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Entry updated 25 January 2021. Tagged: Theme.


The word "dystopia" is the commonly used antonym of "eutopia" (see Utopias) and denotes that class of hypothetical societies containing images of worlds worse than our own. An early user of the term was John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), in a parliamentary speech in 1868, but its recent fashionableness probably stems from its use in Quest for Utopia (1952) by Glenn Negley (1907-1988) and J Max Patrick (1908-?   ). Anthony Burgess argued in 1985 (1978) that "cacotopia" would be a more apt term.

Dystopian images are almost invariably images of future society, pointing fearfully at the way the world is supposedly going in order to provide urgent propaganda for a change in direction. As hope for a better future grows, the fear of disappointment inevitably grows with it, and when any vision of a future utopia incorporates a manifesto for political action or belief, opponents of that action or belief will inevitably attempt to show that its consequences are not utopian but horrible. The very first work listed in I F Clarke's bibliography of The Tale of the Future (3rd edition 1978) is a tract of 1644 warning of the terrible disaster which would follow were the monarchy to be restored.

Dystopian images began to proliferate in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Utopian and dystopian images are contrasted in the rival cities of Frankville and Stahlstadt in The Begum's Fortune (1879; trans 1880) by Jules Verne. The greedy materialism which has created Stahlstadt is also the underlying ideology of H C Marriott Watson's Erchomenon (1879). Walter Besant produced two significant early dystopias in The Revolt of Man (1882), in which women (see Women in SF) rule with disastrous consequences, and The Inner House (1888), in which Immortality has led to social stagnation. The great utopian H G Wells produced his images of dystopia, too – forecasts of what the world must be like if the forces of socialism did not triumph – in "A Story of the Days to Come" (June-October 1899 Pall Mall Magazine) and When the Sleeper Wakes (1899; rev vt The Sleeper Awakes, 1910). He also produced the first Alien dystopia in his description of Selenite society in The First Men in the Moon (1901). Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World (1907) is a hysterical protest against secularism, humanism and socialism which ends with the apocalypse.

The single most prolific stimulus to the production of dystopian visions has been the political polarization of capitalism and socialism. Anti-capitalist dystopias include The Iron Heel (1907) by Jack London, The Air Trust (January-October 1915 The National Rip-Saw as "The Story of the Air Trust"; 1915) by George Allan England, and Useless Hands (1920; trans 1926) by Claude Farrère. Anti-socialist dystopias, which are more numerous, include The Unknown Tomorrow (1910) by William Le Queux, Crucible Island (1919) by Condé B Pallen, Unborn Tomorrow (1933) by John Kendall, Anthem (1938) by Ayn Rand and The Great Idea (1951; vt Time Will Run Back) by Henry Hazlitt. Anti-fascist dystopias include Land under England (1935) by Joseph O'Neill, The Wild Goose Chase (1937) by Rex Warner and The Lost Traveller (1943) by Ruthven Todd. Anti-German dystopias from before and after the rise of the Nazi Party include Owen Gregory's Meccania (1918), Milo Hastings's City of Endless Night (1920) and Swastika Night (1937) by Murray Constantine (see Katharine Burdekin) (see also Hitler Wins).

Although these works are emotional reactions against ideas which seem various, the basic fears which they express are very similar. The emphasis may differ, but the central features of dystopia are ever present: the oppression of the majority by a ruling elite (which varies only in the manner of its characterization, not in its actions), and the regimentation of society as a whole (which varies only in its declared ends, not in its actual processes). In his attempt to imagine the "rationalized" state of the Selenites, Wells took as his dystopian model the ant-nest (see Hive Minds) and this has seemed the epitome of dystopian organization to many other writers. J D Beresford's and Esmé Wynne-Tyson's The Riddle of the Tower (1944) suggests that the fundamental danger facing society is "Automatism" – the trend toward the victory of organic society over the individual – whatever political philosophy is invoked to justify it. The most detailed analysis of this anxiety, and perhaps the most impressively ruthless of all dystopias, is My (trans as We 1924) by Yevgeny Zamiatin, and the most luridly horrible development of it is to be found in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which in part expressed Orwell's despair of the UK working class and its capacity to revolt (or even be revolted).

Because animosity against specific political programmes was the most important force provoking early dystopian visions, the tradition did not immediately engage in contradictory argument the main basis for utopian optimism, which is a more generalized faith in the idea of progress, both social and technological. It was not long, though, before there appeared dystopian images reflecting an emotional reaction against technological advance. The world of E M Forster's "The Machine Stops" (November 1909 Oxford and Cambridge Review) is perhaps the first dystopia created by technological sophistication; the story's argument is halfhearted, concentrating on the question of what would happen when the Machines broke down rather than on the horrors of living with them while they were still functioning. A confident assertion that scientific progress would make the world a worse place to live in because it would allow society's power groups more effectively to oppress others was made by Bertrand Russell in Icarus, or The Future of Science (1924), his reply to J B S Haldane's optimistic Daedalus (1924). Aldous Huxley's satirical dystopia Brave New World (1932) is also an ideological reply to Daedalus, raising awkward questions about the quality of life in a Leisure society. S Fowler Wright's The New Gods Lead (coll 1932) is a scathing indictment of the values of technocracy and "the utopia of comforts". The general pessimism of the UK Scientific Romance in this period was countered mainly by hopes of transcendence (via the evolution of a new and better species of mankind) rather than by faith in political reform.

This suspicion of technology, though running directly counter to Hugo Gernsback's optimism for an "Age of Power Freedom", is surprisingly widespread in early Genre SF. In "Paradise and Iron" (Summer 1930 Amazing Stories Quarterly) by Miles J Breuer a mechanical brain established to coordinate a mechanistic utopia becomes a tyrant. In "The City of the Living Dead" (May 1930 Wonder Stories) by Laurence Manning and Fletcher Pratt, machines that simulate real experience allow people to live in dream worlds, sustained by mechanical "wombs", and thereby bring about the total stagnation of society. Scepticism in regard to technological miracles is a hallmark of the work of David H Keller, whose dystopian fantasies include "The Revolt of the Pedestrians" (February 1928 Amazing), in which automobilists who have lost the power of self-locomotion rule oppressively over mere pedestrians. Most stories of this kind feature some kind of rebellion against the adverse circumstances described. The reversion to a simpler way of life is celebrated by Keller in "The Metal Doom" (May-July 1932 Amazing) as enthusiastically as it is in the hysterically technophobic Gay Hunter (1934) by J Leslie Mitchell.

Revolution against a dystopian regime was to become a staple plot of Genre SF, partly because such a formula offered far more melodramatic potential than utopian planning. The standard scenario involves an oppressive totalitarian state which maintains its dominance and stability by means of futuristic technology, but which is in the end toppled by newer technologies exploited by revolutionaries. The standard genre-sf answer to the problem posed by Russell in Icarus is, therefore, that elites empowered by technology will lose their interest in further technological progress, and will probably try to suppress it – with the result that its clandestinely developed fruits will become the instruments of their overthrow. Examples from the 1940s of this formula are "If This Goes On –" (February-March 1940 Astounding; rev in Revolt in 2100 coll 1953) and Sixth Column (January-March 1941 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald; 1949 as Heinlein; vt The Day After Tomorrow 1951) by Robert A Heinlein, Gather, Darkness! (May-July 1943 Astounding; 1950) by Fritz Leiber, Tarnished Utopia (March 1942 Startling; 1956) by Malcolm Jameson and Renaissance (July-October 1944 Astounding; 1951; vt Man of Two Worlds 1963) by Raymond F Jones. In the SF Magazines of the 1950s this formula became more refined and increasingly stylized. There appeared a whole generation of sf novels in which individual power groups come to dominate society, shaping it to their special interests. Advertising executives run the world in the archetype of this subspecies, The Space Merchants (July-August 1952 Galaxy as "Gravy Planet"; rev and cut 1953) by Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth; insurance companies are in charge in Preferred Risk (June-September 1955 Galaxy; 1955) by Edson McCann (Pohl and Lester del Rey); supermarkets in Hell's Pavement (1955; vt Analogue Men) by Damon Knight; racketeers in The Syndic (December 1953-March 1954 Science Fiction Adventures; 1953) by Kornbluth alone; doctors in Caduceus Wild (January-May 1959 Science Fiction Stories; rev 1978) by Ward Moore and Robert Bradford; and a cult of hedonists in The Joy Makers (fixup 1961) by James E Gunn. All these novels are, in a sense, gaudy fakes that use dystopian images for melodramatic convenience; they select their villains with a vigorous disregard for plausibility and a cheerful animus against some personal bête noire. They tend to be Absurdist exaggerations rather than serious political statements: for example, the crime-run US society of The Syndic, at first sight another Comic Inferno, emerges as an easy-going Utopia by comparison with the authoritarian, repressive and murderous US government-in-exile. In this period genre sf produced only one genuine dystopian novel, the classic Fahrenheit 451 (February 1951 Galaxy as "The Fireman"; exp 1953) by Ray Bradbury, which leaves its ruling elite anonymous in order to concentrate on the means by which oppression and regimentation are facilitated, with the powerful key image of the firemen whose job is to burn books. In many of the lesser genre-sf novels of the 1950s, revolution against an oppressive and stagnant society is seen as a difficult irrelevance, escape by Spaceship becoming a key image.

Outside the sf magazines the post-World War Two period produced a remarkable series of very varied dystopian novels – remarkable not only for their diversity and characteristic intensity but also for a tendency to black comedy. Aldous Huxley's Ape and Essence (1948) is an anti-scientific polemic; Evelyn Waugh's Love among the Ruins (1953) is a vitriolic political satire; Bernard Wolfe's Limbo (1952) plays in macabre fashion with the idea of (literal) "disarmament". Even the more earnest works, like Gerald Heard's enigmatic Doppelgangers (1947), Sarban's The Sound of His Horn (1952), David Karp's One (1953), L P Hartley's Facial Justice (1960) and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962), possess a curious surreal quality. Many of these novels are neither accusations directed at particular social forces nor attempts to analyse the nature of the dystopian state, but seem to be products of a new kind of incipient despair; only a few – notably Doppelgangers – offer a significant note of hope in their account of rebellion against evil circumstance. This, it appears, was a period of history in which US-UK society lost its faith in the probability of a better future, and the dystopian image was established as an actual pattern of expectation rather than as a literary warning device.

Genre sf soon followed this lead – and so prominent was the dystopian image in magazine sf that the transition from fakery to "realism" was very easily achieved. During the 1960s a whole series of reasons for believing in a dystopian future were discovered – to justify rather than to cause the pessimistic outlook typical of the time. Overpopulation – a theme ignored since the days of Malthus – began to inspire dystopian horror stories, most impressively in Make Room! Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison, Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner and The World Inside (1971) by Robert Silverberg. The awful prospects of Pollution and the destruction of the environment were extravagantly detailed in Brunner's The Sheep Look Up (1972) and Philip Wylie's The End of the Dream (1972). When Alvin Toffler proposed in Future Shock (1970) that the sheer pace of change threatened to make everyday life unendurable, Brunner was able to complete a kind of "dystopian tetralogy", following the two books cited above and The Jagged Orbit (1969) with The Shockwave Rider (1975). Thomas M Disch's 334 (fixup 1972) is a dark vision of the Near Future in which human resilience is tested to the limit by the stresses and strains of everyday life.

Perhaps strangely, Mainstream dystopias of the late 1960s and 1970s seem rather weak-kneed compared to those of the preceding decades. Michael Frayn's A Very Private Life (1968), Adrian Mitchell's The Bodyguard (1970), Ira Levin's This Perfect Day (1970) and Lawrence Sanders's The Tomorrow File (1975) all seem stereotyped. Perhaps there was little scope left for originality once the most all-inclusive and ruthless image of a horrible and degenerate future had been provided by William S Burroughs in Nova Express (1964), or perhaps it was simply that dystopian imagery came to be taken for granted to such an extent that it could be deployed only in an almost flippant manner – as by the Cyberpunk writers of the 1980s. It is arguable that the only new ground broken by literary dystopias of the 1970s and 1980s, whether in the mainstream or in genre sf, related to Feminist images of oppressive masculinity; notable examples include Walk to the End of the World (1974) by Suzy McKee Charnas, Woman at the Edge of Time (1976) by Marge Piercy, The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood, and Bulldozer Rising (1988) by Anna Livia.

The significance of the firm establishment of a dystopian image of the future in literature should not be underestimated. Literary images of the future are among the most significant expressions of the beliefs and expectations we apply in real life to the organization of our attitudes and actions. Notable studies of dystopian fiction include From Utopia to Nightmare (1962) by Chad Walsh, The Future as Nightmare (1967) by Mark R Hillegas, and Science Fiction and the New Dark Age (1976) by Harold L Berger. In New Maps of Hell (1960) Kingsley Amis argues that the dystopian tradition is the most important strand in the tapestry of modern sf. Relevant theme anthologies include Bad Moon Rising (anth 1973) edited by Thomas M Disch, Brave New Worlds (anth 2011) edited by John Joseph Adams and After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia (anth 2012) edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. [BS]

see also: Beneath a Steel Sky; Car Wars; Disaster; Media Landscape; A Mind Forever Voyaging; Optimism and Pessimism; Sociology.

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