I, for one, am concerned. She only has one or two genres left on her master list that are undefined…

      I think it’s time to get even more crunchy with the details and break out some sub-sub genres. Steampunk > Deiselpunk and Atompunk, for instance…

      Tessa, where’d you get your original list of genres, anyway, out of curiosity?

      1. T.S. Bazelli Author

        You noticed, eh? 🙁 I’m almost out of genres. I was going to ask for suggestions. If you have anything you’d like me to define I’d be more than happy to add it to the list.

        I was thinking about adding more cross-genre trappings such as noir, hardboiled, and gothic fiction, or simply other definitions related to genre (but not necessarily genre, such as dystopia). Either that, or I’ll start a virtual bestiary, or perhaps look for mythologies from around the world. I’m honestly not sure. It could go any way. I’d love to hear your suggestions.

        The original list was composed from looking at submissions requirements posted by short story markets. A few were added after reading genre discussions online.

      2. I’d try this list out… <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_literary_genres"Wikipedia List of Literary Genres", which includes a number of genres under the general “Speculative Fiction” heading that your definition project currently lacks… Though, I’d quibble a bit with the organization of Wikipedia’s page.

        (For instance, it lists Dieselpunk and Atompunk as subgenres of Cyberpunk but lists Steampunk separately, whereas I know, for instance, that Scott Westerfeld’s “Leviathan” series is marketed as Steampunk but technically falls under the aegis of Dieselpunk, which shows that in fact Dieselpunk and Atompunk are outgrowths of the Steampunk movement, projecting it forward in time, which was itself influenced by Cyberpunk, but that niether are subgenres of Cyberpunk…. but that’s a whole other discussion for a page about such genre quibbles.)

        I’d also classify most forms of “Adventure Novels” as a type of Speculative Fiction – especially the “Lost World” subgenre – and therefore ripe for inclusion in your project, and also most subgenres of “Religious Fiction” are related to or cross-genre linked to Speculative fiction.

        Finally, I don’t see much “Horror” on your list either.

        So… that could potentially add another dozen genre labels and terms you could explore before closing down this project. 😉

  3. Post-apocalyptic fiction can easily divide from dystopia by not featuring a civilization. Dystopia is centrally defined by having a culture or vision of human society that’s bad. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is not really dystopia; it shows us very little about our bleak future. As a result, dystopia very rarely has strong characters (even Orwell’s 1984 is pretty thinly written character-wise, sacrificed in favor of showing a broken society), where post-apocalyptic can allow characters to flourish at the center of a broken world.

      1. Another way of looking at it: Planet of the Apes was at one time a dystopia, then they “blew it all up,” and it became post-apocalyptic.

        I enjoy your series of definitions. Got to help keep it going!

        Some post-apocalyptic fiction for the possible post: Mad Max, Dark Tower, The Road, The Walking Dead, World War Z. Maybe Left Behind? That’s post-Rapture, I guess.

      2. I think Left Behind and other stories which feature a more religious apocalypse sit at the intersection of what I mentioned above as “religious fiction” and “apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic science fiction”. Which is why I sort of mentally categorize religious fiction under the general umbrella of speculative fiction.

        Other post-apocalyptic stories: “The Postman”, “Waterworld”…

        My understanding (not having read it, yet, but from talking to my wife) is that “The Hunger Games” is one example that could be categorized as both Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic.

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