What’s dystopia?

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Dystopia refers to fictional societies where life is unbearable or freedoms are lost. It is often depicted in science fiction and fantasy genres, with classic examples including The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984. Dystopian stories often feature a central character who rebels against the controlling society, with varying outcomes. Movies with dystopian themes include Gattaca and WALL-E.

Dystopia is an interesting play on the word utopia which was probably first used in the 19th century. Over time, it has generally come to mean fictitious societies where the condition of life is unbearable or miserable; however, it can also mean fictional societies where the quality of economic life is improved at the expense of the loss of fundamental freedoms, such as deciding when to fall in love or the loss of freedom of speech. There are many fictional representations of dystopia in literature, comics, graphic novels, and films, and they continue to capture people’s imaginations, perhaps even more so than utopian novels. Unfortunately, utopian societies, if they are truly perfect, may not have enough essential conflicts, unless the society is pitted against a society that is clearly not utopian.

There can be a number of ways a company does terribly wrong in dystopian fiction. It could be that a government has taken control of the people and is dictating their every move, their careers and who lives or dies. Alternatively, the companies may have taken control. In movies like The Matrix, willful computer programs have enslaved humans so that they exist only in the mental state and serve to power the machines.

From this state typically emerges a central character who senses the evil of the dystopia and attempts to counter or escape it. There may be a segment of society that is rebelling against its controllers, or there may be a society that exists outside the dystopia that the hero can escape. For example, in the 2006 film Children of Men the goal is to bring one of the last pregnant women on earth to the ship Tomorrow, which may or may not exist, and is beyond the company’s control.

While a dystopia can end with the central character dramatically changing society, just like the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta, it can also end with character destruction. The momentary perception that things were wrong may be an overwhelmed intuition in a starkly dystopian world. Such cases occur in George Orwell’s 1984. Many times, however, people derive greater satisfaction from overthrowing a dystopia, and these can prove more uplifting and elicit better box office returns on movies.

Natural provinces for dystopian work are science fiction and fantasy genres, including steampunk and cyberpunk. This is usually because the dystopia has to conceive of an alternate reality, and many of these stories are set in the near future after some conceivable disaster such as nuclear war or plague. Not all dystopias follow this format. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World technological advances have become the destroyers of personal freedom.

Some of the classic dystopian novels, not mentioned above, include:
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
HG Wells’ Time Machine
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Atlas shrugged at Ayn Rand
Do androids dream of electric sheep? by Philip K. Dick (made like the film Blade Runner)
The underprivileged by Ursula Le Guin
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Lois Lawry’s donor
Movies with dystopian themes are almost too many to mention, but they include:
Minority Report
Soylent Green
Logan’s Run
Twelve monkeys

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