The Problem with Dystopia

1984_dystopia The struggle with understanding and categorizing dystopia stems from the multiple attempts to define it. There are dictionary definitions and literary definitions, yet it seems that will all the definitions we are left with very little as a single common denominator.


First of all we can say we know that dystopia, in the end, is a bad place. It may not appear to be so at all times, but through control or destruction the world is bad and can now be defined as a dystopia. The definition vary on when and how this bad world is discovered. Some focus on constant destruction and war, other definitions focus on governmental control. Some definition focus on the element of dystopia having to be imagined, while others call Nazi Germany a real life dystopia.


Dystopian literature is gaining momentum, especially in the young adult market, yet no one seems to have a grasp on what words to you use to define, understand, and categorize dystopia.


In some ways it seems like it would be easier to go back and look at the TYPES of dystopian worlds and from that make a conclusion on how we can most accurately define the genre, world, and classification.


dystLet's start simple.

 Lenore suggested to me once 3 classifications:

· environmental

· governmental

· technological


I like this. It is easy and to the point but it doesn’t help with the understanding of dystopia, just with the classifying of it. Also to me there would be another category that would be biological. Though some of the things that classify under that would fall under environmental or technological depending on the type of biology. (Virus or DNA testing/modification.)


In order to help us understand dystopia we use movies and literature that we classify as dystopian to help us come up with a classification for the genre. This micro examination continues to fragment our ability to understand dystopia in one fail swoop. Dystopia is not an umbrella term, it is another word you can use to describe a book in a certain genre. When we try to set dystopia apart we end up trying to pull all these books into it.




The Exploring Dystopia web site tries to create distinct classifications as types of utopia as follows:

    • totalitarian
    • bureaucratic
    • cyberpunk
    • tech noir
    • off world
    • crime
    • overpopulation
    • leisure
    • alien
    • apocalyptic
    • post-apocalyptic
    • machine
    • surreal
    • pseudo-utopian
    • feminist
    • time-travel
    • capitalistic


This is an overblown list that is so specific it doesn't help anyone get a grasp on the understanding of dystopia. Governmental, economic, criminal, technological, biological, and off world would be an adequate over simplification of these terms. But the issue isn't simplification. The problem is that anything has the ability to become dystopic, so utilizing this type of classification system will simply cause our understanding to become out dated as new forms of dystopia emerge.


One of the other struggles is that a handful of definitions are coming from a group of select individuals making there own judgments on the understanding of the concept of dystopia. There are very few experts in the field. And there is the fragmentation between the study of Utopia and Dystopia.


Example definitions of dystopia:

a bad place

a wretched place

people live dehumanizing lives

a world worse than our own

exploration of worst case scenario


You can see how the difficulty to define dystopia could arise, because all of these understandings are based so subjectively. We each have our own understanding of a bad place or the worst possible world. We are being required to use the judgments of others or ourselves to definite a word in common use. Even academic works on this topic struggle with wish washy understandings of the word or just pick one and use it as absolute while leaving out vital aspects.


Through this blog I hope to bring you insight into this issue and more as I explore both academic and non academic venues to better understand the word dystopia and discover if there is a commonality among all the opposing ideas that are out there. I would love to hear any additions you have to add to this conversation. Especially if you know about other bloggers who are talking about this subject or know of other articles.



  1. I think you also need to think about the differences in dystopia and negative utopia. I see Matched as Negative Utopia, and I see The Hunger Games as dystopia.

  2. I need to pick up some dystopian books to see what all the fuss is about. I've read stuff like 1984, but I guess at the time I just didn't think much about the classification. It was fantastic so I'm sure I'll enjoy other dystopian literature! Nice post!

  3. I had this same discussion with ^Pam awhile back. We had to make separate categories for "dystopias" where people were unhappy and "negative utopias" where the people were perfectly happy and/or didn't know what was going on.

  4. Very interesting post. I agree that dystopic literature is on the rise - I have "The Year of the Flood" to read as well as some other YA dystopias that have been recommended to me.

    @Robbie - thanks for the definition of "negative utopia", I was about to ask Pam what she meant since I'd never heard of that term :)

  5. I think right now dystopia is stuck in an epistemological holding pattern: I know it when I see it. What the books you're reading are struggling with are moving from epistemology to ontology... and being able to actually define those things that make the genre what it is.

    For me, dystopia is social commentary. It's the worst possible scenario played out with the unspoken goal of turning the mirror on society.

  6. Definitely an interesting post. I'm not sure how I would define it. I tend to think that something has to have happened -- war, plague, environmental disaster -- to separate dystopian from just futuristic (1984) or alternate history. But I don't really know what I'm talking about. :)

  7. Good points and very thoughtful post! I'm pretty much an anything goes kind of dystopian definer. So much so, that even though I know some of the stuff I "label" dystopian isn't, I still put it there (like apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic). Pretty much a futuristic time when things are not awesome.

  8. Great post! I definitely have no good definition, it is more of a 'know it when I read it' type thing, which isn't very helpful at all is it :)

  9. As we discussed before, the best definition for 'dystopia' I/we can fathom was 'speculative philosophy'. While I like this, I wish there could be a more succinct definition as this is a little vague.

    The 'problem' as I see it, is one of subjectivity. Is a literary society regarded as dystopian by it's citizens, or by the reader? Certainly the fictional citizens of 'Brave New World' generally felt that their society was 'utopian' not 'dystopian', yet the reader usually has a different perspective. Or do they? If a dystopian novel was read by someone from a real totalitarian state (lazily I'd suggest North Korea) then would such a society be dystopian? Or a relative utopia in comparison to their real-life society? To conflate further, would Winston Smith view Brave New World's 'The World State' as a dystopia, with all the sex, drugs and freedoms so denied in 1984's Airstrip One?

    I think we have to fall back on a 'general consensus' of modern (perhaps even just 'Western') society. One which ultimately values say Shakespeare above free promiscuity and drug use.

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