Dystopian Literature

Dystopian literature is a genre of fictional writing used to explore social and political structures in ‘a dark, nightmare world.' The term dystopia is defined as a society characterized by poverty, squalor or oppression and the theme is most commonly used in science fiction and speculative fiction genres.

The most popular definition of dystopian literature is that it is anti-Utopian. The genre challenges utopia's fundamental assumption of human perfectibility, arguing humanity's inherent flaws negate the possibility of constructing perfect societies. Dystopian literature is deliberately written to frighten the reader. Works of dystopian literature must walk a fine line between evoking the sensations of fear and inducing a sense of futility. By proving a completely perfect society is not possible - showing the awful results of what happens if the goal is social perfection rather than incremental social improvement - dystopia shocks the reader into accepting humanity's flaws as ineradicable and thereby working toward a better society rather than an ideal one.

British philosopher John Stuart Mill first used the term ‘dystopia' as early as 1868. However, the concept did not become popular until J. Max Patrick used it in 1952 to categorize Joseph Hall's book "Mundus Alter et Idem." Dystopian literature began to evolve as a separate literary genre late in the 19th century as writers published anti-utopian letters attacking utopian works but did not turn decidedly dystopian until the 20th century. Notable works in this period included Edward Bellamy's highly popular socialistic utopia "Looking Backward" (1888) and "Looking Further Forward" (1890), by Richard Michaelis.

Literary critic Erika Gottlieb explores the genre in her book "Dystopian Fiction East and West, Universe of Terror and Trial" (2001). She claims the success of dystopian literature is hinged ‘on the protagonist's trial as an emblem of injustices.' It also involves a ‘nightmarish system' set up by the state, which is designed to destroy individual integrity

Dystopian literature is often used as a literally tool to extrapolate elements of contemporary society and function as a warning against a modern trend, often the threat of oppressive regimes. Although dystopian literature is fictional, presenting grim, oppressive societies they serve a moralistic goal of preventing the horrors they illustrate. The fact it is fictitious offers scant comfort, because it is equally possible.

Professor in the Department of English at the University of Arkansas, Keith Booker explained this theory in his book "The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism" (1994). He viewed ‘defamiliarization' as central to dystopian works, explaining "by focusing their critiques of society on spatially or temporally distant settings, dystopian fictions provide fresh perspectives on problematic social and political practices that might otherwise be taken for granted or considered natural and inevitable."

In dystopian literature, the novelist uses the text to interrogate the idyllic posture of the pre-20th century utopianism. This is due to certain events in the contemporary world, including both cold and violent wars; revolutions or totalitarianism, like Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia. This called for strong dystopian features in the literary texts produced in that period. The most famous works of dystopian 20th century fiction are Aldous Huxley's novel "Brave New World" (1932) and George Orwell's "1984" (1948).

Prof Booker believes: "In many ways, dystopian fiction has become a paradigmatic expression of the Western imagination in the 20th century." Since the 1970's, three interrelated trends have dominated dystopian fiction. The first is concern over technological advances progressing beyond human ability to manage them effectively, if at all. Philip Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" (1968), which was made into the film Blade Runner in 1982. The second is an interest in post-apocalyptic dystopia, which allows the writer to sweep away the complexities of civilization and concentrate instead on small groups of survivors. This often portrays them struggling to re-create the very circumstances originally brought on apocalypse. An example of this is Alan Moore's and David Lloyd's "V for Vendetta" (1998), which presents an Orwellian post-apocalyptic England in graphic novel format.

Lastly and perhaps the most intriguing development in dystopian literature since the 1970s has been the proliferation of dystopian fictions exploring gender issues. An example of this is Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" (1986), which focused on a patriarchal dystopia where fertile women are reduced to breeder-slaves. With the advent of the 21st century and the spectacle of disaster resonating in a society that in recent years has come to relish dystopian literature, the genre has never been more relevant.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide
M. Keith Booker.
Greenwood Press, 1994
Revisiting Literary Utopias and Dystopias: Some New Genres
Archer-Lean, Clare.
Social Alternatives, Vol. 28, No. 3, Third Quarter 2009
Representations of Dystopia in Literature and Film
Wheeler, Pat.
Critical Survey, Vol. 17, No. 1, January 2005
Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia
Tom Moylan.
Westview Press, 2000
'Belonging' in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction: New Communities Created by Children
Kennon, Patricia.
Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, Vol. 15, No. 2, September 2005
Series and Systems: Russian and American Dystopian Satires of the Cold War
Maus, Derek.
Critical Survey, Vol. 17, No. 1, January 2005
Education, State and Agency in Dystopian Children's Texts
Aitken, Margaret; Bradford, Clare; Massey, Geraldine.
Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, Vol. 15, No. 2, September 2005
The Post-Utopian Imagination: American Culture in the Long 1950s
M. Keith Booker.
Greenwood Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "'Soiled, Torn, and Dead': The Bleak Vision of American Literary Fiction in the Long 1950s"
The Utopian Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Twentieth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts
Martha Bartter.
Praeger, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Dark Shadows and Bright Lights: Generators and Maintainers of Utopias and Dystopias"; Chap. 8 "Digital Ambivalence: Utopia, Dystopia, and the Digital Cosmos"; Chap. 12 "Of Dystopias and Icons: Brin's 'The Postman' and Butler's 'Parable of the Sower'"
The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism
M. Keith Booker.
Greenwood Press, 1994
Transformations of Language in Modern Dystopias
David W. Sisk.
Greenwood Press, 1997
Entering Dystopia, Entering Erewhon
Parrinder, Patrick.
Critical Survey, Vol. 17, No. 1, January 2005
The Politics of the Handmaid's Tale
Beauchamp, Gorman.
The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 1, Autumn 2009
Signifying Passion: Angela Carter's Heroes and Villains as a Dystopian Romance
Karpinski, Eva C.
Utopian Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring 2000
Sex, Violence and Concrete: The Post-War Dystopian Vision of London in Nineteen Eighty-Four
Phillips, Lawrence.
Critical Survey, Vol. 20, No. 1, January 2008
When Science Fiction Writers Used Fictional Drugs: Rise and Fall of the Twentieth-Century Drug Dystopia
Hickman, John.
Utopian Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1, Winter 2009
No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction
Eric S. Rabkin; Martin H. Greenberg; Joseph D. Olander.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1983
Utopias of/f Language in Contemporary Feminist Literary Dystopias(*)
Cavalcanti, Ildney.
Utopian Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring 2000
Hoping for the Best, Imagining the Worst: Dystopian Anxieties in Women's SF Pulp Stories of the 1930s
Waters, Alice E.
Extrapolation, Vol. 50, No. 1, Spring 2009
Dictionary of Literary Themes and Motifs: A-J
Jean-Charles Seigneuret.
Greenwood Press, 1988
Librarian’s tip: "Dystopias" begins on p. 421
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