The Origins of the Dystopian Genre

Totalitarianism, propaganda, injustice, surveillance systems, conformity, and the allusion of the “perfect” world all act as conventions defining the fascinating dystopian genre. Mixed with science fiction and fantasy elements, the dystopian genre is thrilling to read.

In this Readmore blog, I will take you through the origins of the dystopian genre and how it came to be what it is today. I will also mention the pioneers of the dystopian genre who created the foundations for popular works of fiction that we are all familiar with, such as The Hunger Games.

From Utopia to Dystopia: 1800s  

Before the term dystopia was created, there was the term utopia. A utopian world is the polar opposite of a dystopian world. Utopian tales featured the picture-perfect society where there is no struggle for any individual. Society lives in absolute unity.

The word utopia has Greek origins that mean “no place” and “good place”. The first utopian novel was created by a man named Sir Thomas More who was a philosopher, writer, and Catholic martyr throughout the sixteenth century. Sir Thomas More’s utopian novel included ideas of equality that would be considered radical during his time. For example, in More’s novel, there was the idea that women should be able to obtain a proper education.

Moving onto the year 1868, John Stuart Mill, a famous philosopher for his theories of liberalism, was presenting a speech in the House of Commons. Mill was speaking about the English government’s Irish land policy when he used the word dystopian. “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians”, said Mill.

John Stuart Mill’s speech was the first recorded use of the word dystopian, but we are able to find several pieces of evidence where the dystopian genre was used by Victorian era writers. H.G. Wells was a popular writer throughout this time period who included elements of dystopia in his work. One of his most known novels is The Time Machine (1895). The Time Machine was written during the Industrial Revolution. At this time, England had a capitalistic economy which Wells criticized in his novel. The Time Machine takes place in what seems to be the perfect utopian world. The protagonist travels back in time and is able to compare past societies to his. He forms the belief that the function of past societies was more beneficial compared to his current capitalistic society. The Time Machine is an amazing early dystopian read with deep historical context. H.G. Wells uses his novel to express his opinions on the Industrial Revolution, socialism, and capitalism.

Fear of Totalitarianism & War: Early 1900s

Throughout the early 1900s, the dystopian genre became more prevalent in literature. An important dystopian novel to mention is the Russian novel We, written by Yevgeny Zamyatin. We was published in 1921. It acted as inspiration to dystopian authors such as George Orwell and Ayn Rand. The story in We follows a protagonist who lives in a society that is under totalitarianism rule. There is no sense of passion or creativity. Then, our protagonist makes the realization that he has an individual soul. In a society with a lack of individualism, what must an individual soul do? This book has been described as a “cry for freedom”. It is powerful. We can arguably be the novel that first defined what the dystopian genre is.  

The dystopian genre suddenly grew drastically because of the work of Eric Arthur Blair, who we know better by his pen name of George Orwell. It was 1944 when Orwell finished writing Animal Farm. This novel is highly political, as it is based on the Russian Revolution. In the novel, barnyard animals decide to overthrow the humans that keep them captive to create an egalitarian society where their desires of equality can be met. The animals represent political figures such as Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin. There are also animals that represent the working class of Russia. It is an extremely interesting read, and also the beginning of popularity in the dystopian genre. The entire idea of Animal Farm is to break free from the grip of a destructive society and create a society of equality. That is the idea of the dystopian genre. Another one of Orwell’s famous dystopian novels is 1984. The novel takes place in London, where the government has full power and control of its citizens. The mysterious government system is named Big Brother. You are to not question the government. Individuality is illegal. The protagonist in this novel begins to question his society’s beliefs, which is when the fight against a totalitarian government system begins. George Orwell’s work in both of these novels was revolutionary for the dystopian genre.

After severe global conflict with two world wars, authors were extremely concerned about totalitarianism. The worry of totalitarianism continued to be a relevant topic in the dystopian genre because of this. Authors expressed their fear of a crumbling government through literature. Reading literature from this time can allow us to view the world through the lens these authors viewed the world, which is a lens of anxiety. For example, Fahrenheit 451, written by Ray Bradbury, focuses on a totalitarianism government system that burns books. Authors like Bradbury worried that the government had been given too much power because of the first and second World War.

Broadening the Genre: Late 1900s

In the late 1900s, a corrupt government system continued to play a key element in the dystopian genre. However, the genre began to expand as dystopian authors focused on other global concerns.

Hippies in the 1960s and 1970s protested for love, peace, equality, and the environment. Pollution and the destruction of the environment became a concern for members of the hippie movement. Hippies promoted recycling and clean air and they coined the term ‘Earth Day’ in the 1970s. The environmental protests inspired authors to write books such as The Drowned World (1962) by J.G. Ballard. Ballard wrote his novel on a horrifying futuristic world in which global warming and solar radiation has melted ice glaciers. A jungle forest has completely taken over London, causing dangerous animal species of all kinds to roam free and cause terror. Our protagonist is Dr. Robert Kerans, who is working with a team of biologists to solve the crisis. The group of scientists are some of the only humans left alive, and they soon realize that the environment they are in is changing their bodies both mentally and physically. This novel examines how the collapse of our environment would impact humanity.

Global concerns such as human rights inspired authors as well. Another notable novel from this time was The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. Its inspiration came from the Islamic Revolution of 1979, where women in Iran were protesting their rights. The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about women who are forced to bear children for infertile couples. Atwood wrote this novel with fear for women’s rights in mind. In the novel, women have no control over their bodies because of the government. In our present time period, women all over the world are not able to dress a certain way because of their government system. The fear in The Handmaid’s Tale is a very real one.

The dystopian genre broadened into other age groups as well. The Giver (1994) by Lois Lowry was an impactful dystopian novel for young adults, which made it possible for dystopian books to be written for a younger audience. The novel follows twelve year old Jonas who lives in a compliant society without colour. However, once Jonas discovers the deep secrets his society has, he wishes to break free. I read this novel when I was in elementary school, and I adored it. It is an impactful read.

Questioning Society: Dystopian Fiction Today

In the 2000s, the dystopian genre grew significantly. Historians say this is due to the impact that 9/11 had on the world. Notable releases include The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Uglies, and Divergent.

The dystopian genre began to cater more to youth throughout the early 2000s, which is a cause of Lois Lowry’s The Giver. I believe that dystopian novels appealed to adolescents, specifically teenagers, throughout this time because teenagers were still finding their place in the world. Authors created teenage characters that are relatable so that teenagers in the real world could see pieces of themselves in novel characters. It allowed adolescents to feel more confident in themselves when they saw teenage characters similar to themselves saving the world. Teenagers also began to ask questions about society. They craved freedom, independence, and self-expression and if their guardians did not allow this, they demanded to know why.

Dystopian novels today continue to question society’s ideas of politics and norms. For example, Agenda 21 (2012) by Glenn Beck and Harriet Parke was written about a version of America with no Supreme Court. Citizens have no use to society, other than to create new human life and clean energy. You can even see undertones of criticism for politics in series such as The Hunger Games, which criticizes capitalism.

Why Dystopian Novels are Important to Society

Dystopian novels ask the crucial question of if we are running our society properly, which is why they are essential to read. Authors take current societal issues and hypothesize what our world would look like if the issue continued. It helps us to be aware of issues in society.

Novels in the dystopian genre are also just extremely fascinating to read about. I personally enjoy comparing different ideas authors have for a future world. Dystopian authors are creative, intelligent, and always think and write in a way that is intensely influential.

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