Tuesday, May 19, 2009

An Introduction to Dystopia and Negative-Utopia

While a utopia is an amazingly perfect society – one so far from our imaginations as to be thought of as unreachable – a dystopia is a state of living where things are unbearably horrible. Some authors make a distinction between these “regular” horrible situations and cultures that start from, or perhaps masquerade as utopian societies, calling these negative-utopias.

Unlike an actual utopia, when many of these worlds are presented in fiction, they seem to be just within reach of our reality making it an interesting sub-genre worth examining. This list is an introduction to dystopic science fiction, examining some of the wide reaching possibilities inherent in the idea.

Not all of the worlds presented are as obvious, nor are they all horrible in the same way. The storytellers take the idea of a society at extremes and weave a variety of outcomes.


Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. New York: Doubleday, 2003.

This novel by Margaret Atwood may not be as well known as The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), an earlier book that tells the story of a totalitarian theocracy that also fits into the umbrella of dystopic fiction, but it may be one of the most interesting recent titles to deal with utopia and dystopia. Two distinct periods are presented, an advanced capitalistic society complete with genetic engineering and a post apocalyptic Earth, possibly a new Eden.

Booker, M. Keith. Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide. New York: Greenwood Press, 1994.

This excellent academic text takes the reader through an intensive study of dystopian writing. M. Keith Booker starts with cultural criticism from Louis Althusser to Walter Benjamin and Friedrich Nietzche, and continues through in depth examinations of a wide variety of written and filmic texts. He includes both a selection of Utopian and Dystopian pieces. Each has a short description and is related to other texts, making this a great companion volume to primary sources.


Dick, Philip K. Valis. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

Philip K. Dick is a hugely influential writer, and his 1981 novel Valis, while not directly adapted into any other medium, inspired Grant Morrison’s comic series The Invisibles (1994-2000) and the Wachowski Brothers film, The Matrix (1999). Dick’s semi-autobiographical, perhaps insane, account introduces the concept of a meta-reality that has controlled our perceptions for thousands of years, coining the dark phrase “The Empire Never Ended.” This “Empire” blocks any real spiritual progress of its captives.

Greenberg, Martin, Joshep D. Olander, and Eric S. Rabkin, eds. No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.

No Place Else is a collection of scholarly essays on various dystopic texts. In it, the stories of Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guinn, and many more seminal authors are examined by an impressive stable of academic writers. The fourteen essays included, closer to social criticism and analysis than summary or review, help readers understand the meaning woven into the selected texts, which are often taken at face value by casual readers.


Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.

This contemporary reprint of Aldous Huxley’s seminal novel Brave New World (1932) also includes an important follow-up essay, Revisited, written in 1958. Huxley, a master of dark satire, wrote of a society controlled not by fear (as in Orwell’s 1984), but by pleasure: an intended utopia gone disturbingly wrong. This novel is often held as a prime example of “negative utopia,” a term used by Huxley, differentiated from more obvious dystopic settings by its parody of optimist utopian novels.


Miller, Frank. Batman: the Dark Knight Returns. New York: DC Comics, 1996.

A revisionist story based upon an iconic American hero, this graphic novel, originally published in serialized comic book form, influenced an entire generation of comic creators. The presentation of Gotham City as an even more crime dominated reality causes readers to wonder if comics were ever as innocent as they once seemed. Frank Miller’s gritty writing style matches his unforgiving art, creating a world where even the supposed heroes seem caught in a dark machine.


Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949.

Often the novel most mentioned in relation to the term “dystopia,” Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story of a man caught in an amazingly repressive society dominated by a totalitarian government. Constantly referenced in popular culture, this novel introduced the terms “Big Brother” and “doublespeak,” as well as the use of “Orwellian” as a description for many related concepts. For many, this book linked the idea of dystopia to totalitarianism, though it’s a more multifaceted concept.


Pleasantville. Dir. Gary Ross. Perf. Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy. DVD. New Line Home Video, 1998.

One of the more interesting investigations of utopian and dystopic situations, Pleasantville invites the viewer into a seemingly wonderful 50’s sitcom world, which is then followed to its disturbing conclusions. While one of the few stories that actually has a happy ending, perhaps because of its commercial film production and distribution, its examinations of personal repression are accessible to a wide audience, making it an ideal introduction to critique of utopian suburban ideals.


Shelley, Mary W. THE LAST MAN. London: Henry Colburn, 1826.

One of the earliest examples of modern dystopic literature, The Last Man was actually written 43 years before the first recorded mention of the term “dystopia.” The story, originally published as a three novel set, is also an excellent example of apocalyptic fiction and an introduction to the common science fiction plot of an extreme world-wide plague with an eventual lone survivor. This book asks if lack of any other human contact is also dystopic.


Sterling, Bruce, ed. Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. New York: Arbor House Pub Co, 1989.

While perhaps not as evenly enjoyable as some collections by the individual authors featured, Mirrorshades does include an excellent essay by editor Bruce Sterling on the sci-fi subgenre of Cyberpunk, which is often linked with dystopic fiction, since it presents post-industrial worlds where excessive technology never solves the problems of mankind. This book is a great introduction to important authors such as William Gibson and Pat Cadigan, though it does not include a few others such as Neal Stephenson, whose Snowcrash was published in 1992.

posted by Ian Aleksander Adams at 8:43 pm