What is dystopian literature? Take a look at defining characteristics, and expand your literary horizons with some unique, powerful, and speculative writing.
Literature comes in many shapes and forms, and one of the most interesting is dystopian fiction. Dystopias are societies that have seen a significant decline, technological control, and environmental destruction and often battle against an authoritarian government.
Dystopian science fiction novels and short story works are powerful because they can push readers to think differently about the world they live in today, how they can prevent their society from descending into chaos, and what they need to do to create a world that works for everyone. Furthermore, writers from Ray Bradbury to Suzanne Collins and Kurt Vonnegut to Ursula K. Le Guin have tackled the genre, lending their genius to this field.
Learn about young adult dystopian literature below, and take a look at a few examples if you want to dive deeper into this genre.
What Is a Dystopia?
First, it is important to define what a dystopia is. If utopian literature focuses on a perfect society where everything is perfect, a dystopia is an exact opposite. A dystopia is an imagined society or community that is scary, oppressive, and dehumanizing.
In many cases, dystopian communities have gone through an imagined, precipitous downfall where nothing goes right. Perhaps they destroy the environment around them, maybe they are controlled by technology, and there is usually a government that holds all the cards and controls all the power, stripping rights from individual people.
A dystopia minimizes the value of human life and speaks to milk its citizens for productivity while controlling them every step of the way. A dystopian work will examine the impacts of a dystopia on social, political, and economic structures that govern human life.
What Makes Dystopian Literature Appealing?
Given that dystopian literature is about a society that is the antithesis of a utopia, some people wonder why readers might be interested in this type of writing. Some of the top reasons why people read dystopian fiction include:
1. It Makes Them Feel Better About Their Societies and Communities
Everyone goes through challenges from time to time, and dystopian literature can make people feel better about the world in which they live. Sometimes, people see all the problems characters face in dystopian literature and are happier with their local communities. Dystopian literature can make people’s problems appear easier to overcome. Furthermore, people often feel like they have more control over their lives than the characters in dystopian literature, making them feel better about their situations.
2. They Can Relate to the Challenges the Characters Face
Another reason people read dystopian literature is that they can relate to a lot of the challenges the characters face in the book. For example, some characters struggle to deal with a government that doesn’t appear to do anything for them. This is something that a lot of people can relate to. Other examples of dystopian literature see characters living in a world surrounded by environmental ruin. A decimated environment is something that many people can relate to as well.
3. They Feel Empowered To Take Action
Finally, many people read dystopian literature because they want to feel inspired to take action. There are a lot of problems in the world today, but many people feel like they cannot change anything on their own. When someone reads dystopian literature, they often read stories about how one character can change the world. Furthermore, these books often provide road maps of how a single person can significantly impact the world around them. This type of writing can inspire people to take action, pushing them to improve the world. Dystopian literature can be empowering, despite its negativity.
Ultimately, these are a few of the biggest reasons people read dystopian literature. What are some of the defining characteristics of this genre?
The Top Characteristics To Note
Several common characteristics appear in dystopian novels. They include:
1. A Total Loss of Individual Spirit
One of the major questions that dystopian literature tackles are how society’s needs should compare to the needs of the individual. These are often in opposition to one another, and how characters respond to this situation is a defining feature of the book.
For example, how much should someone sacrifice for the survival of the human race? If a character is forced to choose between their children and humanity’s near future, how should they be expected to decide? Or, if someone has to surrender their life to save the country, should they be expected to do so?
2. Major Survival Challenges
Because of the impacts of a dystopian society, the main characters in dystopian literature are often forced to fend for themselves. As a result, many of them face various survival challenges. Even though dystopian literature often pays homage to characters who will do anything they can to survive, they often find themselves in difficult situations.
For example, family members in dystopian literature may have to turn on each other to survive. Parents have to make difficult decisions about whether they want to eat or whether they want to feed their children.
There are other examples of dystopian literature where people are hunted for sport. People with resources can sign up for a dystopian event where they have weapons they use to hurt other people in a jungle as they fight for survival.
3. Advanced Technology Run Amok
Another common thread throughout dystopian literature is advanced technology run amok. Dystopian literature often paints a vision of the future. Therefore, it is easy to imagine how technology may have progressed until that point. A common thread seen throughout movies, TV shows, and books of dystopian, speculative fiction is how technology might evolve and the dangers that it might cause.
For example, some governments might use advanced technology to control the actions of their citizens and take away their reproductive rights. In other cases, technology may become sentient, rebelling against human overlords. Then, society does not have a way to control technology anymore, causing the downfall of the human race. There are other examples of dystopian literature where it becomes difficult to distinguish man from machine, and androids end up trying to wipe out the entire planet. While these works sometimes have a happy ending, this is not always the case.
4. Destruction of the Planet
Works of dystopian fiction often occur in a setting where the planet has been destroyed. There has been a lot of discussion about the environment recently, and many works of dystopian literature envision what the world might look like if humanity does not do something to protect the planet.
For example, many dystopian works talk about the impacts of global warming and paint a picture of society after numerous natural disasters have all but wiped out the planet. Other dystopian works occur in a world where companies continue to dump toxic waste into the water supply, stripping the world of its basic natural resources. Even works of dystopian literature imagine what might happen if a coronal mass ejection completely wipes out advanced technology on the planet, plunging it into chaos.
5. A Totalitarian Government (or a Lack of It)
Finally, one of the biggest characteristics of dystopian literature is government control or a total lack of it. In many works of dystopian literature, there is a governmental body that has complete control of everything. They prevent people from fighting for their rights, they may charge oppressive taxes, and they may completely strip choice from the population. Even though people may want to do something about it, they understand that they are under total surveillance with big brother watching. Even thinking negative thoughts about the government could result in them being arrested and thrown in jail.
There might be a total lack of government control in other dystopian works. Perhaps the people overthrew the government, causing the society to descend into anarchy. Now, people live in a free-for-all world, which has resulted in the planet being turned into a wasteland. Without any laws, it is every man for themselves, resulting in people losing their empathy and compassion.
Ultimately, these are just a few of the many defining characteristics of dystopian literature. Even though different works approach the topic differently, many of these themes repeatedly occur throughout the genre.
Examples of Powerful Dystopian Literature
There are several examples of powerful dystopian literature that you might be interested in. Some of the most famous dystopian works of all time include:
1. Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, 1949
The first thought that comes to mind when people think about a dystopian world is from the book Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell. This book has risen to the top of the bestseller charts more than once, and it provides a damning look at the future of the human race. Winston’s main character lives in a completely controlled world by the state in this book. Even having bad thoughts is a major crime. This book could cause you to have nightmares for weeks, but it is worth reading and its counterpart, Animal Farm.
2. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, 1985
When people think about dystopian literature, they often think about The Handmaid’s Tale. Written by Margaret Atwood, one of the most popular writers of the 20th century, this book looks at America’s future, and it is not kind. In the book, A handmaiden is forced to bear children for an oppressive leader and his life. The novel features a lot of twists and turns, and it doesn’t feel like a completely impossible situation. Perhaps that is why the book is so scary.
3. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, 1935
In It Can’t Happen Here, an extremist wins the US presidency and immediately takes control of society. This satirical novel was published shortly after Mussolini and Hitler rose to power before World War II. It was meant to comment on European fascism, but sadly, it can still be relevant today. The book shatters the idea that a dystopian world cannot happen, and it will force people to take a closer look at the world in which they live.
4. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, 1932
In Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, several controllers have worked hard to create a utopian, ideal society and which everyone is happy. The only thing is that not everyone in society is happy. The main character is Bernard, who appears to be alone in his feelings of discontent. As the book unfolds, he will discover that he is not the only person trying to break free from everything that holds his body and his mind captive. The book paints a nightmarish world that will encourage readers to ask questions about the world in which they live today.
5. We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1924
It has been said that this novel served as the inspiration for the famous book 1984 by George Orwell. There is no denying that We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, had a major impact on how the subgenre evolved throughout the twentieth century. This book takes place more than a thousand years after the world has been conquered. Humanity is living in total harmony, at least as much as expected. Do people living in this world continue to have a soul? Or are they merely cogs in a giant machine? These are major questions that the book addresses.
If you are interested in learning more, check out our guide on “what is creative writing?“
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