From Academic Kids

A dystopia (alternatively, cacotopia, kakotopia or anti-utopia) is the antithesis of a utopian society. Dystopian societies are usually characterized by extreme governmental tyranny and an exploitation of the people.

In most dystopian works of fiction, a corrupt government creates or sustains the poor quality of life, often conditioning the masses to believe the society is proper and just, even perfect. Most dystopian fiction takes place in the future, but often purposely incorporates contemporary social trends taken to their unrestrained logical conclusion. Fictional dystopias are frequently written as warnings or as satires, showing current trends extrapolated to a nightmarish conclusion. Many works of fiction will often portray these hypothetical dystopian societies as existing in a future time when the conditions of life are extremely bad due to deprivation, oppression, or terror. Science fiction, particularly post-apocalyptic science fiction and cyberpunk, often feature dystopias. Social critics, especially postmodern social critics, may use the term "dystopian" to condemn trends in post-industrial society they see as negative.



According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was coined in the late 19th century by British philosopher John Stuart Mill, who also used Jeremy Bentham's synonym, cacotopia. The prefix caco- means "bad", as in cacophony. Both words were created to contrast utopia, a word coined by Sir Thomas More to describing an ideal place or society. "Utopia" is a pun combining either the Greek-derived ou ("no") or eu ("good") with topos ("place"), making "no place" or "good place". Dystopia combined the dys, Greek word for "bad" or "negative" with topos. Thus, meaning "bad place".

As some writers have noted, however, the difference between a utopia and a dystopia can often lie in the visitor's point of view: one person's heaven can be another's hell.

Common traits of a dystopian society

The following is a list of common traits of dystopias, although it is by no means definitive:

  • a hierarchical society where divisions between the upper, middle and lower class are definitive and unbending (Caste system).
  • a nation-state ruled by an upper class with few democratic ideals
  • state propaganda programs and educational systems that coerce most citizens into worshipping the state and its government, in an attempt to convince them into thinking that life under the regime is good and just
  • strict conformity among citizens and the general assumption that dissent and individuality are bad
  • a state figurehead that people worship fanatically through a vast personality cult, such as 1984’s Big Brother, We‘s The Benefactor, or Equilibrium‘s Father
  • a fear or disgust of the world outside the state
  • a common view of traditional life, particularly organized religion, as primitive and nonsensical
  • complete domination by a state religion, e.g Death-Worship in the Eastasia of 1984
  • the "memory" of institutions overriding or taking precidence over human memory
  • a penal system that lacks due process laws and often employs psychological or physical torture
  • constant surveillance by government or other agencies
  • militarized police forces and private security forces
  • the banishment of the natural world from daily life
  • construction of fictional views of reality that the populace are coerced into believing
  • corruption, impotence or other usurption of democratic instututions
  • fictional rivalries between groups that actually operate as a cartel
  • insistence by the forces of the establishment that
    • it provides the best of all possible worlds
    • that all problems are due to the action of its enemies and their dupes

Traits of dystopian fiction

Many films and literature featuring dystopian societies exhibit at least a few of the following traits:

  • a selectively-told back story of a war, revolution, uprising, spike in overpopulation, natural disaster or some other climactic event which resulted in dramatic changes to society
  • a standard of living among the lower and middle class that is generally poorer than in contemporary society. This is not always the case, however - in Brave New World and Equilibrium, people enjoy a much higher standard of living in exchange for the loss of intelligence and emotion respectively
  • a protagonist who questions the society, often feeling intrinsically that something is terribly wrong
  • necessarily, if it is based on our world, a shift in emphasis of control, e.g. to corporations, autocratic cliques or beaurocracies.
  • because dystopian literature takes place in the future, it often features technology more advanced than that of contemporary society

For the reader to engage with it, dystopian fiction typically has one other trait: familiarity. It is not enough to show people living in a society that seems unpleasant. The society must have echoes of today, of the reader's own experience. If the reader can identify the patterns or trends that would lead to the dystopia, it becomes a more involving and effective experience. Authors can use a dystopia effectively to highlight their own concerns about societal trends. For example, George Orwell originally based his title 1984 on the year it was written, 1948 because he saw the world he describes emerging in austere postwar Europe.

Depictions of dystopias in various media

Dystopias are a common theme in many kinds of fiction. The lists linked below contain extensive lists of works with dystopian themes.

See also

de:Dystopie es:Distopa fr:Dystopie ja:ディストピア pl:Antyutopia zh:反乌托邦


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