Dark days: The fascinating history of the dystopian novel

Dystopia, or the inverse of Utopia, the ideal society, is often thought of as a relatively modern literary genre, but in fact it has a long and fascinating history. Here’s a quick run-through of some of the most significant volumes that have made us think long and hard about the societies we live in.

Revolutionary writing

Dystopia has been a recurrent theme of popular and literary fiction since way back in the eighteenth century. Evolving not simply as a response to fictional utopian concerns, but also as a response to the prevalent or ominous ideals and politics of the writer’s time, the dystopian novel tends to use its make-believe guise as a front to critique the ideologies under which they’ve been forged.

When it seeks to explore political and social shortcomings, then, these books don’t tend to be shy about their revolutionary aims. Nasty visions of totalitarian regimes and post-apocalyptic disaster scenarios litter the genre’s history, and it’s got strong links to other literary scenes, too, like travel writing, satire and, not least, science fiction. So don’t go thinking they’re all the same!

Beginning with a journey

Starting with a bang, we’ve got Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Jonathan Swift’s belting satire that’s been Disney-fied in the popular imagination into a Lilliputian jape; in fact, the novel’s a lot darker, presenting a harsh critique of various aspects of contemporary society disapproved of by the Anglican Swift. In Laputa, for instance, Gulliver meets a race who’ve taken science and rationality too seriously by far, their pointless experiments exhaust their world’s manpower and natural resources, and the traveller is unimpressed. More brutal, though, is his encounter with the Yahoos; a primitive, ugly and savage people set in start contrast with the wise and noble Houyhnhnms, a race of horses.

No better than a Yahoo

The Dystopian bit comes in when Gulliver realises that he, too, as a human, is no better than a Yahoo, and when he returns, finally, to London, and is unable to reconcile himself to this society of uncivilised Yahoos. The end is as bleak as this realization. Quite an indictment, eh? Dystopian literature flinging the sins of the present into the faces of its readers…

The dawn of thinking machines

A slightly later, but also notable, text has got to be Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (try saying it backwards), first published anonymously back in 1872; its anagrammatic title is the name of a country, based in part upon New Zealand, but intended by Butler as a satire upon Victorian society. Rather than a full-blown dystopia, Erewhon is more like a Utopia gone slightly sour.

Its real fascination came from it supposition that machines could evolve into consciousness (this was Darwin’s time, remember), and its critical reception hinged upon the scarily alluring idea of technology turned dangerous, which, of course, has recurred as a feature of dystopian literature since then.

A life of crime 

Skipping on another century, to 1925, we’ve got Franz Kafka’s The Trial, in which the unfortunate hero, Josef K, is arrested for no apparent reason and summoned to court for a crime that isn’t specified; thereafter he’s caught up in a hopeless and oppressive tangle of legalities.


Kafka is the original Terry Gilliam (for all you Brazil fans) and if anybody’s questioning the dystopian credentials of The Trial, then they’ve never dealt with a government official… Harold Pinter and Orson Welles both worked on adaptations of Kafka’s original text, and all those of us that have delved into any legal proceedings are likely to feel like we’ve starred in it…

Doublethink and soma

Not long after Josef K’s trial came Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)and Orwell’s 1984 (1949) – the Thought Police and Big Brother, Alphas and Epsilons, Doublethink and soma: the concepts may have been thoroughly incorporated into popular imagination, but it’s easy to forget the visions of rotten society from whence they derive.

In Huxley’s book, an ideally engineered world where people are artificially bred and placed in predetermined roles, nobody is dissatisfied with his or her lot – until outsiders collide with the system and violence ensues. In Orwell’s, Winston, a loyal worker, falls in love and begins to question the truth behind the propagandist society he lives in – a society that takes horrific revenge on him for his treachery. Both books take recognisable traits, desires or inclinations (eugenics, drug use, the war machine, even television) from the real world and amplify and distort them to bloated, awful effect.

A terrible tale

We could go on and on – there’s Gibson’s techno-thriller, Neuromancer, and Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the book that inspired Blade Runner – but we’ll finish instead with a feminist dystopian classic: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). It describes a military Christian theocracy where women are subjugated without the right to read, control bank accounts, or even reproduce freely, and it’s narrated by Offred, a handmaiden or sexual slave, who gets caught up in the coming revolution.

Atwood’s a dystopian pro, and this book is a veritable case-study, in the ways it picks up on tendencies in the near-contemporary world and amps them to eleven to show us the horrors that could potentially lie ahead. Like the best dystopian fiction it reflects our fearful preoccupations about the now and offers a terrifying indication of a possible future. Gulp. And, besides, like the rest, it’s a truly cracking read.

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bestshortstorywritersJoel Willans is the founder of Ink Tank and author of the short story collection, SPELLBOUND: Stories of Women’s Magic over Men. His prize-winning fiction has been broadcast on BBC radio and published in dozens of magazines and anthologies worldwide. You can find him on Twitter and Ello

12 replies

    • Ender’s Game wasnt a dystopia. They never even once mentioned that it was ‘perfect’ or trying to be perfect for that matter. Ender’s Game was a state of total war similar to many nations in WWII.

      Every character in that series had an innate understanding that the world was both far, far from perfect and that the powers which be were keeping some or all of the truth from the people.

      Excellent book? Yes. Dystopia? I think not.

      • The characters in a dystopian novel do not have to believe that their world is perfect. Although that is a common characteristic of dystopian fiction, it does not determine whether or not a book fits into the dystopian genre.

  1. “nobody is dissatisfied with his or her lot – until outsiders collide with the system and violence ensues”
    Oh really? Then I guess I didn’t read the same book as you.

  2. Notably missing was Zamyatin’s “We” in 1921! Definitely influential and essential to the writing of “1984” and “Brave New World.”

  3. Sorry to see this list missing two of the other seminal works of dystopian writing to come from the 20th century: Zamyatin’s We (a scarily prescient vision of rigorously organized society from early Bolshevik Russia) and Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a cautionary tale of thought control and the dissolution of the self within a political prison.

  4. There are many Soviet era science fiction dystopian novels that were not included. For example, “We” (1920) by Yevgeny Zamyatin wasn’t included, which inspired Orwell’s 1984, and Huxley’s Brave New World.

  5. It’s worthy to note that Brave New World and 1984 both seem to borrow heavily from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, all of which heavily focused on how the extremes of science and efficiency can impact society, and how the powers in control can mold language and class to oppress.

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