Dystopian Societies in Modern Media and Literature

Amanda Hughes


How many times have you heard external image ingsoc.jpganother person comment negatively on the state of the future of their country? How many times have you heard "if this piece of legislature passes, we're all doomed" or "if that company keeps putting the little stores out of business, they're going to take over completely"? Nearly everyone has heard some bit of "doom and gloom" mentality about the fate of their future, and most young adults hear it daily from a variety of sources. It could be from their parents, or the news, or even their teachers. Most importantly, they will run across it again and again in their literature. Dystopian societies are a popular theme in many books, as it gives the writers the ability to cast a critical eye on current issues, and play them out to their logical (or illogical, sometimes) extremes. For this reason, all young adult readers should familiarize themselves with the theme of dystopian societies in literature.

A dystopia (from the Ancient Greek δυσ-: bad-, ill- and τόπος: place, landscape) (alternatively, cacotopia , or anti-utopia) is a vision of an often futuristic society, which has developed into a negative version of Utopia. A dystopia is often characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government. It often features different kinds of repressive social control systems, a lack or total absence of individual freedoms and expressions and a state of constant warfare or violence.Dystopian authors take this mentality and play out these scenarios to their logical conclusions. They provide readers with a good look at the worst case "what if?", show how human beings may try to cope with this horrible new world, and even explore possible solutions to these scenarios. Most importantly, these authors give their readers a warning. They tell the readers that if they don't get up and fight for the cause, their horrible visions of the future may come true. As Neil Postman once said, "Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us . . .". However, someone must first realize that those gates are starting to close, and that the prison warden is coming. This is where these writers come in. In essence, dystopian writers try to provide the fuel for the machine of change, in hopes that their writings don't become true.

Looking at dystopiaexternal image 0116.bioshock_5F00_city_5F00_rapture.jpgn societies through the eyes of writers and movie directors motivate people to change. These books and movies can drive entire waves of action, possibly changing the history of their country forever. They have pointed out the negative side of the nuclear age, protested increased government involvement, and criticized a variety of wars. The dystopian novel or movie is an important tool for propaganda and protest, as well as a thrill to read or watch.


Metropolis (1927)


Metropolis is one of the oldest, and most well-known movies featuring a dystopian society. Somewhere in the future, industrialization and technological advancement are pushing human beings farther and farther away from each other. "People are divided into two groups: the thinkers–who make plans, yet don’t know how to operate machinery, and the workers–who forward production without having any overview vision." This film highlights the problems caused by the social crisis between the working class and the business class in 1920's Germany.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)


This is one of the most popular dystopian movies ever made. Set in futuristic England, this movie protests the move towards a totalitarian government. The movie also staunchly protests the use of classical conditioning in human subjects and supports the use of free will.

The Watchmen (1986)

This 1986 graphic novel illustWatchmencovers.pngrates the "worse case scenario" for the anxieties of modern America. Set in an alternate universe New York, the comic details the downsides to having incredible amounts of power in an otherwise powerless world. This is a subtle protest of America's overzealous use of military power and economic power. The comic shows that use of tremendous power can sometimes be a bad thing, and will usually lead to increased struggles in the future as people try harder and harder to overcome you.

The Age of Plastic (1980)

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The 1980s album by the Buggles details a cyberpunk dystopian future. Even the hit song "Video Killed the Radio Star" talks about the nasty side effects of the advent of television, citing it as the reason that numerous jobs in the radio industry were lost, as well as the imagination required by the listeners.

Kilroy Was Here (1983)external image Styx_-_Kilroy_Was_Here.jpg

This 1983 rock opera written by Styx is a staple in the dystopian community. The world featured in the rock opera fits the description of a cyberpunk dystopia to a T. It shows the down side of innovations in robotics, as well as the side effects of increased control from the government on the music business. The show portrays this as a strict control on the type of music that can be played.

Bioshock (2007)

external image Bioshock.jpgThis 2007 video game focuses on the type of dystopian society formed from governmental control of the economy. The lead antagonists expounds on the horrors of capitalism while his city, Rapture, crumbles around his feet due to the schism caused by the class differences that his laissez-faire, Randian government caused.The game pans almost every economic and governmental theories known to modern society, pointing out everything that would or could go wrong with them. The game also focuses on the horrors of genetic alteration, showing how the process could be abused. This focus on genetics caused the game to spawn an entirely new genre of dystopian writing, called "Bio Punk".The sequel is quite similar, though it focuses more on the trouble that collectivism can cause in an already dystopian society.


The Time Machine (1895)

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This classic by H.G. Wells gives the dystpoian genre a new twist. It creates the "False Utopia" genre of dystopian writing, in which a place initially appears to be a utopia, but the perceived image of the place quickly degrades into a hellish parody of its former self. Wells takes this genre to its logical extreme, showing a society that most men only dream of (one of decadence and carefree attitudes, where everything is supplied) and turning it into a mockery of itself, showing that the world is actually one steeped in chaos and fear.

Brave New World (1932)

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Though it was not intended as a Young Adult novel, Brave New World has made its way into many school English curricula, cementing its place in many young adults lives.This book was written primarily in protest of strict government control, and the use of selective breeding (like eugenics) , as well as numerous technological advances and sleep-learning, to control the population. The book shows a castrated world in which people are bred for the jobs that they occupy, and have little to no real "life" to them. The book pans such control methods, stating that they turn humans into robots, and that any world in which this would occur is a horrible world, indeed.

Animal Farm (1945)

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"Published in England on 17 August 1945, the book reflects events leading up to and during the Stalin era before World War II. Orwell, a democratic socialist and a member of the Independent Labour Party for many years, was a critic of Joseph Stalin and was suspicious of Moscow-directed Stalinism after his experiences with the NKVD during the Spanish Civil War." Though a bit gruesome for some younger readers, this classic is still a staple of high school literature classes. The book wholly pans the idea of Stalinism, from setting to plot to conclusion. The setting of a barnyard shows that he thinks of Stalin as "common", as well as his followers, and the plot drops the farm into a nightmarish dystopian world shortly after the Stalin-esque character takes his place as ruler of the farm.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

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A favorite in high school English and Social Studies classes, Orwell's next book takes his dystopian views even further. He uses his book to protest the increase of government control over every aspect of the citizens' lives, mirroring the conditions in Russia at the time he was writing. He showed the horrible, tightly controlled future, and through deliberate use of emotional language and sympathetic characters, created a very believable dystopian society that still has people worried for the future.

Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

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"This novel presents a future American society in which the masses are hedonistic and critical through reading is outlawed." This previously banned classic takes this ban on thought and literacy to its extreme... The main character is a "fireman", a man who sets fire to books wherever they're found and the owners are confined to a mental institution. However, through the course of the book, he discovers how very wrong this practice is, and begins to take steps to reverse this war on independent thought. The book is a critical look at the direction that humanity appeared to be going in the 50s. Americans were becoming more complacent, reveling in television, and other forms of media that inspired the audience to abandon thought.

"Repent Harlequin!", Said the Ticktock Man (1965)

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This fun short story is set in a futuristic world in which time is strictly regulated by the government. This Ticktock government keeps a firm grip on the citizens' schedules making sure that each moment is used doing something highly productive. If a citizen is late for a scheduled event, or they have indulged in a misuse of their time, "time" is deducted from their very life span. Once a citizen runs out of time, they're assassinated. The protagonist, known as the Harlequin seeks to overthrow this oppressive, schedule-crazy government. This book takes a critical look at the schedule crazy society of America in the 50s and 60s, and shows how far this "life of rushing" could go if society keeps pushing for it.

The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

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"Set in the near future, in a totalitarian theocracy which has overthrown the United States government, The Handmaid's Tale explores themes of women in subjugation and the various means by which they gain agency." This book has become an instant classic in the Young Adult genre for its exploration of civil rights and feminism through the eyes of a girl living in a highly dystopian society.

The Giver (1993)

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A Young Adult classic, this book follows the fine tradition of The Time Machine and uses the idea of a "false utopia" to get its point across. The book begins in what appears to be a perfect society, filled with perfect people. However, as the story flows, the main character learns that his utopia is really just a shell of a life. He lives without color, without song, and without love. His life, essentially, is meaningless, as are the lives of everyone in the Village. However, he learns of a solution. If he runs from the community, the villagers will regain the collective consciousness that has been locked away from them, and they will feel again. He then has to make a choice... Stay with his "family" or make his village truly human again.


Palestine in the Crosshairs:

This link takes a look at modern day Palestine, and compares it to the dystopian societies presented in fiction. It's a chilling look at what may be a real life dystopian society. This link is appropriate for ninth graders and beyond.

1984 B.C.?:

This link looks at the society of the ancient Indus, comparing their society to the dystopian societies of fiction. The society fell prey to a great deal of natural catastrophes, and in the wake of the destruction, the government took control of the citizens in a way that rivals the totalitarian governments of dystopian fiction. A wonderful link for middle and high school history classes studying ancient societies.

Instructional Ideas:

There are numerous ways to integrate dystopian literature into a class, especially in the English and History/Social Studies content areas. You could have students take something that they are displeased about in modern society and attempt to write a dystopian short story about it. You could have them analyze several dystopian stories whether book or movie would be up to you) and have them collaborate with other students to figure out the cause of the societies failure. With the numerous books and various types of media portraying these views, and the importance of this type of writing to the path of history, the options are endless.

For example, here are two lesson plans and one unit plan dealing with the ideas of dystopias in modern literature. The lesson plans deal with dystopias in general, and the unit is a unit on Huxley's Brave New World. All of the lesson plans are structured for through in grades 9-12.




Web Resources

Exploring Dystopia:

This site is an in-depth exploration of the use of dystopian societies in a variety of medium. It is a wonderful resources for researching connections between a variety of dystopia-themed books and movies.

Information Database: The Cyberpunk Project:

This link leads to a spectacularly in-depth database for any and all kinds of media concerning the cyberpunk genre of dystopian writing. Its a great place to find a wide variety of interesting media examples for the genre.

Dystopia + Identity in the Age of Global Communications:

This link leads to an art gallery full of works inspired by dystopian themes, as well as numerous literary essays discussing the topic.