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Dystopian fiction is an increasingly well-known and popular sub genre of speculative fiction. Works tend to depict pessimistic futures that feature more extreme versions of our current society. The genre is pretty broad and works can range from dystopian science fiction to post apocalyptic and fantasy novels.
Dystopian fiction is considered to be a reaction against the more idealistic utopian fiction. Usually set in the future or near future, dystopias are hypothetical societies where the population face disastrous political, societal, technological, religious, and environmental situations.
The word dystopia is translated from the ancient Greek quite literally as 'bad place'. That is a useful summary for the futures featured in this genre.
Sir Thomas Moore created the genre of utopian fiction in his 1516 novel, Utopia. In contrast, the origins of dystopian fiction are a little less clear cut. Some novels like Erewhon (1872) by Samuel Butler are considered to be early examples of the genre, as are novels like HG Well’s The Time Machine (1895). Both of these works feature characteristics of dystopian fiction that include negatively portrayed aspects of politics, technology, and social norms.
Some more recent and famous examples include Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003), and The Hunger Games (2008) by Suzanne Collins.
Dystopian fiction is characterised by its pessimistic tone and less than ideal situations. There are also a few central themes that tend to run through most works in the genre.
Depending on the work, the population and economy may be controlled by a government or a corporate ruling power. The levels of control are usually extremely oppressive and enforced in dehumanising ways.
Systematic surveillance, the restriction of information, and extensive use of advanced propaganda techniques are commonplace, resulting in populations that may live in fear or even ignorant bliss of their lack of freedom.
In Dystopian futures, technology is seldom depicted as a tool for enhancing human existence or making necessary tasks easier. Usually, technology is represented as having been harnessed by the powers that be to exert greater levels of omnipresent control over the population. Science and technology are often portrayed as being weaponised in their use for genetic manipulation, behavioural modification, mass surveillance, and other types of extreme control of the human population.
Any individuality and freedom of expression or thought are generally strictly monitored, censored, or prohibited in many dystopian futures. Themes that address the negative effects of a lack of balance between the rights of the individual, the larger population and the ruling powers are pretty common. Linked to this theme of conformity is the suppression of creativity.
Another Dystopian characteristic is propaganda, that creates distrust of the natural world in the population. The destruction of the natural world is another common theme. Post-apocalyptic futures where an extinction event has been created by a natural disaster, war, or the misuse of technology also feature.
Dystopian futures, where the oppressive ruling power or a disaster has created an environment where just surviving is the main objective, are also common in the genre.
Have you read any dystopian fiction novels? If so, can you can recognise any of these themes from those novels?
The range of works in dystopian fiction is really extensive but linked by some common characteristics, as well as their pessimistic, often allegorical and didactic style. The works tend to warn us about the worst aspects of our potential futures.
A didactic novel carries a message or even a learning for the reader. This may be philosophical, political or ethical. The oral tradition example of Aesop's Fables is a very well known and ancient one.
The fables were created sometime between 620 and 560 BC, no one is exactly sure when. They were only published much later in the 1700s.
Often used to describe dystopian fiction works, the word has both positive and negative connotations depending on how it is used.
A good place to start with dystopian fiction is a famous work considered to be a pioneer of dystopian science fiction, H.G. Well’s The Time Machine.
Why should four-fifths of the fiction of today be concerned with times that can never come again, while the future is scarcely speculated upon? At present we are almost helpless in the grip of circumstances, and I think we ought to strive to shape our destinies. Changes that directly affect the human race are taking place every day, but they are passed over unobserved. – HG Wells1
Although written in the late Victorian era, the novel is set in various future times from 802,701 AD up to 30 million years in the future. The quote highlights the approach that much of dystopian literature has followed since Well’s novel.
What do you think H.G. Well is suggesting about the link between our present and our potential futures?
A time machine. Unsplash
During the period that the novel was written, England faced turmoil due to the effects of the Industrial Revolution, which created greater class divisions, and Darwin’s theory of evolution, which challenged centuries of accepted beliefs about the origins of humanity. Wells sought to address these current situations and others in his novel.
Starting in Britain, the Industrial Revolution spanned Continental Europe and America between about 1840 and 1960. It was the process by which large parts of the world moved from being agriculture based economies to being driven by industry. Machines grew in importance and relevance, with production moving away from the handmade to the machine produced.
Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published in 1856. His biological theory proposed that organisms in the natural world had a few common ancestors and had gradually evolved into different species over time. The mechanism that determined how this evolution developed was called natural selection.
In The Time Machine, an unnamed protagonist, the Time Traveler, creates a time machine that enables him to travel to the distant future. Relayed by an unnamed narrator, the story follows the scientist as he travels backward and forwards in time.
In his first journey to the future, he discovers that humanity has evolved or perhaps devolved into two separate species, the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi live above ground, are telepathic fruit eaters, and are preyed upon by the Morlocks, who live in a subterranean world. Despite eating the Eloi, the Morlock’s labour also clothe and feed them in a strangely symbiotic relationship.
After returning to the present, the Time Traveler makes other journeys into the very distant future, eventually setting off never to return.
A few main threads run through the novel, including themes of science, technology, and class. The Time Traveler speculates that the Victorian era class distinction has become even more extreme in the future. In addition, Wells highlights the difference in technology used by the Eloi and the Morlocks of the future. It has also been argued that this future land of Mor is H.G. Well’s socialist critique of Victorian era capitalism.
The Time Traveler's use of technology and science to observe human evolution reflects HG Well’s studies under Thomas Henry Huxley. Many of the scientific discoveries of the time were at odds with long held and established beliefs about the natural world and also humanity’s origins.
The novel has been adapted into plays, a few radio series, comics and various films from the 1940s to the 2000s, so Well’s work remains relevant and widely appreciated today.
Wells' great, grandson, Simon Wells, directed the 2002 film adaptation of the book. It is the most recent adaptation. It is set in New Yor City instead of England which was met with mixed reviews.
A more recent work of dystopian fiction is The Handmaid’s Tale (1986). Written by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, it contains the typical characteristics of an oppressive government and technology used for surveillance, propaganda, and population behavioural control. It also features feminist themes, which are considered more recent additions to the Dystopian Fiction genre.
Dystopian fiction in The Handmaid's Tale. Unsplash.
At the time the novel was written, the progressive changes to women’s rights brought about during the 1960s and 1970s were being challenged by 1980s era American conservatism. In response, Atwood examined a future where there is a complete reversal of existing rights, linking her then-present with the future and the Puritanical past by setting the novel in New England.
Margaret Atwood studied American Puritans at Harvard in the 1960s and also had ancestors who were 17th-century Puritan New Englanders. She has mentioned that one of these ancestors survived an attempted hanging after being accused of witchcraft.
17th-century American Puritanism, when church and state were not yet separated, is often cited by Atwood as an inspiration for the totalitarian government that is The Republic of Gilead.2
Aside fro referring to the real Puritans, the word puritan has come to mean anyone who strictly believes that joy or pleasure are unnecessary.
Taking place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the not too distant future, the novel centres on the protagonist Offred, a Handmaid in the theocratic Republic of Gilead. The Republic rigidly controls the population, especially the minds and bodies of women. Offred, as a member of the Handmaid caste, has no personal freedoms. She is kept captive as a child bearing surrogate for a powerful but as yet childless couple. The story follows her quest for freedom. The novel is open ended about whether she ever achieves freedom or is recaptured.
Other than existing dystopian themes such as an oppressive government, issues of free will, personal liberty and conformity, Atwood also introduced newer dystopian themes such as gender roles and equality.
Considered a modern classic of the genre, the novel has already been adapted into a Hulu series, a film, a ballet, and an opera.
Hulu, forever competing with Netflix for the best series, released The Handmaid's Tale in 2017. Created by Bruce Miller, the series starred Joseph Fiennes and Elizabeth Moss. The official blurb described Offred as a 'concubine' and the series as Dystopian, and the series stayed quite true to Atwood's vision.
The industry's 'go to' ratings site IMBd gave it a 8.4/10 which is pretty hard to achieve for a series.
1 John R Hammond, HG Wells The Time Machine, Greenwood Publishing Group, (2004)
Dystopian fiction is set in the future or near future.
Futuristic dystopias are hypothetical societies where the population is faced with disastrous political, societal, technological, religious, and environmental situations.
Some famous authors have some advice on this subject. Take a look at these quotes for some guidance.
'Why should four-fifths of the fiction of today be concerned with times that can never come again, while the future is scarcely speculated upon? At present we are almost helpless in the grip of circumstances, and I think we ought to strive to shape our destinies. Changes that directly affect the human race are taking place every day, but they are passed over unobserved.' – H.G. Wells
'If you’re interested in writing speculative fiction, one way to generate a plot is to take an idea from current society and move it a little further down the road. Even if humans are short-term thinkers, fiction can anticipate and extrapolate into multiple versions of the future.' - Margaret Atwood
There are many reasons but it has been suggested that the popularity of works of dystopian fiction is due to their allegorical and yet contemporary and engrossing themes.
There are many from classics to more modern examples.
Some classics are Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953).
More modern examples include Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003), and The Hunger Games (2008) by Suzanne Collins.
Dystopian novels attempt to challenge readers to reflect on their current social, environmental, technological and political situations.
What is dystopian fiction?
Dystopian fiction depicts hypothetical future societies where the population is faced with disastrous political, societal, technological, religious, and environmental situations.
What is an example of an 1800s era dystopian fiction novel?
HG Well's The Time Machine (1895).
Which Margaret Atwood novel features the dystopian Republic of Gilead?
The Handmaid's Tale (1985).
What are some characteristics of dystopian fiction?
Control by a ruling power.
What type of fiction is considered to be the opposite of dystopian fiction?
What are some classic dystopian fiction novels?
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).
What are some modern examples of dystopian fiction novels?
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006).
How is technology often represented in dystopian fiction novels?
Dystopian future technology is rarely depicted as a tool for enhancing human existence or making necessary tasks easier. Usually, technology is depicted as a weapon for control.
What types of dystopian fiction are there?
Dystopian fiction, dystopian science fiction, post apocalyptic or fantasy.
What are some ways to describe dystopian fiction?
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