What Are Dystopias?

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

- George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 3

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What does it mean to say, as so many now do, that we live in "dystopian" times? With widespread anxiety introduced by Brexit, the Trump presidency, and comparisons with Hitler, and the 1930s, and environmental catastrophe looming, are we on the cusp of a new dystopia? Gregory Claeys considers what dystopia means to us, how the literary tradition helps us to engage with it, and what to do about it.

Greg Claeys is the author of the recently published Dystopia: A Natural History.

Listen to University of Oxford podcast episode: Dystopia Today

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A utopia is a paradise, a dystopia a paradise lost. Before utopias and dystopias became imagined futures, they were imagined pasts, or imagined places, like the Garden of Eden. “I have found a continent more densely peopled and abounding in animals than our Europe or Asia or Africa, and, in addition, a climate milder and more delightful than in any other region known to us,” Amerigo Vespucci wrote, in extravagant letters describing his voyages across the Atlantic, published in 1503 as “Mundus Novus_,”_ a new world. In 1516, Thomas More published a fictional account of a sailor on one of Vespucci’s ships who had travelled just a bit farther, to the island of Utopia, where he found a perfect republic. (More coined the term: “utopia” means “nowhere.”) “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726) is a satire of the utopianism of the Enlightenment. On the island of Laputa, Gulliver visits the Academy of Lagado, where the sages, the first progressives, are busy trying to make pincushions out of marble, breeding naked sheep, and improving the language by getting rid of all the words. The word “dystopia,” meaning “an unhappy country,” was coined in the seventeen-forties, as the historian Gregory Claeys points out in a shrewd new study, “Dystopia: A Natural History” (Oxford)...

Continue reading Jill Lepore's article: A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction

Further Reading

A dystopia (from the Greek δυσ- "bad" and τόπος "place"; alternatively, cacotopia, kakotopia, or simply anti-utopia) is a community or society that is undesirable or frightening. It is translated as "not-good place" and is an antonym of utopia, a term that was coined by Sir Thomas More and figures as the title of his best known work, Utopia, published 1516, a blueprint for an ideal society with minimal crime, violence and poverty.

Dystopian societies appear in many artistic works, particularly in stories set in the future. Some of the most famous examples are George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society. Dystopian societies appear in many sub-genres of fiction and are often used to draw attention to real-world issues regarding society, environment, politics, economics, religion, psychology, ethics, science, or technology. However, some authors also use the term to refer to actually-existing societies, many of which are or have been totalitarian states, or societies in an advanced state of collapse and disintegration...

Continue reading the Wikipedia article on Dystopia

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Related Topics

If you’re interested in dystopian fiction, check out some of the following related topics for more resources:

 Global Catastrophic RisksThe Future | Literature

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