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Dystopia

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A genre of fiction about negative futures.

Etymology

The word is a play on Thomas Moore's Utopia, literally, "No Where," a Greek neologism, referring to an ideal future. The word "dystopia" was first used by John Stuart Mill in a speech given before the British House of Commons in 1868, in which Mill denounced the government's Irish land policy: "It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable."

"Dys-" is a learned form equivalent to "dis-" as in "disinformation" and orginates in Greek, "a prefix, with a bad sense".[1] "Topos" is Greek, a place.[2]

The best-known examples of dystopic fiction in the 20th century are Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's (the pen name of Eric Blair) 1984. Huxley briefly taught Blair French at the Eton public school in Great Britain. He also congratulated Blair on the publication of his book in 1949, calling it " profoundly important." In the same letter he wrote: "Within the next generation I believe that the world's leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience." [3]

Other important 20th century dystopic writers include Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of We, a novel set in the far future about a mathematical technocracy. Zamyatin was both a witness to the Russian Revolution and a member of the British proletariat when he worked at the Tyne shipyards and lived in the Newcastle suburb of Jesmond, all of which influenced the novel, completed in 1921.

Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which became the basis for the Ridley Scott film Bladerunner, also features a dystopian future with an earth devoid of live animals, except for humans.

Brave New World

1984

We

Philosophical objections

"Rail, rail against the dying of the light" Tennyson wrote in his famous poem, but it is a tenet of different magical and philosophical systems that actively denying a negative lends it the strength of a positive, so that some believe dystopian fiction fails to live up to its intended purpose, which is to avoid a negative future. Rather than fighting against a dark world and thus contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy, critics of the dystopian genre believe it is more important to visualise a positive outcome and work towards that end.

 

An example

Page nameDescription
Nineteen Eighty-FourA critically acclaimed and some have said all too prophetic warning about totalitarian government.


References

  1. Walter W. Skeat, Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, 1884, 1993, Hertfordshire
  2. Ibid.
  3. Huxley, Aldous (1969). Grover Smith. ed. Letters of Aldous Huxley London. Chatto & Windus.