How to Tell If You’re Living In a Dystopia — And Why It Matters

If you’re a character in a piece of genre fiction these days, there’s a good chance you’re living in some kind of dystopian reality. From teenagers killing each other as blood sport to women forced into lives of terrified obedience by a system that views them as expendable vessels, there are so many flavors of fictional systematized cruelty these days that we’re beginning to question whether we’ve finally achieved “Peak Dystopia Fatigue,” at least when it comes to a particular brand of Blade Runner-esque futuristic urban hellscapes. But is that all there is to the genre? Just an endless slog of unrelenting bleakness? Is that what dystopias are all about?

Dystopian fiction, which comes from the Ancient Greek words “dys” (bad) and “topia” (place), lives up to its name by featuring worlds in which reality is cruel, suffering is extreme, and hope seems pointless. But not every horrible place is a dystopia—the trope usually features a world in which society itself is the problem—and not every dystopia is horrible in the same way. The social order is broken, but how? The system has been corrupted, but by whom? These futures may be bleak, but they are not interchangeable.

That said, while all unhappy worlds are unhappy in their own way, there are some broken realities that do show up in fiction time and time again and some dystopian nightmares that we can’t seem to shake. So if you’re living in a fictional reality that seems less than perfect, here are four questions to ask yourself to determine if you’re truly in a dystopia, or just having a really bad day.

Do You Think You’re In A Dystopia?

Brave New World Aldous Huxley

This might seem like an easy question. You wouldn’t be asking in the first place if you hadn’t been tipped off to your world’s dystopian nature by all the pain and destruction and nifty leather outfits. But not all dystopias are quite so apparent on the surface. You might be having a perfectly happy life, in a world full of perfectly happy people—happy, that is, because a horrible and painful secret is what truly makes your idyllic lives possible. In a False Utopia like yours, all that bliss comes at a terrible cost. In the classic Aldous Huxley novel Brave New World, for example, the drug soma and widespread conditioning help to keep the population carefree, but in truth, the society relies on forced conformity, dedication to the state over self, and a rigid caste system in order to function.

Even if you aren’t living a life that’s suspiciously free of conflict, as you and your neighbors cavort around in pure joy, you might be still in a dystopia. Maybe your life is just easier than you anticipated, and you’re discouraged from asking too many questions about where your food really comes from or what the shining wires around your house are for or what happens to the people who disappear on moonless nights. More likely than not, you’re in a Surprise! Dystopia, as you’ll soon find out when you learn that the food’s made of people (Soylent Green), the wires are deadly snares (Watership Down), and your people are being killed by the species that provides for all your needs (The Time Machine).

Don’t worry too much if you’re living the good life, though. Most of the time, if you’re in a dystopia, it’s painfully obvious: your life is on lockdown and the world is a cruel and unusual place. Which begs the question…


Who Is in Charge Here?

Shirley Jackson The Lottery

Are you under the thumb of an oppressive regime? Usually dystopias require some sort of force in order to keep the public in line. Whether it’s the totalitarian governments of The Man in the High Castle or the repressive theocracy of Mistborn: The Final Empire, a classic Centralized Dystopia will probably involve weapons and power concentrated under the control of a chosen few. Don’t be surprised if those in power are monitoring your thoughts and actions (1984), creating strict rules and roles that only benefit themselves (The Handmaid’s Tale), or restricting access to basic necessities for those not in favor (The Hunger Games). That’s how they keep themselves in power and you…not so much.

Doesn’t describe your world? You’re not off the hook yet; not all dystopias are created and maintained by a small group of power-mad despots. Maybe yours is a Systemic Dystopia, created when the population ceded power to a particular system over time until that system began to oppress people, not as a targeted measure, but as a way to make things easier for the people or groups that it favors. It might be Max Barry’s Jennifer Government, for example, in which corporations have unfettered power as a whole, but no single corporate entity controls the system. They do it through teamwork. Yay.

Or maybe no one specific group is in control of the system at all. There are a just few odd rules that you and your neighbors have decided to live by, like stoning one member of town to death every year (Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”) or collectively ignoring the child whose torture is necessary for your lives to go on as normal (Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”). Congrats, you’re in a Collective Dystopia, where the population as a whole has decided that a dystopian reality is for the greater good. Hope you can live with the fact that you were able to reach new depths of cruelty without being forced into it by some powerful outside group.

Most likely, though, your life is being controlled. After all, the centralized dystopia is the most common scenario when it comes to this type of fiction. So you know who’s in charge, but you have to ask…


Who Does the Suffering?

The Handmaid's Tale Hulu show

Let’s be clear; in your world, some people are suffering. (If they aren’t, and everything seems hunky dory, go back to question one.) Even more importantly, some people are suffering more than everyone else. Even if life is fairly bleak for you and most of the people you know, there is probably someone who is being tortured, or imprisoned, or killed in some new and inventively horrific way. But why them? What did they do to deserve such pain?

Maybe the answer is “nothing.” If the suffering strikes people at random, you’re in a Lottery Dystopia. Suffering comes down to the luck of the draw. In some worlds, that luck is more obviously doled out, usually using some horrific version of a real-world game of chance, but in others there is a persistent danger that can kill or harm anyone in your world without warning, like a megalomaniacal God-like ruler who beheads random civilians in fits of anger (Mistborn).

Does that seem capricious and terrifying? Maybe your world isn’t quite so haphazard. In a Punitive Dystopia, suffering is used as strategy. Either it’s a way to punish those who step outside of the established system, even if they are doing nothing more than reading (Fahrenheit 451), or it helps to cull traits that are considered dangerous or unnecessary. Those traits vary from place to place—you might live in a world where one of every set of identical twins is “Sent to Elsewhere” (The Giver), or one where anyone who reaches the age of 30 is “Renewed” (Logan’s Run). In particularly bad cases, your world may even do both—in The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, the Children of Ham are relocated, but dissenters within Gilead are either killed or sent to work in the deadly Colonies.

But whether the suffering in your world is wielded as a targeted weapon or strikes randomly like a bolt of lightning, who you are probably affects how likely you are to be impacted. After all, if you’re in the right group, you have less of a chance of being picked in a psychotic lottery and your social class would never be targeted for cruelty. So the real question is…


How Is Your Lot In Life Determined?

Divergent aptitude test

Social castes and population groupings are key to many dystopian lifestyles. Divergent has its factions; The Hunger Games has districts. And whether you’re dealing with a controlling government, a religious order, a corporate hegemony, or a home-grown cult, most dystopias have an odd obsession with being able to stamp everyone with a catchy label. These handy titles help to disguise the fact that whether or not your caste name or job title rolls off of the tongue, you’re stuck in it. Forever.

Did you enter your caste or social class at birth? You’re in an Inheritance Dystopia. Maybe you’re unlucky enough to be the descendant of the people who opposed your dystopia’s current ruling class (The Hunger Games) or you were specifically created for your role through breeding or genetic engineering (Brave New World). Whether it’s because of where you were born or because of your bloodline, your relative privilege, power, and freedom have been set from the moment you took your first breath.

Sorting Hat Dystopias, on the other hand, usually wait until later in life to assign you to your fate, based on what you’ve done so far or what the powers that be think you might do and be in the future. In Divergent, a test sorts each teenager when they turn sixteen years old, while The Giver starts even earlier, with assigned roles at age twelve based on aptitude. Once you’ve been assigned, though, the die is cast. You are who (and what) you are.

Both systems, in the end, take the agency away from you and everyone else in your world, constraining your opportunities and setting your fate based on factors you probably don’t have much control over. It’s the same overwhelming sense of restricted agency that you see throughout all of these different dystopias—everything from who bears the brunt of the system’s cruelty to whether you know you’re in a dystopia at all is taken out of your hands. Congratulations—you’ve found your dystopia! Now do exactly what we want you to do.

Maybe this is what makes dystopias so common, what draws us to the genre time and time again. In recent years, in fact, it seems as if we can’t get enough of them. While this type of bleak world is nothing new to science fiction and fantasy—the 1930s and 40s brought us dystopian novels like Brave New World1984, and Fahrenheit 451—the subgenre is currently having a major resurgence. While some may insist that we’re burned out on dystopian visions, sales of the classics are up, and new stories of oppressive governments and repressive societies are flying off the shelves.

Why? I’m not sure. Maybe we are drawn to tales of heroes and movements that go beyond simply opposing individual villains, tales about facing the greater evils, the systems that make these villains possible. Maybe we like the way these stories dare us to acknowledge and challenge the dystopian elements we may see in our own reality.

Maybe we like being able to do something about it.

After all, if you’re lucky enough to be the protagonist in a dystopian piece of literature, while you will probably suffer, you will also get the opportunity to make a choice for yourself. Whether your act of rebellion is big enough to take down an entire government or small enough that only you take pleasure in it, you will have the chance to determine your own fate. Perhaps it is no accident that in the 30s and 40s, a time of global conflicts, and today, a time in which the world seems more connected and yet more unstable than ever, we would yearn for stories about people who make a difference, no matter the cost.

The truth is, whether you see your dystopia in all of these types, or none of them—or even if you don’t live in a true dystopia at all—one thing is clear. Things aren’t going to fix themselves. Perhaps that’s what dystopian fiction does best, and why it remains more relevant than ever: it reminds us that we need to take action. It pushes us to step up, to speak out, to stand up for ourselves and to be an ally and advocate for others. It increases our awareness of our own rights and freedom, and our responsibilities to protect the freedom and the rights of others. It shows us what happens if we surrender, or waver, or fail. It inspires us to do better, to demand better, and to be better.

Here’s to your dystopia. Long may you fight.

Erin Roberts emerges from her own dystopia from time to time to write short stories, share her thoughts about the writing world, and send the occasional tweet. Follow her on Twitter at @nirele.


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