Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Brief History of Dystopia

For today's post I welcome Michael from the excellent literary blog Literary Exploration to take us through a brief history of the dystopian genre.

It's worth noting that very few dystopian movies were written directly for the screen and were in fact based on classic pieces of literature.

Dystopian fiction has been around for a long time; interestingly enough, it was an offshoot of utopian fiction which started growing in popularity in the 1900’s. I’m a little surprised that utopian fiction seemed to be the predominate genre but if you look at the history of dystopian literature you can see why. The spikes in popularity seems to have started from the lead up to the world war two and the cold war and then as a result of 9/11 and the war on terror. Escapist fiction; as a way to substitute the problems with the world with a more nightmarish world.

I thought it might be nice to have a quick look at the genre over time and highlight some essential reads (which stick out to me) for people that haven’t experienced all the joys of this genre. While there were dystopian novels before my first choice, I thought I would start with the one book that may be called the first purely dystopian novel.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921)
A highly influential novel based on the authors experience of the two Russian revolutions (1905 and 1917) and the First World War. While this book is considered to be an influence for Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or even Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1952), it’s one book that is unfortunately often overlooked.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
Huxley refers to this book a "negative utopia" and looks at the idea of the government making a world so perfect and controlled that it really has the opposite effect; or does it? Are you really unhappy if you don’t know you are unhappy?

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
No dystopian list will be complete without this novel; actually these three novels could make up the definitive influences of every dystopian novel to follow. Big Brother is watching. Orwell writes a satirical novel of what he sees as the dangers of totalitarianism.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
It’s a pleasure to burn; this novel looks at book burning, mass media censorship and the importance of books. Fahrenheit 451 is set in an unspecified time in a hedonistic anti-intellectual America.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957)
Set in the not too distant future this brick of a book has a look at the disappearance of innovators and industrialists and a collapsing economy. I’m not going to lie, I’ve not read this book but I couldn’t give a list of essential dystopian novels without this book.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
In a culture of extreme youth rebellion and violence, how can the government gain back control? Mind control and the removal of free will seems like a good idea, right?

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
In this dystopian novel Atwood takes a look at a totalitarian society and the issue of woman’s rights within it. While I thought this was more like a social critique than a novel, it is still an essential read.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
Sheltered from the outside world these children were brought up to believe they are special and need to be protected, but they are only protected from the truth. This is more a book of love and friendship set in a dystopian environment.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart (2010)
Super Sad True Love Story is a novel set in a very near future—oh; let’s say next Tuesday—where the world is dominated by Media and Retail. The story is centred on a thirty nine year old Russian immigrant, Lenny, and what could likely be the world’s last diary. The object of his affection, Eunice, has her side of the story told by a collection of e-mail correspondences on her "GlobalTeens" account.

If you look at this list you can see the changing of the dystopian genre; what started as satirical looks at the fears of the world gradually changed to lighter stories of love and friendships. This brings me to the rising popularity of Young Adult Dystopian fiction. This seems to deal less with the social aspects made famous in dystopian fiction and more about friendships and endless love triangles. The lack of freedom, obsessive governments or biological issues have been replaced with post-apocalyptic romances. Not that there is a problem with this new wave of dystopian fiction (I’ve read a few good ones), I just find that the books with more social aspects offer so much more than a good read. What are your thoughts and what would you call essential dystopian reading?

In addition to his blog Michael can be found on facebook, twitter and a whole bunch of other social networking sites.


  1. I'm surprised of how many of them I've actually read xD

  2. Great list, and a couple on there I haven't heard about that I'll check out!

    And Never Let Me Go is a beautiful book. Ishiguro is an amazing writer.

    1. I agree Never Let Me Go is a beautiful book and I think the dystopian elements of this book really helps the story along.

  3. You've pretty much listed the big ones. When I was a kid I used to read books about life in the far future where humans were changed or even other species had taken over. I'm drawing a blank on the author's name, but she wrote a ton of books up through the 80s that would probably be slotted into "teen fiction" nowadays.

    A couple of somewhat recent "after things fell apart" books I would recommend are Emergence by David R. Palmer and The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent.

    1. Sounds interesting I'd like to try some 80's style YA dystopian fiction. I can't help imagining John Hughes type novels though.

    2. It's really bugging me now that I can't think of her name. She was one of the first female authors in science fiction. She started writing back in the 50s and her career went up at least to the 90s. Her books were somewhat in the mold of Heinlein's "juveniles" - more adventure stories that took place in a future or otherworldly/fantasy setting. She wrote a couple hundred books.

      Okay, I'm back. I just did a search and her name is Andre Norton. Here is her wikipedia page:

  4. Haven't read any of these, but I've at least seen A Clockwork Orange and Never Let Me Go. :)

    1. I've not seen Never Let Me Go, I wonder if Hollywood wrecked the story.

    2. Couldn't say, because I haven't read the book. I'd recommend the film though.

  5. Wow, nice post here. Props to Michael for putting it together.

    I've always wanted to read A Clockwork Orange and Never Let Me Go. Someday...