How Do You Define Dystopian?

Okay, so I've been attending a symposium on science fiction and fantasy, and I was asked to sit on a dystopian/utopian panel.

We spent a lot of time discussing what makes a novel a dystopia. There were a few of us on the panel, and we all had interesting things to say, some of which included:

  • A society that includes "bad" things.
  • A society in a post-apocalyptic world.
  • A "closed" society--one that exists without any outside influence.
  • A society that includes a overbearing government.
  • A novel that includes social commentary.

I'm going to open it up to you. How do you define dystopia? 


Braiden said...

Living without choice.

Mrs. DeRaps said...

I my classroom, we look for these characteristics. They don't all have to be present, but often are.

Totalitarian Gov.
Too-Strong Military
Widespread Poverty
Abuse of Technology (by Gov)
Widespread violence
" Hunger
Absence of Individual Freedom
Environmental Issues (doesn't always appear, but does in some)

But, I'll be excited to see what you all come up with...There are just so many characteristics that are common to so many great dystopias (current and classic)!

Thanks for starting this conversation!

J. said...

I agree with both Braiden and Mrs. DeRaps--those are the things I tend to look for. I know that many who are scholars in the field of Utopian Studies (who have lots of different terms for different types of Utopian works depending on what happens within them, including "dystopia"), might accuse us of only considering the Orwellian. I think we have to do just that, because the term dystopia is being used for far too many texts that aren't in any way dystopian (such as post-apocalyptic societies, which are TOTALLY different things). Though we have to have a little give in the definition to fit The Giver into the same category as 1984, we do need to shore up the definition some so that people stop thinking of Mad Max as a dystopian text (because it isn't). Just a thought.

Authoress said...

Yay dystopia! :)

Actually, the QUALITIES of a dystopian novel do not define dystopia.

The word "dystopia" is, in fact, the opposite of utopia. Since a utopia is an idealistically perfect society, then it follows that dystopia would be the opposite.

In dystopian novels, there is an ultimate flaw in what used to be or in what is perceived in the beginning to be a utopia. It could be any of the things listed in comments above, but these things in and of themselves do not define dystopia.

I think the term is sometimes misapplied to post-apocalyptic novels. A dystopian tale does not inherently have to come after an apocalypse. Though, of course, that setting would certainly fit well in a dystopian novel.

Not that I write dystopian or anything. ;)

Jamie Manning said...

I think Braiden's answer really sums it up nicely. Living without choice (or without choice in some areas) says it all.

Jodi Meadows said...

I don't think these things are so much definitions of dystopia as signals that this book might be a dystopian.

Dystopian novels tend to include post-apocalyptic (but that doesn't mean it's dystopian -- look at LIFE AS WE KNEW IT).

They tend to include life without choices, but what about DIVERGENT? That's definitely dystopian, but it's all about choices.

Looking up definitions gets me things like:

1. An imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror. --

: an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives --

(Hah. I like how they both say imaginary. Right, first world people. Try not to look at third world countries and you will continue thinking this is imaginary.)

Or, as Wikipedia reminds us, many dystopias seem to be utopias...with one fatal flaw. (Like in THE GIVER, we learn [spoiler spoiler].)

I have to admit, I favor the broader definitions because they're less limiting. Sometimes I feel like the moment we try to pin down a genre is the moment it becomes constrained and we forget to push the boundaries.

Other things I think might signal dystopian novels:

1. Voice
2. Population attitude (probably a lot of people who won't fight back)
3. Story tone
4. Scale (or maybe not!)
5. The ending (they tend to end on a bleak yet hopeful note)

Interesting discussion. Thanks!

Jodi Meadows said...

Aw crud. I forgot to tick the "send email replies" box on my other comment. This comment is so I can have them.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

The first time I heard about Dystopian the person described it as the opposite of an Utopian society. Which I think sums it up nicely.

Najela said...

When I think of dystopian, I think our world to the extreme. Like extreme government, extreme circumstances. I noticed a lot of dystopians take one problem in our world, say "medical technology" and pervert like in The Adoration of Jenna Fox. But basically I think I agree with the idea of having choices and the lack of control.

Tere Kirkland said...

I guess I think of a world that has changed to try to protect itself, its people, to create what they believe will be a utopia, but of course, thanks to human nature, that never happens. So for me, it's more than just the opposite of utopia, but often the eventuality. Of course, those in charge would never admit that, and so over the years, they continue to limit the freedoms of the so-called citizens there-in.

Because most post-apocalyptic governments often seem strict and overly controlling in comparison with our own western governments, I think the confusion stems from there. But when the government is trying to achieve perfection, and the people are being oppressed, that, to me, is a dystopia.

Thought-provoking post!

Mandy P.S. said...

To me a book is dystopian is the world thinks its utopian or is trying to achieve a utopian existence. So to me The Maze Runner is clearly Post-Apocalyptic but not dystopian. Sure the world sucks, but it sucks because something horrible happened. No one thinks they're living in a utopia. In Uglies, however, people honestly think that their system of making people pretty makes life better. They think they're society is perfect. But (according to our standards) it's not.

Sarah E. Bradley said...

A world where someone(s) at the top think they know what is best for everyone else. This normally involves laws and rules that are supposed to keep everyone safe but actually stifle the people at the bottom who would much rather do something else.

Elana Johnson said...

Wow, guys! Sorry to be so late responding, but I was at the symposium. Ha!

Great, great things! I agree on pretty much everything. I don't think that post apocalyptic = dystopian, and it's an issue we cycled around on the panel.

Quigui said...

The first definition of dystopia that I came up on was "Utopia gone bad", and I still use it to define it to this day.

Basically, dystopia, to me, is a world that could have been perfect, and in theory it is, but something went wrong along the way: people loose their freedom, or there is constant fear.

Carol Riggs said...

Hmm! Very interesting. Maybe my just-completed WIP really is a dystopian. Or post-apoc/dystopian. But my CP said it wasn't "dark" enough to be dystopian. Do dystopians have to be DARK? I know the oppression is there, inherently, but...I'll have to keep thinking. :)

Heather Anastasiu said...

These are all great comments and descriptors of what a dystopia is. I think you've all keyed in on the most important markers of what makes a dystopia. Like Jodi mentioned, I'm always interested in the Utopia Gone Wrong, where everything has a sheen of being fine, even perfect on the outside (world peace finally achieved and all that), but with a dark and sinister underbelly.

Dadrocant said...

Interesting topic and some good comments. So here's my two cents to the discussion and I hope I'm not too late.

As many have pointed out so far Dystopia is a Utopia gone wrong, and here we have to remember that it all depends on the point of view, or the time from which we are reading.

For a broader look at this topic visit: Science Fiction & Political Thought

Dadrocant said...

I'm currently working on a post on Dystopia, so bear with me a bit.

Tristi Pinkston said...

I hadn't thought about a closed society, but you're right - well, of course you're right! You're Elana Johnson! But it's true that every dystopian I've read has that element.