dys-/dus- (Latin/Greek roots: 'bad' or 'abnormal')
-topos (Greek root: 'place')
(Greek root: 'good') / ou- (Greek root: 'not')
+ -topos (Greek root: 'place')
= 'good/no place'
an imaginary wretched place, the opposite of utopia
utopia n. a place or state of ideal perfection, the opposite of
A DEFINITION OF DYSTOPIA
What is a dystopia? Well, that question is not as easily answered as
one might think. To put it as simply as possible, a
dystopian depiction can be described as a dark vision of the future.
That is hardly a satisfactory definition, though.
the different definitions that are available are not as congruent as one
might wish. A few examples:
imaginary, wretched place, the opposite of Utopia." (Cassel's
Consice English Dictionary)
imaginary place where people lead dehumanised and often fearful
lives." (Merriam-Webster's On-line)
word 'dystopia' is the commonly used antonym of 'eutopia' [i.e.
utopia] and denotes that class of hypothetical societies containing
images of worlds worse than our own. [...] Dystopian images are
almost invariably images of future society, pointing fearfully at
the way the world is supposedly going in order to provide urgent
propaganda for a change in direction." (Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia
of Science Fiction)
fiction looks at totalitarian dictatorship as its prototype, a
society that puts its whole population continuously on trial, a
society that finds its essence in concentration camps, that is, in
disenfranchising and enslaving entire classes of its own citizens, a
society that, by glorifying and justifying violence by law, preys
upon itself. [...] dystopian society is what we would today call
dysfunctional; it reveals the lack of the very qualities that
traditionally justify or set the raison d'ętre for a
community." (Erika Gottlieb's Dystopian Fiction East and
West: Universe of Terror and Trial)
dystopia is any society considered to be undesirable, for any of a
number of reasons. The term was coined as a converse to a Utopia,
and is most usually used to refer to a fictional (often near-future)
society where current social trends are taken to nightmarish
extremes. […] Often, the difference between a Utopia and a
Dystopia is in the author's point of view. […] Dystopias are
frequently written as warnings, or as satires, showing current
trends extrapolated to a nightmarish conclusion. […] A dystopia is
all too closely connected to current-day society." (Wikipedia
definition is, albeit somewhat lengthy, the most suitable one for an
instrumental approach to the dystopian concept. It pin-points essential
societies are undesirable or even horrifying.
societies are usually futuristic and fictional.
depictions can be regarded as warnings.
fiction is both about today and tomorrow.
fiction comments on our own society.
and utopian concepts are relative.
have deviced my own definition for Exploring Dystopia, which is instrumental for the selection of
dystopias on this site, including recommendations from you. It is
formulated as follows:
A) an imaginary society
B) comments on our own society and
C) a majority of us would fear to
Four key words I find essential
in my definition:
as dystopian stories reflect, not depict contemporary society. An example:
Enemy of the State might resemble Nineteen
Eighty-four in certain respects, but it still depicts our own
society, albeit in a speculative manner. A dystopia that is not
imaginary to one degree or another actually lacks the raison d'ętre
for a dystopia, namely to explore possiblities and
as dystopian stories discuss major tendencies in contemporary society.
An example: In Lord of the
Rings, Sauron's rule is truly dystopian, but it does
not really comment on our own society. Another example: Lord of the
Flies has many dystopian qualities, but this island community
cannot really be considered as a representative society.
as dystopias reveal and illustrate potential and more or less
plausible dangers. An example: There
are obviously many dangers in the Star Wars galaxy, but
few would spontaneously fear to live there. However subjective this
issue may be, the aim with a dystopian depiction is to frighten and provoke.
As a rule, the more realistic and alarming a dystopia is, the more
frightening and provoking is it.
as dystopias are positioned in relation to conventional contemporary
values. An example: Some deranged individuals would probably enjoy the
savage world of the Mad Max triology, but most of us would
not. This issue can become somewhat complex when dealing with
explicitly ideological dystopias or pseudo-utopian dystopias.
It is important to have
two other aspects in mind as well:
as Dystopia is a question of point of view and differs over time and
place. For instance, the visionary man's Utopia is often the common
man's Dystopia. In Hitler's Third Reich, the ruling class
and its boot-licking servants probably thought they were living in Utopia,
but political dissidents and concentration camp inmates were sure they were living in Dystopia. Some people
may claim we are already living in Dystopia today, others may claim
it is Utopia. Your Utopia might be my Dystopia and vice versa. As a
common example, the world in Starship Trooper might seem
attractive at first glance, but most of us would probably not enjoy
living in a militarised society.
as Dystopia is difficult to demarcate and define. It is a general label
used simply because it is convenient and fancy. I like to compare it to the
likewise arbitrary label film noir. We can intuitively tell
if a movie is film noir, but not why it is film noir. Exact
characteristics are often difficult to extract. Furthermore, even if we
can extract exact characteristics, a depiction with strong dystopian
qualites does not necessarily have to be a dystopia. For instance, Alien
is not necessarily a dystopia: it hints at dystopian concepts and it
definitely looks dystopian, but does it really fit any of the
definitions presented above?
Also, note that a
dystopian depiction by no means need to take place in the future.
Uchronian stories, i.e. alternative history stories, are not seldom
dystopian, but take place in the present or in the past: they tell us
what could have happened.
Furthermore, the year 1984 has passed, but George Orwell's
harrowing vision might still come true in the future, albeit in a
On a similar note,
dystopian fiction is not necessarily science
fiction. For instance, compare Nineteen Eighty-four
with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Do they really
have anything in common? If you are writing an essay or a thesis, you
should also have
in mind that it is malapropos
to call dystopian fiction science fiction in certain academic circles.
Personally, I couldn't care less, but then again, I'm not a university
Thanks to Wilson for the correction of the linguistic
derivation of the term Utopia.