My new SciFi novel Utopia Five is set in 2053. It’s about a post-event society that some people consider utopian and some dystopian.

Whether you live in a dystopia or not feels like it should be obvious! But is it? What is the definition of a dystopia?

An “Event”

“The Day of the Triffids” was written in 1963 by John Wyndham and the pivotal event in his book had nothing to do with carnivorous plants.

In the novel, a meteor shower renders almost everyone blind and triggers the collapse of civilisation. The eponymous hostile hostas just take advantage of a situation that has abruptly shifted in their favour.

The storyline is an example of a common 2-step process in dystopian fiction

  • An “event” triggers the sudden breakdown of society and exposes individuals to a lot of nasty and brutish stuff. The result is usually a short life for most of the characters and a willingness to accept almost anything to fix the situation.
  • A new foe appears. They are intent on genocide or enslavement, contribute to the mayhem, and make it harder or impossible to rebuild society as it was.

The 1978 novel “The Stand” by Steven King is a good example of a dystopia that follows this model: the event is a pandemic and the new foe is supernatural.

Arguably, Wyndham’s original book is the basis of all zombie fiction — “The Walking Dead” TV show is very similar in many respects and so is Danny Boyle’s 2002 film “28 Days Later”. Unlike “The Day of the Triffids”, however, in zombie flicks the event and foe are generally the same: zombies appearing is the event that causes the breakdown and they then rampage about hampering the reconstruction.

In “Terminator” (1984) and “The Matrix” (1999) machines are both the cause of society’s collapse and the enemy that keeps us all down. It’s interesting that triffids and AI are both intelligent, formerly-enslaved groups that rise up (a bit of fear of communism in the original?).

Sometimes the event that cuts the protagonists off from civilisation only happens to a small bunch. Shipwrecks or aircrashes plus desert islands are popular here — e.g. William Goldings’ 1954 novel “The Lord of the Flies” (where the foe is other schoolkids, and a very scary enemy they are).

If you want to avoid small scale events, I also wouldn’t recommend reading the Necronomicon out loud in a cabin in the woods (“The Evil Dead”) unless you’re hankering to replace your arm with a chainsaw when the bridge to civilisation goes out. Who am I kidding? Of course you are.

Gradual Descent

A sudden event is not the only dystopian trigger. Sometimes it’s more of a slow burn. In the 1979 film, “Mad Max”, society is teetering on the edge due a destabilising fuel crisis but hasn’t completely fallen over. By “Mad Max 2” it’s well into rule by gangs and in the third installment we’re all just weighing up our preferred warlord (Tina Turner obvs).

In his “Foundation” series (1942+) Isaac Asimov’s psychohistorian Hari Seldon reckons that slow collapse comes to all civilisations — there doesn’t need to be a triggering reason. You can’t avert a periodic cataclysm, you can only plan for faster recovery.

The Apocalypse

The motivating vision in dystopian fiction is usually the creation of a new civilisation that can handle the updated conditions of life and still be vaguely pleasant. The event that precipitated the collapse, however, isn’t always recoverable. Sometimes there’s no going on in any fashion at all — nice or otherwise.

In the 1957 novel “On the Beach” by Neville Shute, it’s eventually clear no human will ultimately survive their World War 3. Similarly, the 2011 film “Melancholia” is about finally coming to terms with the end of the Earth — not avoiding it.

Both are a bit depressing for me, but fiction like Shute’s played a vital part in reinforcing society’s nuclear weapons taboo, which has stopped us using them since 1945.

A variant on the armageddon theme is the last-person-on-earth story — for example 1954’s “I am Legend” by Richard Mathieson. The novel (which is much better than the film BTW) is the tale of the final human left alive after a pandemic (event) and resulting vampire rampage (foe).

Good as they all are, I suspect none of these can truly be called dystopian fiction because in the end there’s no society for the protagonists to live in. A society requires at least two left alive in your group— sorry Bruce, that also probably rules out Evil Dead.

This doesn’t count as a society

Utilitarian Dystopias

You can’t have a dystopia without a society and almost by definition it has to be a civilisation that on the surface seems different to our own or we wouldn’t see it as dystopian.

The event-plus-foe or slow-decline are often just the fictional motivation for a change in society. It’s the resulting new order that might be utopian or dystopian — depending on whether you happen to like it or not.

The British philosopher Hobbes argued in his 1651 book “Leviathan” the only thing that can ultimately save us from the collapse of civilisation is an authoritarian government. In fiction (and reality), the creation of a totalitarian state is often the response to a slow or fast civil breakdown — whether real, perceived or engineered. Such a regime appears in George Orwell’s 1949 novel “Nineteen Eighty Four”, and more recently in Suzanne Collin’s “The Hunger Games” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

Every authoritarian regime is differently dodgy but often many of the inhabitants appear oddly fine with the situation. In the 1976 film “Logan’s Run”, a society circumvents their pensions crisis by executing everyone on their 30th birthday. Surprisingly, most twenty-somethings seem pretty sanguine about that (“we’ll be reincarnated” — yeah right!).

In Paul Verhoeven’s ’87 classic “Robocop”, rampant crime is handled by giving a free hand to sociopathic corporations. Again, everyone’s fairly comfortable with that situation.

“Bladerunner” along with almost all else by PK Dick, predicts the rise of faceless mega corporations as a solution to society’s perceived ills, which are often invented by those same corporations, and our blind acceptance of that.

Authoritarian societies often only appear dystopian to characters if they are the ones personally suffering — usually that’s the protagonists. Sometimes, however, even the victims don’t seem unduly bothered. In the case of “Logan’s Run”, everyone is affected by their very short sell by date, but folk seem to have either remarkably low expectations of life or an astonishing degree of naivety.

After the event, I suspect your populace would indeed get much less demanding, so maybe there’s something to this. By Mad Max 3, I’d be happy to operate under Tina’s despotic rule — if the job came with the outfit.

Trying out the new backing singers

Our western definition of a dystopian society might be one where the will of the individual is subjugated to a ruthless larger organisation: government, corporation or warlord.

The irony is, as pointed out by Hobbe’s, that’s also the definition of civilisation. We just don’t notice being constrained as long as nothing we personally want to do is banned. The payoff is schools, hospitals and trains that run on time.

So are dystopias statistical? If the put upon group is small enough, naive enough, grateful enough, or you are just not in the persecuted bunch, then is it not a dystopia?

Do I think it’s always dystopian to be banned from doing stuff? I suspect it depends on what it is, who gets hurt and what society gets in return….

Next: My Top Ten Dystopias

My new SciFi novel Utopia Five is set in 2053. It’s a time and world-bending action adventure! Buy it on Amazon.

SciFi author interested in tech, engineering, science, art, SF, economics, psychology, startups. Chaotic evil.