Dystopian Societies

How writers explore dark visions of the future.

The One State
The Diamond Age
Global pandemic
Data tracking

Dystopias in science fiction

The word ‘dystopia’ comes from Ancient Greek, and roughly translates as ‘bad place’. It is a common theme in science fiction, as writers imagine future societies with cruel, oppressive regimes.

The most famous example is George Orwell’s *1984*: a story about a totalitarian government using constant surveillance and thought policing to maintain authoritarian power. This chilling vision of the near future forces readers to confront real-world issues, like privacy invasion and dictatorship.


A related branch of science fiction is the apocalyptic subgenre. These stories are also about terrible, future worlds, often in the wake of a nuclear war or extreme climate change. These stories function as cautionary tales: if we do not take these problems seriously, we might lose the world as we know it.

Early dystopias

Dystopian novels have existed, in some form, since the 19th century. But the genre really came to life in the 20th century, beginning with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s *We*.

This novel was published in Russia during the early 1920s. It is set in a future society called the One State, where citizens live in glass buildings to facilitate constant surveillance. It is a highly organized, mathematical culture, where the characters are named using symbols and numbers, like Д-503 and I-330.


To begin with, the protagonist is happy with life, because he does not know any different. But over time, he becomes dissatisfied. The book asks questions about freedom of expression and human rights.

Classic dystopias

English writer Aldous Huxley wrote *Brave New World* a decade after Yevgeny Zamyatin’s *We*. The story was published in 1932, and is remembered as a dystopian classic.


In *Brave New World*, an authoritarian regime uses reproductive control to manage society as a whole. People are treated like products on an assembly line, with every person bred and brainwashed to do a certain job.

Another decade later, George Orwell wrote *1984*. In this story, the Thought Police monitor people’s thoughts and actions, punishing signs of dissent. The regime even designs a language – Newspeak – with a reduced vocabulary, and no volatile words that could be used to start a rebellion.

These books were written around the time of the Nazi Party, and the communist regime in Russia. They are unsettling visions of a future world where authoritarian regimes have taken root across the globe.

YA dystopias

In the 21st century, dystopian settings have sprung up in a number of science fiction novels aimed at young adult readers. The most popular example is *The Hunger Games*, published by Suzanne Collins in 2008.

In this story, an authoritarian regime forces children to participate in a televised death match called the Hunger Games. This brutal event serves as entertainment for the ruling class, and a reminder of their power over the oppressed districts.


The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, becomes a symbol of rebellion against this cruel regime. It is an idea which resonates with teenagers, who often feel downtrodden by society, and dream of breaking free.

Utopian fiction

In stark contrast to dystopian stories, some writers have explored the idea of utopian futures. Thomas More’s *Utopia* (1516) is the oldest example, describing an idealized society with shared ownership and a generous welfare state.


More recently, post-scarcity novels like Neal Stephenson’s *The Diamond Age* (1995) might be classed as utopian fiction. This story envisions a future world where nanotechnology has eliminated scarcity of resources, and any material can be manufactured at will.

While utopian fiction is less common than dystopian stories, both genres serve as thought experiments which invite their readers to think about society. Even in a seemingly utopian world, the characters often have difficult lives – can we have too much of a good thing?

Apocalyptic fiction

Apocalyptic fiction imagines the aftermath of global catastrophes, like pandemics and nuclear wars. Richard Matheson’s *I Am Legend* (1954) is a famous example. It explores a world ravaged by a devastating pandemic that transforms humans into vampires.


The protagonist, Robert Neville, is the last uninfected human. This is a common trope in apocalyptic stories: the last person on Earth. It gives us a dark glimpse into absolute solitude, with characters often wondering whether it would be easier to just give up.

Nuclear wastelands are another common setting, like the iconic *Fallout* video games. Players navigate landscapes filled with mutated creatures and hostile factions vying for power.

Apocalyptic stories often feel like warnings. If we do not protect the world as we know it, society could descend into something barely recognizable.

Climate fiction

Climate fiction is a branch of apocalyptic fiction that deals specifically with the impact of issues like global warming, pollution, and overpopulation.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s *The Windup Girl* (2009) is a prime example, set in a future Thailand where sea levels have risen and fossil fuels are running out.


Another example is Emmi Itäranta’s *Memory of Water* (2012) which explores the problem of water scarcity in the future. This story imagines an oppressive government seizing control of the dwindling water supply, and using it to maintain control.

In the last few years, climate fiction has become more and more common, and more and more urgent. These stories emphasize the need for global action, before resources really run out.

Dystopias in real life

In the modern world, we see echoes of *1984*’s surveillance state in the widespread use of CCTV cameras, not to mention all the personal data tracked on apps and websites. Facebook has photos of almost three billion users, along with their interests, relationship history, and date of birth.


Fake news also feels like something devised by Orwell’s Thought Police. With deepfake technology, and AI-generated voices, it will become harder and harder to tell the difference between real news stories and fake.

But despite these seemingly dystopian elements, most modern societies encourage freedom of speech and thought. Moving forward, it is important to protect these rights, and avoid a dystopian future.

What happens next?

In the coming decades, there is always a chance that humanity will face an apocalyptic event. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated the power of infectious diseases, and there will always be a threat of nuclear war unless countries decide to disarm.

But the most realistic threat that our planet faces is probably global climate change. In the last few years, hurricanes and wildfires have devastated communities. By 2025, more than two thirds of the world may be short of water, and by 2040, the Arctic circle could have melted completely away.


That does not mean we should give up hope. By addressing these challenges proactively, humanity can still avert a future like the ones envisioned in science fiction literature. If those stories were written as cautionary tales, now is the time to listen.

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