In this collection of cautionary tales, we offer stories where everything goes wrong: loss of freedom and identity, environmental catastrophies, and out-of-control technologies that jeopardize humanity's future. We offer Dystopia's origins, for students & teachers: Discussion Questions, and Useful Links.
Dystopia is from the late 18th century, from dys- ‘bad’ + utopia. Oxford English Dictionary definition: "An imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible." Utopia was introduced by Sir Thomas More in his novel, Utopia (1561), a Latin word meaning "no place" or "somewhere too good to be true." The New Yorker compares the two: "A utopia is a paradise, a dystopia a paradise lost" and "Dystopias follow utopias the way thunder follows lightning." Dystopian fiction is a sub-genre of Science Fiction, in which social structures decompose.
Real-life historical events such as war, revolution, the rise of repressive governments or new technologies inspired Dystopian authors to write about future worlds of oppression, terror, suffering, and loss of individual freedoms, or battles between man and machine. The emergence of Communism and police states inspired Dystopian works, that were then repopularized when current global political events triggered a new wave of citizen fears.
Thanks to George Orwell, the adjective, "Orwellian" describes a situation, idea, or societal condition which is destructive to the welfare of a free and open society. Well-known dystopian novels include:
Surprisingly, one of the first modern Dystopian novels was written by Jack London in 1908, titled The Iron Heel, portraying America under tyrannical rule. It was written less than ten years before the Bolsheviks took over Russia, ushering in Communism. Another early Dystopian novel written by a priest who was monsignor to the Pope, Lord of the World (1907), was a doomsday novel in which the anti-Christ rules the end of the world. Dystopian fiction was a direct reaction to the popularity of Utopian literature in the second half of the 19th century. "Too good to be true" just wasn't realistic.
Renowned Dystopian authors include: H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, Jack London, Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Margaret Atwood, Lois Lowry, and Suzanne Collins.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells appears at first to be a utopia, but ultimately reveals itself as a nightmarish capitalist dystopia. The Food of the Gods is his sci-fi satire about scientists who take technology too far; a superfood grows kids into giants.
The Empire of the Ants by H.G. Wells is about humans' tenuous dominion on Earth, in which a Brazilian captain attempts to defeat a seemingly unstoppable plague of ants. If you can't get enough about ants, here's a summary of one of our absolute favorite stories of all time, Leiningen Versus the Ants.
The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs is a "lost world" story, on the heels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, both are about a broken ecosystem in which individual metomorphosis prevails, rather than evolution. Humans battling dinosaurs, it's a precursor to a favorite dystopian novel-to-movie, Jurassic Park.
In the Year 2889 by Jules Verne is not a typical Jules Verne story; less focus on technology and science (hard science fiction), more of a socio-political state of the world story (soft science fiction).
The Repairer of Reputations by Robert W. Chambers is itself a dystopia, in which the author invites the reader to disbelieve the authenticity of the story's events (the protagonist is an unreliable narrator because he sustained a head injury and is committed to an insane asylum). He becomes ultra-paranoid and may have committed murder after reading a censored play, The King in Yellow, which itself is a false document the author tries to convince the reader is authentic. A true dystopian horror story.
When William Came by H.H. Munro (SAKI) is a futuristic German-occupied London after a war in which England was defeated. SAKI wrote this three years before World War I, during which he was killed by a German sniper.
The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells is a story about a man who wakes up after 203 years to discover he's the richest man in the world. "To-day is the day of wealth. Wealth now is power as it never was power before -- it commands earth and sea and sky."
"The two systems were evenly matched. Screen against screen. Warship against power station. The Centauran Empire surrounded Terra, an iron ring that couldn't be broken, rusty and corroded as it was. Radical new weapons had to be conceived, if Terra was to break out."
-- Philip K. Dick's The Variable Man
"I wrote that book in order to clear up the muddle in my own mind about innumerable social and political questions, questions I could not keep out of my work, which it distressed me to touch upon in a stupid haphazard way, and which no one, so far as I knew, had handled in a manner to satisfy my needs."
-- H.G. Wells's introduction to A Modern Utopia
"A book like Brave New World is an expression of the actual fear that modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which it is within his power to create."
-- George Orwell's essay, Can Socialists Be Happy?"
"No Utopia will ever save him completely from the emotional drama of struggle, from exultations and humiliations, from pride and prostration and shame. He lives in success and failure just as inevitably as he lives in space and time."
-- H.G. Wells's Failure in a Modern Utopia
"It is still a matter of wonder how the Martians are able to slay men so swiftly and so silently...This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror of a light-house projects a beam of light. But no one has absolutely proved these details.”
-- H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (Book 1, chpt 6)
"'There's a body hanging from the lamppost,'' Loyce said. 'I'm going to call the cops.'
'They must know about it," Potter said. 'Or otherwise it wouldn't be there.'"
-- Philip K. Dick's The Hanging Stranger
"For I, Adam Jeffson, second Parent of the world, hereby lay down, ordain, and decree for all time, clearly perceiving it now: That the one Motto and Watch-word essentially proper to each human individual, and to the whole Race of Man, as distinct from other races in heaven or in earth, was always, and remains, even this: 'Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.'"
-- M.P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud
"My name isn't Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it's forbidden. I tell myself it doesn't matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter."
-- Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale
"At last he decided that I was well, and I, knowing that my mind had always been as sound as his, if not sounder, "paid my tuition" as he jokingly called it, and left. I told him, smiling, that I would get even with him for his mistake."
-- Robert W. Chambers's The Repairer of Reputations
"We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?"
-- Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451
1. Compare the characteristics of "Dystopian" with "Utopian". Provide an example of a work from each genre.
3. Though they share some common elements, contrast the genres of science fiction and dystopian.
4. Discuss the popular dystopian theme of man versus machine, robot or alien within the context of our modern technology-dependent world (smartphones, Alexa, the internet).
5. Consider modern day assisted suicide laws, within the context of dystopian stories in which the aged are subject to mandatory euthenasia, such as The Fixed Period, and The Giver by Lois Lowry. Compare the ethics of both types of death. Would our governments ever mandate an age for death?
6. Jules Verne (1828-1905) was one of the first science fiction writers. Choose one of his well-known works and identify a specific scientific invention in his story that remained plausible for generations before the science actually caught up.
8. Aldous Huxley was gravely concerned about the power of mass media, the potential manipulation of humans with mood-altering drugs, and the misapplication of sophisticated technology. After reading a summary of his Brave New World, compare it to modern trends (e.g., fake news and the opioid epidemic). Was he right on, or did he miss the mark in his predictions?
9. What's your idea of a more terrifying dystopia: machines taking over (Isaac Asimov's I, Robot), the environment overtaking man (The Empire of the Ants by H.G. Wells), or having the entire earth to yourself (Asleep in Armageddon by Ray Bradbury)?
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