Writing

What is Dystopian Fiction? Learn About the 5 Characteristics of Dystopian Fiction With Examples

Written by MasterClass

May 17, 2019 • 5 min read

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.


What Is Dystopian Fiction?

Dystopian literature is a form of speculative fiction that began as a response to utopian literature. A dystopia is an imagined community or society that is dehumanizing and frightening. A dystopia is an antonym of a utopia, which is a perfect society.

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What’s the Difference Between Utopia and Dystopia?

The term “utopia” was coined by Sir Thomas More in his 1516 book Utopia, which was about an ideal society on a fictional island. Unlike utopian literature, dystopian literature explores the dangerous effects of political and social structures on humanity’s future.

What Is the Significance of Dystopian Fiction?

Dystopian novels that have a didactic message often explore themes like anarchism, oppression, and mass poverty. Margaret Atwood, one of literature’s most celebrated authors of dystopian fiction, thinks about it like this: “If you’re interested in writing speculative fiction, one way to generate a plot is to take an idea from current society and move it a little further down the road. Even if humans are short-term thinkers, fiction can anticipate and extrapolate into multiple versions of the future.”

Here are other reasons why dystopian fiction is significant in literature:

  • Dystopian fiction can be a way to educate and warn humanity about the dangers of current social and political structures. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a futuristic United States, known as Gilead. It cautions against oppressive patriarchy.
  • Dystopian stories may convey an author’s beliefs. For example, H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine reflected Wells’ socialist views. The story follows a Victorian England scientist who builds a time machine and witnesses the pitfalls of a capitalist society.
  • Dystopian stories require a greater suspension of disbelief and can be very imaginative. For example, George Orwell’s allegory Animal Farm is about a group of pigs who stage a rebellion against their human farmer. The farm animals’ rise to power is based on the Russian Revolution.
  • Dystopian novels can also be satirical critiques. For example, the 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is a social satire of behaviorism. It takes place in a futuristic society with a youth subculture of extreme violence. A totalitarian government protects society by prescribing good behavior and abolishing violent impulses.

5 Characteristics of Dystopian Fiction

The central themes of dystopian novels generally fall under these topics:

  1. Government control
  2. Environmental destruction
  3. Technological control
  4. Survival
  5. Loss of individualism

Characteristics of Dystopian Fiction: Government Control

Government plays a big role in dystopian literature. Generally, there is either no government or an oppressive ruling body.

  • In George Orwell’s 1984, the world is under complete government control. The fictional dictator Big Brother enforces omnipresent surveillance over the people living in the three inter-continental superstates remaining after a world war.
  • Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin is a 1985 science-fiction novel that follows the Kesh community of people in a post-apocalyptic world. The Kesh repudiate a government system and are self-organized.
  • The Hunger Games, a young adult trilogy by Suzanne Collins beginning in 2008, takes place in the fictional world Panem, a future nation on the ruins of North America. Panem’s totalitarian government called The Capitol holds most of the country’s wealth and controls the citizens. Each year, children from Panem’s 12 districts are selected to participate in a televised death match called the Hunger Games.

Characteristics of Dystopian Fiction: Technological Control

Advanced science and technology in dystopian works go beyond tools for improving everyday life—technology is often depicted as a controlling, omnipresent force and is often used as a fear-mongering tactic.

  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, written in 1932, explores the danger of technology. The ruling World State uses powerful conditioning technologies to control reproduction and citizens’ actions.
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick takes place in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco after a nuclear global war in 1992. This 1968 novel was the basis for the film The Blade Runner and explores the dangers of advanced technology. There are android robots indistinguishable from humans, and mass extinction has led to artificial animals.
  • Feed by M.T. Anderson is a young adult dystopian novel written in 2002 about a near-future America controlled by Feednet, a computer network that is implanted into the brains of 73% of American citizens.

Characteristics of Dystopian Fiction: Environmental Disaster

Dystopian novels are often set in places that are inhabitable, have been destroyed, or are preparing for destruction.

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy, written in 2006, is a post-apocalyptic story about a father and son venturing across the ruins of America after an extinction event.
  • The Maze Runner is a series by James Dashner chronicling the events of how the dystopian world had been destroyed by massive solar flares and coronal mass ejection. In the first book of the series, a group of teenage boys are stuck in an imaginary place called The Glade and have to find their way of out its ever-changing maze.

Characteristics of Dystopian Fiction: Survival

The oppressive powers and destruction in dystopian worlds often leave the inhabitants to fend for themselves.

  • The Running Man was written by Stephen King and first published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1982. Taking place in 2025, the novel is about an impoverished man living under an oppressive government who competes on a life-threatening game show in order to earn money to care for his family.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding, written in 1954, is about a group of schoolboys who are abandoned on a tropical island after their plane is shot down during a fictional atomic war. Conflicts emerge between the boys as they struggle to build a civilization and fight for survival.
  • The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau is set in an underground world called Ember. The isolated city was constructed to thwart an impending disaster and follows a group of teenagers working to find their way out.

Characteristics of Dystopian Fiction: Loss of Individualism

How should the needs of society as a whole compare to individual needs? Many dystopian futures depict the dangers of conformity.

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, written in 1953, follows a fireman whose job is to burn books. Because of the censorship of books, this future society has increased interest in technology and entertainment—and an inability to think freely and creatively.
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry is a 1993 young adult novel about a society that has no pain because the community has all been converted to “Sameness.” The story follows a 12-year-old boy who is selected to be the society’s Receiver of Memory and will store the memories of the community before “Sameness” was enacted.
  • We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, written in 1920, follows a spacecraft engineer living in the future nation called One State. The citizens of One State wear uniforms and are referred to by number.

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