From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
A dystopia (from the Greek δυσ- and τόπος, alternatively, cacotopia, Cacotopia (κακό, caco = bad) was the term used by Jeremy Bentham in his 19th century works kakotopia or anti-utopia) is a fictional society that is the antithesis of utopia. It is usually characterized by an oppressive social control, such as an authoritarian or totalitarian government.
Some academic circles distinguish between anti-utopia and dystopia. As in George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, a dystopia does not pretend to be good, while an anti-utopia appears to be utopian or was intended to be so, but a fatal flaw or other factor has destroyed or twisted the intended utopian world or concept.
Characteristics of dystopian fiction
As the overwhelming majority of dystopias are set in projected futures, dystopia is generally considered a subgenre of science fiction.
The back story
Because a fictional universe has to be constructed, a selectively-told back story of a war, revolution, uprising, critical overpopulation, or other disaster is often introduced early in the narrative. This results in a shift in emphasis of control, from previous systems of government to a government run by corporations, totalitarian dictatorships or bureaucracies.
Because dystopian literature typically depicts events that take place in the future, it often features technology more advanced than that of contemporary society. Usually, the advanced technology is controlled exclusively by the group in power, while the oppressed population is limited to technology comparable to or more primitive than what we have today.
In order to emphasize the degeneration of society, the standard of living among the lower and middle classes is generally poorer than in contemporary society (at least in United States or Europe). In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Inner Party, the upper class of society, also has a standard of living lower than the upper classes of today. This is not always the case, however; in Brave New World and Equilibrium, people enjoy much higher material living standards in exchange for the loss of other qualities in their lives, such as independent thought and emotional depth.
Unlike utopian fiction, which often features an outsider to have the world shown to him, dystopias seldom feature an outsider as the protagonist. While such a character would more clearly understand the nature of the society, based on comparison to his society, the knowledge of the outside culture subverts the power of the dystopia. When such outsiders are major characters—such as John the Savage in Brave New World—their societies cannot assist them against the dystopia.
The story usually centers on a protagonist who questions the society, often feeling intuitively that something is terribly wrong, such as Guy Montag in Ray Bradbury's novella Fahrenheit 451, Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, or V in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. The hero comes to believe that escape or even overturning the social order is possible and decides to act at the risk of life and limb; in some utopias, this may appear as irrational even to him, but he still acts.
Another popular archetype of hero in the more modern dystopian literature is the Vonnegut hero, a hero who is in high-standing within the social system, but sees how wrong everything is, and attempts to either change the system or bring it down, such as Paul Proteus of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Player Piano.
In many cases, the hero's conflict brings him to a representative of the dystopia who articulates its principles, from Mustapha Mond in Brave New World to O'Brien in 1984.
There is usually a group of people somewhere in the society who are not under the complete control of the state, and in whom the hero of the novel usually puts his or her hope, although often he or she still fails to change anything. In Orwell's 1984 they are the "proles" (Latin for "offspring", from which "proletariat" is derived), in Huxley's Brave New World they are the people on the reservation, and in We by Zamyatin they are the people outside the walls of the One State. In Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, they are the "book people" past the river and outside the city. Or in Anthem by Ayn Rand, it can be found as everybody being the same, and a government who has no intentions of moving forward.
Climax and dénouement
The hero's goal is either escape or destruction of the social order. However, the story is often (but not always) unresolved. That is, the narrative may deal with individuals in a dystopian society who are unsatisfied, and may rebel, but ultimately fail to change anything. Sometimes they themselves end up changed to conform to the society's norms. This narrative arc to a sense of hopelessness can be found in such classic dystopian works as 1984. It contrasts with much fiction of the future, in which a hero succeeds in resolving conflicts or otherwise changes things for the better.