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A dystopia usually refers to the disastrous result or results of attempting to make the world or humankind "perfect." It is a play on the title of the book Utopia by Sir Thomas More, about a perfect society where everybody is happy and has everything they need. In a dystopia, society has been arranged according to some plan that ends up making almost everyone miserable and needy.

The word dystopian can be used as a snarl word in many cases, particularly when applied to conservatives or rightist reformers. Anyone who wants to make the world a worse place (except for "them" and "their kind") can be called dystopian, no matter how pragmatic they are in doing so. It is often forgotten by true dystopians that one person's dystopia can be someone else's heaven.

A real-life example would be the Third Reich or the results of some of the Communist states. Interestingly, in all literary dystopias, there must be some base level of material wealth — all of the characters should be eating (or drinking), if not well, and there needs to be some kind of technology.[note 1]

Dystopia and its discontents[edit]

Journalist and prominent science fiction author Cory DoctorowWikipedia wrote about the problem of making false assumptions about human behavior during disasters in dystopian works of fiction. He started thinking about this when he witnessed long lines of people buying guns (gun nuttery), while ignoring social distancing protocols, in California following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.[1] Evidentially, when there is a disaster, people often come together to help each other,[2] but this is often not the case in dystopian fiction.[1] Doctorow came to view fiction as a thought experiment, specifically of the intuition pump variety.[1] Intuition pumps can be used properly to illustrate a problem, or improperly to prime people's motivation to think a certain way. The latter is how bad dystopian fiction uses, e.g., the idea that 'when disaster strikes, I must buy a gun because it's every person for themselves'. As Doctorow puts it:[1]

The historical evidence supports this as well. As Rebecca Solnit’s essential 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, lavishly demonstrates, crises are when our species shines, moments of great personal and group sacrifice, marred not by barbaric opportunism but by the expectation of barbaric opportunism. "Elite panic" is the sociological term for it, when wealthy people are convinced that the peasants will dissolve into bestiality and preemptively start shooting anyone who wanders into their neighborhoods during a crisis.
I think that our pulp fiction has done us a disservice, creating a commonsense assumption that we are one power failure away from Mad Max: Fury Road. The reality is ever so much messier, full of people trying to do the right thing — which still causes high — stakes, serious conflicts, but they're conflicts of good faith and sincere disagreement.

Prominent dystopian works[edit]

Dystopian environments are the setting for numerous fictional works, and the study of dystopian worlds has spawned an entire genre. The novels Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and We describe dystopian societies; all three of these novels have become icons of the genre and have enjoyed considerable critical success. We is the oldest of these and considered the innovator of the genre; most of the conventions of the genre can be traced back to We.[note 2]


The censored edition of 1984
  • Battle Royale by Koushun Takami — Kids are forced to fight each other to the death in a program run by an authoritarian Japanese government after they win WWII. The winner receives a permanent retirement package at great cost. This short description does not do it justice.
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley — Huxley's portrayal of a world of eugenics run amok.
  • The Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail (translated from the French Le Camp des Saints) — a "breathtakingly racist" dystopian novel about a migrant invasion of Europe. It's believed by Steve Bannon, among others, to be prophetic.[4]
  • The Children of Men by P.D. James — The human race faces extinction when infertility causes the birth rate to plummet to zero. The novel was the basis for a successful 2006 film directed by Alfonso Cuaron.[5]
  • The Colossus Trilogy by D.F. Jones — A supercomputer is entrusted to assume control of the nuclear defenses of the United States of North America until the computer discovers an identically functioning computer in the USSR. The two computers soon function as one and, in time, establish world peace by controlling humanity with the threat of thermonuclear destruction. The first novel, Colossus (1966) was the basis of the 1970 film Colossus: The Forbin Project. The two other books are The Fall of Colossus (1974), and Colossus and the Crab (1977).
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury — A world on the brink of war, with books suppressed by a quasi-fascist government because of demands by a populace afraid of dissent.[note 3] This book has been adapted for radio, stage, and film, as well as a graphic novel and a computer game.
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry — A seeming utopia where the worst of human nature has been eliminated is revealed to the young protagonist, Jonas, as an effective prison where the chance for people to make their own choices with their lives is gone, and thus the best things about humanity have been kept away as well. There is also some dabbling in eugenics and euthanasia, making for an incredibly dark novel for children, and yet it is often given as required reading in schools, even as early as elementary school. Lowry went on to create a loosely-related series of sequels, Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son. Jeff Bridges starred in a 2014 film version, after 20 years of attempting to get the story made. Sadly, many people felt it wasn't worth the wait.[6]
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood — the aftermath of a Christian dominionist takeover of the United States (with some help from radical feminists). Partly set (no doubt intentionally ironically) in the notoriously liberal city of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Adapted into a 1990 film and a 2017 TV series on the streaming service Hulu.
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins — Kids are forced to compete (read: kill each other) in outdoor activities by a totalitarian government.[note 4]
  • Jennifer Government by Max Barry — A world where nation-states are run by for-profit companies while government power has diminished.
  • Kallocain by Karin Boye – A totalitarian collectivist country turns out to be its own worst enemy after the chemist Leo Kall invents a truth serum that brings out the deepest thoughts and feelings of those it's used on. It turns out that literally anyone can be found guilty of criminal political incorrectness if examined with the new invention. When the country is ultimately overrun by one of its equally totalitarian neighbors, the invention and its use is naturally snatched up by them in turn.
  • Kys (The Slynx) by Tatiana Tolstaya — A satirical take on a post-post-apocalyptic Moscow terrorized by a real-life bogeyman (the Slynx of the title).
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick — An alternative history of the world in which the Axis Powers won World War II. Provided the basis for a TV series of the same name for Amazon Video's streaming service.
  • The Monitors by Keith Laumer — Benevolent, polite, and annoyingly efficient aliens launch a bloodless conquest of Earth and begin to correct all that is wrong with human society, much to the displeasure and frustration of the human race. Made into a film in 1969.[7]
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) — Stalinism (fascism) transplanted to England, the novel details the life and struggle of Winston Smith, a propaganda writer for the deceptively named "Ministry of Truth". This book has had numerous adaptations for film, TV, radio, and the stage.
  • The Postman by David Brin — A drifter in the collapsed remnants of the United States, brought down by a nuclear war while recovery efforts were stymied by a group of radical survivalists, takes on the uniform of a mail carrier and starts to set in motion the possible restoration of civilization. Kevin Costner trashed his own career by producing, directing, and starring in a notoriously incoherent movie version.
  • La Planète des Singes by Pierre Boulle — a 1963 book translated into English in the same year as Planet of the Apes, later made famous by the 1968 film (and sequels and TV show) of the same name. It's not obviously dystopian until the ending, which is slightly different in the book than in the film.
  • The Republic by Plato — Plato's supposedly utopian government has become decidedly dystopian in its ideas over the centuries, with a strict caste system, no private property, widespread censorship, eugenics, and indoctrination by the state.
  • Utopia by Sir Thomas More — More's supposedly utopian government has dystopian elements by modern democratic republic standards (slavery, lifetime rulership, no private ownership, and limited mobility).
  • V for Vendetta by Alan Moore — Follows the story of an anti-government terrorist and his young protégé in a fascist post-nuclear war Britain. (Author Moore has distanced himself from the 2006 film adaptation.)
  • We by Yevgeny Zamyatin — Considered the founding book of modern dystopian literature.


BioShock cosplay
  • BioShockWikipedia — An underwater city called Rapture is built in secret and is run along Objectivist principles. Increasing wealth inequality alongside the discovery of a dangerous gene-altering drug called ADAM with nasty side-effects (the sale of which is left totally unregulated per Objectivist ideals) collapses the city into civil war and drives most of its inhabitants insane. In the sequel, an equally fanatical altruist converts its remaining denizens into a cult espousing her own warped idea of "the greater good".
  • BioShock InfiniteWikipedia — Prequel to the above, as a city in the sky called Columbia is built to show off American power. However, the city's leaders go rogue, essentially secede from the US, and go on to build a proto-fascist, racist, dominionist theocracy dedicated to worshipping and enriching the city's leader, Zachary Comstock. The widespread repression leads to a anarcho-communist revolution, with the revolutionaries soon becoming as bloodthirsty as the Founders of the city.
  • Blades in the DarkWikipedia — A roleplaying game set in a city ringed by lightning barriers to keep out the surrounding post-apocalyptic hellscape, following the destruction of the sun and the unleashing of all the horrors that once fled from it. The nobility live quite well in their well-lit, gentrified districts. Everywhere else is controlled by warring gangs, the police are so brutal toward the non-rich that they're widely considered a particularly nasty gang themselves, power in the city is a tug-of-war between various essential service providers (with gangs frequently employed as deniable mercenaries), and the poor areas are preyed on by hungry ghosts and malicious demons.
  • Cyberpunk 2077Wikipedia by CD Projekt — a role-playing game set in a “cyberpunk” city called “Night City”, controlled by corporations and unassailed by the laws of both country and state that sees conflict from rampant gang wars and its ruling entities contending for dominance. The city is reliant on robotics for everyday aspects like waste collection, maintenance, and public transportation, and cybernetics are even incorporated into the majority of the city’s population for athletic advantages or cosmetic addition.
  • Half-LifeWikipedia by Valve — one man's struggle to release humanity from domination by an alien power and its human collaborators. Considered one of the greatest video game franchises ever, and almost never gives the player a truly happy ending.
  • Phantasy StarWikipedia (1987) by Sega — the first role-playing game set in the Algol star system of the original game series. Human civilization, currently headed by King Lassic, has developed to set out from the planet Palma and begin colonizing the other two planets. But the formerly benevolent and popular king has had a change of heart, and launched a reign of terror in which all dissent is crushed by an army of robotcops. The sister of a murdered rebel takes up the cause, and a group of four sets out to take down the tyrant, and then suddenly find themselves also facing the demon he had come to serve.
  • Phantasy Star IIWikipedia (1989, 1990) by Sega — the first sequel, set in the Algol star system a thousand years after the tyrannical reign of King Lassic was brought to an end. Life in the star system is governed by the supercomputer Mother Brain, on a terraformed planet Mota as on Palma, and the circumstances of life are engineered to be easy for the population. But all is not well, and unethical bio-engineering experiments lead to dangers. The young government agent Rolf becomes an enemy of the system after facilities are damaged when he tries to do his job and save lives. He survives his death sentence to find the shape of the greater danger in how the planet Palma has just been blown up and reduced to an asteroid belt. Ultimately, the ancient demonic Dark Force seems connected both to the great computer and to its makers (who turn out to be Earthmen who set out to find new worlds after destroying their own planet, far away from Algol).
  • Phantasy Star III: Generations of DoomWikipedia (1990, 1991) by Sega — the second sequel, set on a very large space ark, one of a fleet evacuating the planet Palma before it blew up, and on a long journey through space for a new home. A thousand years have passed since a terrible war reduced the inhabitants to living in "a world of mutated creatures and warring pockets of men", knowledge rapidly lost and life regressing to medieval conditions. Societies are largely either Orakian or Layan, the descendants of the two old warring sides, each of which elevates its ancient leader to god-like status while demonizing that of the other side. A series of events leads a young Orakian prince to set out on a journey, carried on by his son and grandson (the story branches out at each change of generation), towards rediscovery, averting danger for the space ark, and one or another end to the great journey.
  • Warhammer 40,000Wikipedia by Games Workshop — a strategy game set in a science fiction galaxy where a sadistic, hyper-repressive "Imperium of Man" (based around the worship of a messianic immortal God-Emperor who has been in a coma for 10,000 years and in whose absence the Imperium has descended into a twisted mockery of everything he worked for) is the "Good Guy" faction[note 5] because everyone else is even worse (ranging from ancient psychic space elves who see nothing wrong with killing billions of humans to save a handful of their own kind, their debauched relatives who torture innocents in unspeakable ways to rejuvenate their decaying souls, green-skinned brutes created as an ancient bioweapon by a long-extinct civilization that are driven to fight anyone and everyone nearby (including each other), soulless near-immortal zombie robots bent on rebuilding their ancient empire after millions of years in hibernation, alien locust-dinosaur things that consume entire planets right down to the crust and atmosphere, quasi-socialists who would be almost decent if they didn't have a hidebound caste system and leaders who maintain their hold over their society through mind control, and literal demons that originated from Lovecraftian space hell that want to enslave and/or destroy all of reality). Yes, the least evil faction (and one of the only factions to engage in some form of tolerance for alien species without immediately jumping to wars of conquest, if only due to the "My enemy's enemy" rationale) are the space Nazis.
  • World of DarknessWikipedia by White Wolf Game Studio — two series of games based around the same rule set, both of which share the central conceit that humanity is a bit player in a world controlled by competing supernatural conspiracies (albeit to a much lesser extent in the newer version).


  • Akira (1988) Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo — In post-atomic Neo-Tokyo, a biker gang leader finds himself embroiled in a government plot involving children with psychic powers and a mysterious messianic figure. Adapted from Otomo's 2,182-page graphic novel series, this anime is considered one of the best of the genre.
  • Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution) (1965) Directed by Jean-Luc Godard — A secret agent is on assignment in a city run by Alpha 60, an autocratic, dictatorial supercomputer.
  • Blade Runner (1982) Directed by Ridley Scott — A futuristic urban world where artificial humans called "Replicants" have a set lifespan of no more than five years and those who misbehave are executed by a roving police force. While not explicitly a dystopian story, the film is rich with themes to debate that can lead anyone to their own conclusions, including that the world in which it is set is dystopian in nature. Based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.
  • Brazil (1985) Directed by Terry Gilliam — A minor bureaucratic clerk attempts to correct an administrative error and becomes an enemy of the state in the process. It somewhat parodies famous dystopias like Nineteen Eighty Four by showing just how bungling and labyrinthine a police state like that would be (as real ones have been).
  • Death Race 2000 (1975) Directed by Paul Bartel — In the wake of "the World Crash of 1979", the populace is kept distracted by a transcontinental road race where costumed drivers of highly decorated cars score points by killing pedestrians. Based on the short story "The Racer" by Ib Melchior and co-produced by B-movie maven Roger Corman for about $500,000, it brought in over $8,000,000 at the box office. A 2008 remake spawned a film franchise.
  • Idiocracy (2006) Directed by Mike Judge — Two people are placed in cryogenic suspension as part of a one-year experiment, and are revived 500 years later. Due to the fact that stupid people have outbred smart people (and the scientists who could've stopped it were too busy working on boner pills), they are the most intelligent humans in a world populated by the profoundly stupid. Oddly, the film was more of a commentary on the dumbing-down of pop culture than it was about eugenics (or more accurately, dysgenics). Unfortunately, this film is already starting to look like a documentary.[8]
  • The Island (2006) Directed by Michael Bay — A very incoherent and messy attempt at a pastiche (that's like a spoof, except it's meant to be taken seriously) of dystopian stories. The first half of the movie deals with a vaguely defined world where humans have clones created to be harvested for surgeries, and the second half is typical Michael Bay action and car chase shit, with all his usual tricks pulled out. The only reason it's listed here is because it's his highest-rated film by critics besides The Rock, the design of the world is actually really good (it helped create the environments for the video game series Portal), and it, of course, made a boatload of money.
  • The Mad Max film franchise — Set in rural Australia, the films (all directed by George Miller) follow the title character, Max Rockatansky, a former high-speed pursuit police officer, in a post-apocalyptic landscape. The first three films (Mad Max {1979}, Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) {1981}, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome {1985 — Co-directed by George Ogilvie}) starred Mel Gibson in the title role. The fourth film, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), starred Tom Hardy, although the film is mostly centered on the lead female role, Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron.
  • The MatrixWikipedia franchise — a film about a future in which humans exist in an virtual-reality world in which everything seems normal, but in reality they are servants to their robot overlords. The filmed spawned the red pill (reality)/blue pill (virtual reality) dichotomy that became popular among the manosphere and alt-right. Ironically, the Wachowskis, who wrote and directed the film, intended the dichotomy to be a metaphor for being transgender,[9] which was lost on the manosphere/alt-right.
  • Metropolis (1927) Directed by Fritz Lang — A technological city is starkly divided between a cultured utopia for the wealthy and an oppressive underworld populated by the workers. This silent film is the first long-form science fiction movie and is considered to be Lang's masterpiece. Adapted by Madhouse Inc. into a 2001 anime film of the same name with similar dystopic elements.
  • Minority Report (2002) Directed by Steven Spielberg — Police forces have created a unit known as "Pre-Crime" in which people are arrested for crimes before they are committed. As the film makes clear, this process can easily be subverted, and people can easily be arrested just for crimes they think about committing but won't actually follow through on. Like Blade Runner, this film was inspired by work from Philip K. Dick (here a short story), which also provided the inspiration for Total Recall.
  • Planet of the Apes (1968) See La Planète des Singes in the book section above.
  • RoboCop (1987) Directed by Paul Verhoeven — In a Detroit dominated by the corporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP), that runs the Police after its privatization, the police officer Alex Murphy is transformed by OCP into the cyborg of the same name to combat the rampant crime in the city. The movie is a criticism of the unfettered capitalism of the Reagan era and its excesses[note 6].
  • Rollerball (1975) Directed by Norman Jewison — After corporations replace nation-states, the populace is kept happy and distracted with an ultra-violent sport. Based on the short story "Roller Ball Murder" by William Harrison (who also wrote the screenplay).[note 7]
  • Soylent Green (1973) Directed by Richard Fleischer — Based on Harry Harrison's novel Make Room, Make Room. In an overpopulated world, a police detective discovers a disturbing secret about a popular artificial foodstuff (this key plot twist is not from the book, where everyone being doomed to die by starvation was considered bad enough).
  • THX 1138 (1971) Directed by George Lucas — In a sterile, subterranean future, a man and a woman rebel against their structured society by falling in love.[note 8]
  • WALL-E (2008) Directed by Andrew Stanton and produced by Pixar Animation Studios — A robot cleaning up a desolate, polluted Earth discovers love and humanity. American conservatives mostly hated it; the film portrays the US in the future as (even more) corporate-dominated and consumerist, to the degree that people take "couch potato" into an "adult baby" level.

External links[edit]


  1. This rules out North Korea.
  2. Seriously, go read it. Now. It's free at Project Gutenberg.[3]
  3. The book first saw print in installments in the March, April, and May 1951 issues of Playboy magazine, and was made into a 1966 film. A remake was made in 2018. In an ironic note, the book has appeared on lists of banned and censored books.
  4. Yes, people have noticed that it is strangely similar to Battle Royale, just with a more teenage approach.
  5. Depending on whom you ask. No faction in this setting is truly a hero however you look at them, even if there are a couple of decent people within some of those factions.
  6. Besides the other two movies in the franchise, the 2014 remake received rather negative critics.
  7. The 2002 remake received almost universally negative reviews from film critics.
  8. This was Lucas' first feature, and is based on his 1967 short subject Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, produced as a student project at the University of Southern California. The feature was later re-released in 2004 as a director's cut with new footage and computer generated imagery.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 The Dangers of Cynical Sci-Fi Disaster Stories: I'm changing how I write fiction—for the benefit of the real world. by Cory Doctorow (Oct 13, 2020 9:00 AM) Slate.
  2. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit (2010) Penguin. ISBN 0143118072.
  3. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, translated by Gregory Zilboorg (1924). Project Gutenberg.
  4. This Stunningly Racist French Novel Is How Steve Bannon Explains The World: "The Camp of the Saints" tells a grotesque tale about a migrant invasion to destroy Western civilization by Paul Blumenthal & JM Rieger (03/04/2017 05:00 pm ET) Huffington Post.
  5. IMDb listing for the film Children of Men
  6. The Giver on Rotten Tomatoes/
  7. "The Monitors" listing in IMDb
  8. 10 Things 'Idiocracy' Predicted Would Happen, and Sadly Already Have by Cory Dudak (Aug 9th, 2013) Mandatory.
  9. The Matrix is a 'trans metaphor', Lilly Wachowski says (7 August 2020) BBC.