“What is Dystopia?” | Dystopia from the Rock

This week, Engen Books announced its 2019 call for submissions and focused in on Dystopia as the genre of choice for their anthology collection. As Dystopia is slightly separate from the ‘Big Three’ genres we’ve explored to far (Sci-fi, Fantasy, and Horror), we thought it would be appropriate to ask the question: “What is Dystopia?”

The word Dystopia comes from Greek heritage, where it means a society or community that is undesirable or frightening. Directly translated it means ‘not a good place’ and is used as an opposite for Utopia. In fact, many successful Dystopian stories use elements of both Utopia and Dystopia, in which a seemingly-Utopian society is revealed to be Dystopian for those of a lesser class. For a great example of this, see the 2005 Micheal Bay film, The Island description.

Dystopian stories are often allegorical. They have a hard time not being so, as depicting what we imagine to be a troubled future cannot help but have some reflection on how the author — and the reader — views the present. Dystopian novels seem to often start with the goal of answering the question: “If we continue down X path, how bad could things get?” A common hallmark of dystopian stories is that often enough time has passed that the protagonists cannot directly remember what the world was like before or were not present for the changed, making a society so different from our own that it may as well be alien.

Continue reading for some great examples to read to prep for writing your own Dystopian epic!

01Easily one of the more accessible Dystopian novels is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, not surprisingly due to the ubiquity of the author herself. The Handmaid’s Tale is an example of a certain type of Dystopian story, where even though it takes place in the future, the rights and privileges of many people have been regressed to the point that it feels like the past. Dystopian literature often has a strong theme and a point to it, and this book is no different. The Handmaid’s Tale is an icon of feminist literature, providing a stark reminder to never give up the fight to achieve and maintain equality, because there are some that would see women reduced to the horrific roles depicted in this book.


05Despite being a sub-category of science-fiction, Dystopian novels are often very simple in their executions. Dystopian novels don’t often get into the hows-and-whys of how the world got this way, instead opting to tell a story within the context of the way the world became. The Road by Cormac McCarthy is an excellent example of this: we get so little information in this novel, we don’t even get the protagonist’s name. They are simple ‘The Man’ and ‘The Boy,’ and they travel along ‘The Road,’ trying to survive in a world that has clearly gone through some horrible catastrophe. The Road almost is a different genre known as Post-Apocalyptic, the difference being that in Dystopian there is a new society that mirrors our own, wherein in Post-Apocalyptic there is often no society left. There is crossover between the two genres, however, and both are acceptable answers to the key question “what if we keep going down this path?”


bs7An important – and equally valid – deviation from the ‘dystopian future’ motif is the ‘dystopian present.’  This usually blends the dystopian genre with the alternate-history genre, making the “world changing event” not something in our future, but a different version of something in our past. A popular alternate-event is one of the defining events of the 20th Century, the outcome of World War II. This is perhaps seen best in Phillip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle, recently adapted for television. This novel actually bends one of the traditional rules above, in that the protagonists can remember what the world was like before Nazi rule — in fact that is much of the tension of the story. This book is an excellent example of how to tell an alternate history to allow your story to be dystopian while remaining present-day.


bs5Again, breaking the by-no-means-universal rule that characters tend not to remember a time before the societal change is the seminal Uncanny X-Men arc, Days of Future Past. This graphic novel is an excellent example of another deviation of the standard Dystopian idea, in which half the novel takes place in a Dystopian future and half in the present, with the present time story dealing with the event that caused the dystopia in the first place. Days of Future Past deals with this using time travel, but one could easily just have two plots that did not connect via a character but via a theme, showing the incident and the result.


03One of the most important books in the genre, by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 tells the story not of what happens to a society if one political side comes to dominate another, but simply what will happen if society begins to reject knowledge as a whole. It tells the story of a Fireman — who in this timeline are those tasked with burning all books — and his eventual disillusionment with his position and decision to fight for the resistance instead.


We hope that helps you on your journey to write the next epic genre-defining take on the Dystopian genre! If you would like to help keep Engen Books possible, you can donate as little as a dollar via the Engen Books Patreon and get cool rewards like exclusive posts and free books!

Other books / stories that are excellent for consumption by those interested in the Dystopian genre:
1984 by George Orwell
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Divergent by Veronia Roth
Matched by Allie Condie
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Running Man by Stephen King
Flight or Fight by Scott Bartlett
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
Firefly/Serenity by Joss Whedon (television)

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