I. What is Dystopia?
A dystopia (diss-TOE-pee-yuh) is a horrible place where everything has gone wrong. Whereas utopia means a perfect paradise, dystopia means exactly the opposite. The term generally implies a fictional setting, but sometimes people will refer to real places as “dystopic.”
II. Examples of Dystopia
Each of the BioShock games explores its own sort of dystopia. In the original game, the underwater city of Rapture was set up to be a paradise of perfect freedom and laissez-fare (unregulated) capitalism. But over time, the lack of regulations allowed powerful scientists and businessmen to abuse and exploit ordinary people, including little children who were turned into living chemical factories.
The Matrix is a post-apocalyptic dystopia with hints of a statist dystopia. The “real world” in this film is decidedly post-apocalyptic, with its crumbling skyscrapers, blackened sky, and prowling packs of creepy robots. But within the Matrix, everything is controlled by the computers, who can be thought of as a kind of government (especially given their “agents” in black ties ).
III. Types of Dystopia
The majority of dystopias (though not all!) fall into one of two categories:
Post-Apocalyptic dystopias are the aftermath of some horrible calamity. The disaster is always an expression of society’s greatest fears – during the Cold War, post-apocalyptic dystopias were depicted as the aftermath of nuclear war. In the 21st century, we are less afraid of nuclear war but more afraid of disease and climate change, so we imagine dystopian futures stemming from ecological collapse or the outbreak of some horrible virus.
Statist dystopias are the opposite of post-apocalyptic ones. In these dystopias, the government has grown to the point where it controls everything and suppresses all individual freedoms, especially freedom of thought and expression.
IV. The Importance of Dystopia
Dystopian fiction is the ultimate expression of a culture’s anxieties. It’s like peering directly into the collective nightmare of a whole society, and there is tremendous cultural and historical insight to be gained from reading dystopian literature. First, we can see what a society fears by reading its dystopias. Disease, totalitarianism, neglect of duty, theocracy – whatever a society feels most anxious about will appear in its imaginary dystopias.
But a dystopia also (usually) expresses the virtues that the author feels have been lost in society. For example, take the classic zombie apocalypse. In the typical story about the zombie apocalypse, the heroes are those who retain old virtues of resourcefulness, self-reliance, courage, and hardiness. Skills like construction and agriculture become far more important than programming or even driving (since computers have all been destroyed and there may be no more fuel for cars). By stripping away the comforts of modern life and placing characters in a stark, life-or-death dystopia, the author can send a message about what kinds of skills really matter in the world and pointedly suggest that maybe modern people have lost touch with them.
V. Examples of Dystopia in Literature
There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always…always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever. (George Orwell, 1984)
George Orwell’s 1984 is the classic statist dystopia. In this imagined future, the government has abolished individual freedom and identity, and dedicated themselves to a hateful ideology of violence and domination. This book, written in 1949, explores the ideology of totalitarianism and the threat it poses to individual rights. It has formed the model for every statist dystopia since its publication.
Like much dystopian literature, The Giver is deceptive – it starts out looking like a utopia, where all pain, disease, and conflict have been abolished. But over the course of the story, we learn that these things have been abolished by depriving people of freedom, choice, and emotion. An apparent utopia turns out to be a statist dystopia.
VI. Examples of Dystopia in Pop Culture
V for Vendetta is set in a fairly typical statist dystopia. The government has complete control of the media, and uses this power to stamp out all dissent and free thought. The populace is turned against itself through fear-mongering, a common trait of statist dystopias.
The movie Elysium combines elements of both the statist dystopia and the post-apocalyptic dystopia – down on Earth, the rampages of a thoughtless, extractive corporation have led to poverty and chaos for the poor working people. But on the space station Elysium, life is easy and the rich live comfortable lives, despite being under the control of an ultra-powerful government.
One of the most popular dystopian settings today is the zombie apocalypse. While classic zombies were literal corpses raised from their graves through magic, the modern imagination (especially in such films as 28 Days Later) has re-invented zombies as casualties of a horrible disease. They encapsulate our legitimate fears about epidemics in today’s dense, crowded societies.
Strictly speaking, utopia is the opposite of dystopia. But literature frequently blends utopia and dystopia. For example, the characters may arrive in a society that seems to be perfect – until its dark secrets are revealed and it turns out to be a dystopia. Utopias serve much the same purpose as dystopias, but in reverse: they allow authors (and, through them, whole societies) to explore their hopes, dreams, and aspirations rather than their anxieties.