Sir Thomas More, a early century scholar, lawyer and statesman published a novel in 1516 describing his concept 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. But 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 the citizens continue to serve the powers that be, unaware of their enslavement.
Dystopian novels take place in the future in which society has changed based on a false ideals to one that is oppressive to humans or ultimately destructive. Almost all novels of this type described how humans are required to live in an enforced conformity to support the dystopian ideals, which frequently masquerade as the way to utopia. The environment that people live inhabit is often artificial as well, highly urbanized with wild or natural areas restricted to the perimeter. The hero is typically awakened to the hidden control in the flawed society by another character, often a romantic interest, or an individualistic character that does not survive. For the protagonist there is no going back. Once enlightened, he must either escape, bring down the society or be destroyed himself.
However, the particular flaw around which the dystopian societies centers in literature varies widely, based on what the author perceives as the existing threat to humanity.
George Orwell feared the rise of authoritarian governments under the guise of protection of the common people, in which only a small oligarchy reaped the benefits. He depicted this clearly in Animal Farm, an allegory that is uniquely without an individual protagonist and the more graphically frightening novel, 1984.
Others authors chose to comment through a variety of economic dystopias. The rise of unscrupulous big business is the villain in Jack London’s Iron Heel. In the more well-known Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand the collusion of government and business to produce mediocrity is the enemy of society.
The worship of technology, in Brave New World, allows the upper classes to live 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 a currently the flood of newer dystopian novels on the market. However, 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.