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Goals Of Dystopian Fiction, Nineteenth-century Dystopias, Twentieth-century Dystopias, Recent Directions

Dystopia is utopia's polarized mirror image. While utilizing many of the same concepts as utopia—for example, social stability created by authoritarian regimentation—dystopia reads these ideas pessimistically. Dystopia angrily challenges utopia's fundamental assumption of human perfectibility, arguing that humanity's inherent flaws negate the possibility of constructing perfect societies, except for those that are perfectly hellish. Dystopias are solely fictional, presenting grim, oppressive societies—with the moralistic goal of preventing the horrors they illustrate.

A single literary work serves as the origin for both utopia and dystopia, the latter by critical examination of the social structures it presents as desirable and good. Thomas More's Utopia (1516) depicts a fictitious country named for Utopus, its first conqueror. Having reshaped a savage land into an ideal society through planning and reason, King Utopus's benevolent reign fulfills Plato's ideal of the philosopher-king expressed in The Republic (c. 400 B.C.E.). Derived from the Greek ou ("not" or "no") and topos (place), a utopia is "no place," a land that does not exist. In addition to its social structure, utopia's pronunciation irresistibly suggests "eutopia" (eu topos), a "good place" free from civil conflict and social inequality—so a utopia is a good place that does not exist, but which is shown to be possible through social engineering.

By contrast, a dystopia (dis topos) is a "bad place," deliberately written to frighten the reader; the fact that it, too, is fictitious offers scant comfort, because it is equally possible. More's fictive land has eliminated most class distinctions, but with a concomitant loss of individual freedom and artistic creativity. John Stuart Mill used the term "dystopia" as early as 1868 (Hansard Commons, 12 March) but critics struggled for much of the twentieth century with such unwieldy terminology as "anti-utopia," "utopian satire," "reverse utopias, negative utopias, inverted utopias, regressive utopias, cacoutopias … non-utopias, satiric utopias, and … nasty utopias" (Lewis, p. 27), to say nothing of "George Knox's 'sour utopias in the apocalyptic mode' and George Woodcock's 'negative quasi-Utopias'" (Aldridge, p. 5). Given this confusing proliferation of generic labels, J. Max Patrick may be forgiven for believing that he created the term dystopia in 1952 as the appropriate categorization for Joseph Hall's 1605 Mundus Alter et Idem (Negley and Patrick, p. 298). Patrick unquestionably picked the winner, and dystopia has eclipsed these other labels as the term of choice for a burgeoning literary genre. As dystopian fiction has become more widespread and popular since the end of World War II, critics have grown comfortable in classifying dystopias based on their own generic qualities, rather than explicitly by contrasting them against utopias. The term dystopia has also grown more familiar and is commonly used to refer to any dark or unpleasant future. Finally, by the end of the twentieth century, critics seemed to have abandoned the effort to segregate dystopia from science fiction, the larger literary genre to which dystopia belongs.

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