Exploring a Genre: Dystopian Novels

What makes a dystopian novel?

What are the defining characteristics of the genre?

Dystopian novels are the inverse of Utopian novels, a term first used in 1516 by author Sir Thomas More. Whereas utopian novels describe a world free of pain or suffering, dystopian novels describe a world where human suffering reigns, knowingly or unknowingly.

Famous examples of dystopian novels include We, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaiden’s Tale, and Uglies. (No personal bias here)

I love dystopian novels. They shake me to my core and force me to face a perilous, terrifying vision of the world as it could be. One of the most jarring dystopian novel’s I’ve read recently was One Second After, where the United States was plunged back to a nation of disconnected pioneer towns when an enemy EMP is released in space. The off-putting forward and endorsement by Newt Gringritch is balanced by the realness of the struggle of the protagonist as his town descends into chaos and his diabetic daughter struggles.

Often dystopian novels ask us to consider a world that seems just a twist of fate away from being our own. In this way, it is a speculative, forward-looking form of fiction.

Margaret Atwood’s Masterclass offers this explanation;

“Dystopian fiction offers a vision of the future. Dystopias are societies in cataclysmic decline, with characters who battle environmental ruin, technological control, and government oppression. Dystopian novels can challenge readers to think differently about current social and political climates, and in some instances can even inspire action.”

Perhaps most memorable in this regard is George Orwell’s 1984. In his gritty look at the future that awaited a war-hungry, power-driven world where nationalism and blind patriotism is weaponized and personal relationships and individualism are demonized. Terms like Big Brother and double-think have become increasingly relevant in recent years.

Other common characteristics include:

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 worshiped 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.

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