Apr 11 2011 10:30am

Dystopian Fiction: An Introduction

The roots of the word dystopia—dys- and -topia—are from the Ancient Greek for “bad” and “place,” and so we use the term to describe an unfavorable society in which to live. “Dystopia” is not a synonym for “post-apocalyptic”; it also is not a synonym for a bleak, or darkly imagined future. In a dystopian story, society itself is typically the antagonist; it is society that is actively working against the protagonist’s aims and desires. This oppression frequently is enacted by a totalitarian or authoritarian government, resulting in the loss of civil liberties and untenable living conditions, caused by any number of circumstances, such as world overpopulation, laws controlling a person’s sexual or reproductive freedom, and living under constant surveillance.

Whether or not a society is perceived as a dystopia is usually determined by one’s point of view; what one person may consider to be a horrible dystopia, another may find completely acceptable or even nigh-utopian. For instance, if you don’t care about procreating, then living in a world in which the birth rate is strictly regulated wouldn’t seem very dystopic to you; to someone who values that very much, however, having society tell you how, when (or how often) you can procreate would seem like something out of a nightmare. Or a person who doesn’t enjoy reading or intellectual thinking might not care if books are banned… or even hunted down and destroyed, as in Fahrenheit 451, whereas you, dear reader, would probably care very much.

Many societies in fiction are depicted as utopias when in fact they are dystopias; like angels and demons, the two are sides of the same coin. This seemingly paradoxical situation can arise because, in a dystopia, the society often gives up A in exchange for B, but the benefit of B blinds the society to the loss of A; it is often not until many years later that the loss of A is truly felt, and the citizens come to realize that the world they once thought acceptable (or even ideal) is not the world they thought it was. That’s part of what is so compelling—and insidious—about dystopian fiction: the idea that you could be living in a dystopia and not even know it.

Dystopias are often seen as “cautionary tales,” but the best dystopias are not didactic screeds, and the best dystopias do not draw their power from whatever political/societal point they might be making; the best dystopias speak to the deeper meanings of what it is to be one small part of a teeming civilization… and of what it is to be human.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World are the cornerstones of dystopian literature in novel form, but there has never, to my knowledge, been an anthology collecting all the best, classic works of dystopian short fiction in one volume. My recent anthology Brave New Worlds aims to do exactly that, spanning from 1948 to the present day, from what is perhaps the classic dystopian short story—“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson—to stories just published in the last two years but which will surely stand the test of time.

And so Brave New Worlds offers thirty-three such stories, representing the best of what dystopian fiction has to offer. For more information about the book and dystopias, you can visit the anthology’s website, where you’ll find the complete text of nine of the stories, as well as interviews with the authors and other items of interest to those interested in dystopian literature.

John Joseph Adams is the bestselling editor of many anthologies, such as Wastelands, The Living Dead (a World Fantasy Award finalist), By Blood We Live, Federations, and The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Barnes & named him “the reigning king of the anthology world,” and his books have been named to numerous best of the year lists. His latest books are Brave New Worlds, The Living Dead 2 and The Way of the Wizard. He is also the editor of Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed Magazine, and is the co-host of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Find him on Twitter @johnjosephadams.

This article is part of Dystopia Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. Pratik
I have trouble with your definition of dystopia.

"“Dystopia” is not a synonym for “post-apocalyptic”; it also is not a synonym for a bleak, or darkly imagined future. In a dystopian story, society itself is typically the antagonist; it is society that is actively working against the protagonist’s aims and desires."

If we go according to the dictionary definition (which I assume is the correct course to follow), and see the link below

it would seem to be at odds to your first statement, particularly the second part.

Furthermore, if you say "society that is actively working against the protagonist’s aims and desires",is that really a necessary condition? For example, Ishuguro's "Never Let Me Go" (which should come under dytopian fiction) wouldnt satisfy that criteria, I belive, since the protagonist is never really against society in that book.

Would love to hear your views on this! And looking forward to the articles this week!
2. cnote56
This is my absolute favorite sub-genre of fiction. Very cool little blurb. I would only add The World Inside, by Robert Silverberg.
It was one of the smaller books that I enjoyed very, very much.
3. ChaosOnion
I am very excited to see LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" a part of this anthology. I read this a long time ago, in a classroom far, far away. I remember my young mind just could not comprehend the story, in the face of appreciating a sci-fi short story in an educational system.

Only now do I fully appreciate the power of the story. And, yes, some days I feel like walking away.
Jason Herlevi
4. ludd1t3
I finished reading Brave New Worlds a couple of weeks ago, excellent anthology. Unfortunately the Kindle edition did not include three stories that I very much want to read ("The Minority Report" - Philip K Dick, "Harrison Bergeron" - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, and "The Pedestrian" - Ray Bradbury).
erick sibert
5. lollygags
I am currently reading Brave New Worlds and enjoying it immensely. The problem I am running into is that after about 3 or 4 stories I have to put it down and turn to something a bit lighter for a couple of days before I can start again. I'm definitely looking forward to the articles this week.
6. Gorbag
Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner, IMHO, is one of the best dystopian novels I've read; Shockwave Rider was even better than Stand on Zanzibar.

Have you been eptified? You read about "eptification" (education for particular tasks) in wonder,and wonder if it's possible, then you read of soldiers who can't switch off their kill-or-be-killed psyche when they're demobbed, or who just can't demob their minds and wind up in society's rubbish-heap :

I left my heart to the sappers round Khe Sanh
And my soul was sold with my cigarettes to the blackmarket man
I've had the Vietnam cold turkey
From the ocean to the Silver City
And it's only other vets could understand

Well the last plane out of Sydney's almost gone
Yeah the last plane out of Sydney's almost gone
And it's really got me worried
I'm goin' nowhere and I'm in a hurry
And the last plane out of Sydney's almost gone

Khe Sanh, by Cold Chisel.
John Ginsberg-Stevens
7. eruditeogre
I have to agree that John Joseph Adams' definition downplays the political overtones that dystopia has, and that have often been the backbone of the literature, but I think the focus on humanity, rather than ideology, has allowed the the idea to flourish, and we've gotten a lot of great stories from this angle. Mr. Adams' anthology brings a lot of them together. I discussed several of them not too long ago.
8. M.Y. MIM
One of the better new books out there, squarely in the dystopian fiction genre, is Robert Balmannos' September Snow and Runes of Iona, published by Regent Press and the first two books of a planned quartet called the Blessings of Gaia,
A thorough list of dystopian fiction would include these two novels and the series.
Thank you.
11. Dystopian Fan
I love Brave New World, Animal Farm and other similar smart dystopian novels. Wild Child Publishing just released Against Nature, a dystopian thriller about a global pandemic and the Social Darwinist-style government response to the catastrophic event.
13. Blogwasp
Does anyone know a short story in where a woman is caught at
adultery, and by law gets sentenced to a life without clothes for a
whole year? She stays home as much as possible, but when she has to go
out (she regularly has to report at the policestation), her relatives
accompany her to protect her, because raping or killing a public naked
woman is not a crime... Very dystopic, right? It sounds like a typical
Robert Silverberg, but I don't think he wrote it. I can't remember the
title, perhaps something with 'Walk' in it, and dont know the year
either, somewhere late 60s early 70s I guess. But as you can see, the
story made a mark with me.
I need this info desperately for an article on social taboos...
14. Rufass L Statsman
You should all just die.
15. Frank P
I really like 1984 by Orwell, We by Zamyatin and PZ1 by Yde. They all capture the classic dystopian spirit. I like the newer stuff like Hunger Games and Battle Royale, but they are more like an action adventure novel than something for deep thinking.

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