Sir Thomas More, a scholar, lawyer and statesman published a novel in 1516 describing a perfect civilization. According to the book, this too real to be true society existed on an imaginary island that he dubbed Utopia. Of course More was not the first to attempt to do this; he was actually heavily influenced by Plato‘s Republic, written over 18 centuries earlier. The utopian novel is an ancient idea.
The word More coined was used a few hundred years later by John Stuart Mill to create another new term, dystopia, a society too bad to be true. Dystopian literature is by no means new either. There are ancient texts that describe a future in which society is deeply flawed, and yet citizens continue to serve the powers that be, unaware of their enslavement. The creator of modern works in this vein is often credited to the Russian author Yevgenv Zamyatin. He created a future world of complete human conformity in his novel We. However, Jack London published Iron Heel over a decade earlier. London’s book described the rise of unscrupulous big business in an economic dystopia.
Dystopian novels almost always take place in a future society based on a false ideals resulting in oppression. The particular flaw the society varies widely, based on what the author perceived as the existing threat to humanity. They often detail how humans are required to live in an enforced conformity to support theses skewed ideals, which masquerade as the path to utopia. The environment that people inhabit is frequently artificial as well, highly urbanized with wild or natural areas restricted to the perimeter. The hero is typically awakened to the hidden controller of the flawed society by another character, an individualist that often does not survive. For the protagonist there is no going back. Once enlightened, the only options are escape, bringing down the society or death.
Except in the case of one of the most famous dystopian novels 1984. George Orwell feared the rise of authoritarian governments under the guise of protection of the common people. He depicted how this situation would result in a small oligarchy reaping all the benefits at the expense of the working class in Animal Farm, an allegory that is uniquely without an individual protagonist as well as his more frightening novel, 1984.
In Brave New World, the worship of technology allows the upper classes to experience lives devoted to pleasure and possessions at the sacrifice of the genetically engineered lower classes. Aldous Huxley introduces an upper caste man raised in the savage regions into his dystopian world to show the hopelessness of being free to live selfishly but forbidden to feel any kind of moral qualms.
Sometimes the human desire to erase the memory of any unpleasantness or pain is what leads to the twisting of a civilization into a dystopia. Such is the case in Ray Bradbury’s book burning society in Fahrenheit 451, and the deceptively innocent looking community in The Giver by Lois Lowry.
Of course, there is currently the flood of newer dystopian novels on the market. But, as the popularity of this genre rises many have forgotten the original use of it as a warning, and not simply a high adventure account of the overthrow of an evil government.