What is Dystopian Fiction?

There have been many literary genres that stood the test of time and are still quite popular today, and one of those genres is dystopian fiction. No one knows exactly what makes dystopian fiction appealing for many readers, but it could stem from the fact that readers will be able to imagine and examine a world where everything is controlled by an oppressing government or ruined by different kinds of catastrophes. These events leading to a dystopian society would most likely not happen in our lifetimes, but it is interesting for most of us to read about it rather than live it. So, what is dystopian fiction? And where did it come from? We will know the answers as we get a closer look at the background and definition of this literary genre.

Defining Utopian Fiction

Before we get into the definition of dystopian fiction, we must first understand the opposite of the genre that actually serves as its predecessor, utopian fiction. This subgenre of fiction is supposed to focus on an ideal and perfect society known as utopia, where everyone is living equally in a beautiful city that is filled with natural resources.

The word “utopia” was first coined by Sir Thomas More in his book of the same name that was published in 1516. The term stemmed from two Greek words, “outopus” and “eutopos,“ which translate as “no place” and “good place,” respectively. While it was Sir Thomas More that coined the term, there have already been dozens of utopian literature written before the 1500s, with one of the earliest ones being Plato’s “The Republic,” a work that depicts a society with a perfect political and judicial system.

While utopian fiction has existed before the birth of dystopian fiction, there are much fewer utopian literary works that have been published as opposed to dystopian works, as readers often find fictional dystopias to be much more interesting to read, as the protagonist would often struggle and fight against the dystopia instead of agreeing with its rules, thus making the story more engaging. As for utopian fiction, most of the protagonists would often just describe how their society became perfect, so there is no conflict within the story itself.

Defining Dystopian Fiction

While utopias are described as perfect societies, dystopias are the exact opposite, as they are supposed to be unideal societies where only a few or none have free will and are benefitting from the laws and the resources of the city or country. Most of the authors that write dystopian fiction explain why the society in the story is considered a dystopia, and the reason could often be political or due to unexpected causes like natural disasters or nuclear catastrophes. 

In addition, some writers even use their dystopian stories as a commentary on the current state of the politics and economy of a certain country. These social commentary stories or works would show what would happen if a specific political or economic event that is happening in today’s era would become bigger and worse.

Examples of Dystopian Fiction

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

One of the earliest examples of dystopian fiction is “We,” which was written by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin from 1920 to 1921. In this novel, the protagonist of the story named D-503 is living in a united totalitarian state, where almost everyone is living equally and is governed by an oppressing government that wants every living being in the society to strictly follow the laws, behave based on logic through formulas and equations, and have no names besides the letter and number assigned to them, hence the reason why the protagonist is named that way. While a few readers may see the society in “We” as a utopia, mainly because almost all the people in the novel are treated equally, and the nation has no social hierarchy, it would still be considered as a dystopia since people are not free to voice their opinion and have free will.

George Orwell, an English author and journalist, became inspired to write his novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” after reading “We.” Orwell’s story has almost the exact same society that is depicted in “We,” although “Nineteen Eighty-Four” focuses more on how the government always keeps an eye on everyone’s actions through a symbol called “Big Brother,” who keeps his constituents under constant surveillance. Big Brother is supposedly the leader of Oceania, the dystopian society in the novel, although some readers doubt if Big Brother truly exists or is just a symbol of the government’s totalitarianism.

Origins of Dystopian Fiction

There is no concrete evidence surrounding the origins of dystopian fiction, but most historians and literary critics agree that it existed a few centuries after the publication of Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia.” Many experts believe that the first dystopian fiction ever created was “The Machine Stops,” a short story written by E.M. Forster and published in The Oxford and Cambridge Review in November 1909. The story is centered around a society where people live underground and rely on a gigantic machine to get their resources. This work by Forster is said to have predicted modern technologies that we use today, such as the internet and online chat. 

The novel that popularized the dystopian fiction genre was “We,” as it will eventually inspire other writers to create dystopian stories too, with some of the notable ones including George Orwell and Aldous Huxley with his masterpiece “Brave New World.”

Dystopian fiction is still quite popular today, as many Young Adult novels are centered on dystopias where teenagers are struggling to survive. A few of the memorable YA dystopian novels are the Hunger Games series, the Maze Runner series, and the Divergent series. We may still be able to see more and more dystopian stories in the future as the political climate between superpower countries is destabilizing, and many political commentaries are still being written.