A dystopia is a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian. Examples of dystopian novels include Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid's Tale, The Giver and The Hunger Games. The Iron Heel was described by Erich Fromm as "the earliest of the modern dystopian
Some academic circles distinguish between anti-utopia and dystopia. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopia because its leaders do not aspire to or use the rhetoric of utopia to justify their power. Orwell's Animal Farm is a classic anti-utopia, in which the pigs come to justify their leadership in the name of creating a utopian society.
Cyberpunk dystopias: A cyberpunk society is essentially a drastically exaggerated version of our own. Cyberpunk is a heterogeneous genre, but most dystopias have the following settings: the technological evolution has accelerated, environmental collapse is imminent, the boards of multi-national corporations are the real governments, urbanisation has reached new levels and crime is beyond control. Important, but not necessary essential, concepts in cyberpunk are cybernetics, artificial enhancements of body and mind, and cyberspace, the global computer network and ultimate digital illusion. Cyberpunk stories are often street-wise and violent.
After World War II, we start to see the dystopia where the dominant theme is the collapse of society as a result of the nuclear bomb. The destruction is both environmental and social — all social organization is gone. There is also a dystopian mode that focuses on a perpetual war between two great powers. Both sides are forced to create terrible human societies in order to keep the war going.
This [1960s] is the period when we start to see the environmental dystopia. And it coincides nicely with the rise of the environmental movement, when people first started to really wonder if our society was sustainable. So you get the kind where the population explodes uncontrollably, and there's not enough food for everyone and the cities are filled with slums of starving people. You get riots and a total collapse of government services.
At the same time [1970s] there is the rise of dystopias envisioning the actual death of the earth. This is the "rape the earth" dystopia. Forests are ravaged; the natural world is altered, as well as our own genetics, which are manipulated by foolish scientists.
Dystopian and utopian visions from the 19th century focused on injustice, strife, peace, and war, but especially on socioeconomic justice — alleviating the gap between rich and poor. A great example is Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, which was a great success and actually started a movement in the late 19th century for change.
So, while Ben Wheeler has argued that "in most dystopian representations, characters who attempt to free themselves . . . generally end up dead" or, in the case of Brazil's Sam Lowry (Jonathan Price), insane, in Children of Men (and V for Vendetta) an improved future indeed depends on the sacrifice of the hero. These recent dystopia films are unique in that the death of their protagonists makes possible a New Hopeful Future based on human solidarity and the individual will to question the hegemony of dominant political structures.
In her discussion of The Giver, Patty Campbell alludes to the role of agency and resistance in the novel when she says that there are basically three ways to end a story about a dystopian society: "The protagonist escapes as society collapses; the protagonist escapes with the intention of returning with the seeds of change; or the protagonist escapes, but it turns out to be an illusion."
The Dystopian Protagonist:
• often feels trapped and is struggling to escape.
• questions the existing social and political systems.
• believes or feels that something is terribly wrong with the society in which he or she lives.
• helps the audience recognizes the negative aspects of the dystopian world through his or her perspective.
Most dystopian works present a world in which oppressive societal control and the illusion of a perfect society are maintained through one or more of the following types of controls:
• Corporate control: One or more large corporations control society through products, advertising, and/or the media. Examples include Minority Report and Running Man.
• Bureaucratic control: Society is controlled by a mindless bureaucracy through a tangle of red tape, relentless regulations, and incompetent government officials. Examples in film include Brazil.
• Technological control: Society is controlled by technology—through computers, robots, and/or scientific means. Examples include The Matrix, The Terminator, and I, Robot.
• Philosophical/religious control: Society is controlled by philosophical or religious ideology often enforced through a dictatorship or theocratic government.
Characteristics of a Dystopian Society:
• Propaganda is used to control the citizens of society.
• Information, independent thought, and freedom are restricted.
• A figurehead or concept is worshipped by the citizens of the society.
• Citizens are perceived to be under constant surveillance.
• Citizens have a fear of the outside world.
• Citizens live in a dehumanized state.
• The natural world is banished and distrusted.
• Citizens conform to uniform expectations. Individuality and dissent are bad.
• The society is an illusion of a perfect utopian world.
A dystopian society is one in which the conditions of life are miserable, characterized by human misery, poverty, oppression, violence, disease, and/or pollution. The literature of dystopia draws on the human experience of the failure of states and ideologies to create the utopias, or even the more modest aims of good governance, often abridging human freedom in the name of some ideal that leads to authoritarian, even totalitarian consequences.
In its most basic sense, you could say that dystopia is the opposite of utopia, referring to fictional societies that are incredibly imperfect, lacking the harmonious and egalitarian qualities of life depicted in utopias. But it’s not exactly opposite, in that dystopias often contain many of the same elements as utopias—such as intense measures of social control—but these elements are taken to horrific extremes, with emphasis upon their negative effects
The term has been around since the 19th century; it was coined by English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill in 1868; but as a genre of fiction, it really took off in the 20th century and became very prevalent in the years after World War II.