Dystopia


A dystopia (or alternatively cacotopia) is a fictional society, usually portrayed as existing in a future time, when the conditions of life are extremely bad due to deprivation, oppression, or terror. Science fiction, particularly post-apocalyptic science fiction and cyberpunk, often feature dystopias. Social critics, especially postmodern social critics, also use the term "dystopian" to condemn trends in post-industrial society they see as negative. In most dystopian fiction, a corrupt government creates or sustains the poor quality of life, often conditioning the masses to believe the society is proper and just, even perfect. Most dystopian fiction takes place in the future but often purposely incorporates contemporary social trends taken to extremes. Dystopias are frequently written as warnings, or as satires, showing current trends extrapolated to a nightmarish conclusion.



Etymology

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was coined in the late 19th century by British philosopher John Stuart Mill, who also used Jeremy Bentham's synonym, cacotopia. The prefix caco means "the worst." Both words were created to contrast utopia, a word coined by Sir Thomas More to describing an ideal place or society. Utopia combined the Greek-derived eu ("good") + topos ("place"). Dystopia combined the dys, Greek word for "bad" or "negative" with topos. Thus, meaning "bad place". As some writers have noted, however, the difference between a Utopia and a Dystopia can often lie in the visitor's point of view: one person's heaven can be another's hell.



Common Traits of Dystopian Fiction

The following is a list of common traits of dystopias, although it is by no means definitive. Most dystopian films or literature includes at least a few of the following:

  • a hierarchical society where divisions between the upper, middle and lower class are definitive and unbending (Caste system)
  • a nation-state ruled by an upper class with few democratic ideals
  • state propaganda programs and educational systems that coerce most citizens into worshipping the state and its government, in an attempt to convince them into thinking that life under the regime is good and just
  • strict conformity among citizens and the general assumption that dissent and individuality are bad
  • a fictional state figurehead that people worship fanatically through a vast personality cult, such as 1984's Big Brother or We's The Benefactor
  • a fear or disgust of the world outside the state
  • a common view of traditional life, particularly organized religion, as primitive and nonsensical
  • a penal system that lacks due process laws and often employs psychological or physical torture
  • constant surveillance by state police agencies
  • the banishment of the natural world from daily life
  • a back story of a natural disaster, war, revolution, uprising, spike in overpopulation or some other climactic event which resulted in dramatic changes to society
  • a standard of living among the lower and middle class that is generally poorer than in contemporary society
  • a protagonist who questions the society, often feeling intrinsically that something is terribly wrong
  • because dystopian literature takes place in the future, it often features technology more advanced than that of contemporary society
To have an effect on the reader, dystopian fiction typically has one other trait: familiarity. It is not enough to show people living in a society that seems unpleasant. The society must have echoes of today, of the reader's own experience. If the reader can identify the patterns or trends that would lead to the dystopia, it becomes a more involving and effective experience. Authors can use a dystopia effectively to highlight their own concerns about societal trends. For example, some commentators say that George Orwell originally wanted to title Nineteen Eighty-Four as 1948, because he saw the world he describes emerging in austere postwar Europe.





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