Utopia & Dystopia – Utopian & Dystopian Literature

An article on Utopian & Dystopian Literature by Nidhi Sharma, Sr. Editor at Ashvamegh

“All utopias are dystopias. The term “dystopia” was coined by fools that believed a “utopia” can be functional.”
A.E. Samaan

Literature, over the ages, has been influenced by the psychologies of people living in changing times. That is how literature is classified into various genres. The utopia and its derivative, the dystopia, are two such genres (opposite to each other) of literature that explore social and political structures. Where Utopian fiction portrays a setting that agrees with the author’s ethos and is portrayed as having various attributes that readers often find to be characteristic of that which they would like to implement in reality or utopia, as the setting for a novel. Whether in Dystopian fiction, the opposite is the portrayal of a setting that completely disagrees with the author’s ethos and is portrayed as having various attributes that readers often find to be characteristic of that which they would like to avoid in reality, or dystopia. Many novels combine both, often as a metaphor for the different directions humanity can explore, ending up with one of two possible futures. Both utopias and dystopias are commonly found in science fiction and other speculative fiction genres, and arguably are by definition a type of speculative fiction.

“Utopia” and “dystopia” are actually two sides of a coin. Generally, these picture a science fiction setting of two extreme points. Literature also explains the two in a more profound way. But by definition, “utopia” is a society or community setting wherein the people experience the ideal and most perfect life possible. There are nothing called rules; humanity is given full freedom to explore everything possible (except imperfections). By contrast, “dystopia” highlights the complete opposite, which is a place of extremely unpleasant living and working conditions for most people. Most or all of the societal and governmental systems are bad in a dystopia.

“Utopia” is what many would think as a paradise. The term was first coined by Thomas Moore in his official publication entitled “Utopia” back in 1516. In his utopia, he described an imaginary and solitary island where everything seems to be running smoothly. It’s like looking at blue skies, warm and bright sunlight, working in clean, spacious buildings, living with friendly individuals, going to work happily, and harmoniously coexisting with everyone. However, there’s a reason why many acknowledge a utopia as a pure work of fiction. It is because the idea of utopia itself seems to be impossible. A real, material world of perfection cannot truly exist. As a matter of fact, “utopia” is translated literally as an imaginary good place that does not physically exist. This kind of world is not just unrealistic but also impractical.

By contrast, a dystopian world, also known as anti-utopia or kakotopia, is totally rundown. “Dystopia” was also coined at the same time as “utopia.” However, its usage became known only in the late 19th century. In a dystopian world, the skies are dull. The sun may not be shining, and the buildings are mostly in ruins. The people (if there are any left) are annoying and unfriendly. Going to work is always a painful experience, and everyone seems not to have settled their differences yet. A dystopian world is like the setting of the popular film “I Am Legend” wherein the main protagonist (Will Smith) appeared to be the only survivor of a ruined civilization.

Concepts of utopia and dystopia represent imaginary societies in which people live their life either in a perfect environment, governed by the laws that provide happiness to everyone, or in an oppressive society that is ruled by the repressive and controlled state. Origin of these concepts can be traced to the year of 380BC when Greek philosopher Plato released his influential political dialogue called “Republic”. In it, he first postulated the main themes of utopian society and his visions of the perfect Greek city-state that provided a stable life for all of its citizens.

Authors of the mid-20th century were the first to envision futuristic societies in which people lived in a repressive and controlled state that only from the outside resembled a Utopia. These dark visions of the future represent a great vehicle for the investigation of concepts such as individuality, freedom, class distinctions, repression, religion and advanced technology.

In the context of literature, the term dystopia, generally, connotes a scrupulous description of some country which runs on a certain system the author finds ‘better’ than any other possible means.
Some of the earliest and influential works of dystopian fiction can be contributed to the authors H.G. Wells (Time Machine), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four or 1984). Their works paved the way to the numerous other authors, who even today manage to envision some new aspect of life in dystopian societies. In addition to the literature, dystopian themes found its life in many other types of mediums, such as comic books (most notably V for Vendetta, Transmetropolitan, Y: The Last Man and Akira), music, video games (Fallout, Deus Ex, and BioShock ) television series (The Prisoner)

In our modern environment, works of fiction that are focused on the futuristic visions of dark dystopias are common and widespread. These visions of futuristic worlds produced some of the most famous novels, movies, comics and music of our time. Numerous philosophers and authors imagined the dark visions of the future where totalitarian rulers governed the life of ordinary citizens. Their works explored many themes of dystopian societies – repressive social control systems, government coercion of citizens, influence of technology on human mind, coping mechanisms, individuality, freedom of life and speech, censorship, sexual repression, class distinctions, artificial life and human interaction with the nature (and often the consequences of its destruction). For example, you can look upon Tron Legacy, Terminator (series), Total Recall etc.

“I would love to change the world but they won’t give me the source code.”
Thus where utopia is an imagined community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities.Dystopia is the vision of a bleak future.

To conclude, we can say that through dystopia, authors express their concerns about issues of humanity and society and warn the people about their weaknesses. Authors use dystopia as a literary technique to discuss the reality and depict issues that might happen in future. Thus the role of dystopia in literary works is to educate and give awareness to the audience in ‘a however’ negative way. Dystopias also serve as warnings about the current state of affairs of a government, or of those in power. In a dystopia, authors point out the wrong doings in a society or a system – the reason that it is often called a critique.
And no other than Stephen King has predicted long ago that:

“In the year 2025, the best men don’t run for president, they run for their lives. . . .”

Stephen King, The Running Man