Dystopias versus Utopias in Writing

dystopiaWe’ve heard a lot about the world going down the tubes these past few weeks. Since I don’t have much to add to that debate – except my support for minorities and general leftist attitude – I thought I’d look at something related but different: utopias and dystopias in writing.


According to Wikipedia a utopia is an ‘imagined community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities’. The term was coined by Thomas More in the sixteenth century in his book of the same name. He and many after him have described various versions of a perfect society. Actually, many before him did as well, going as far back as the ancient Greeks, and many even before that.

So, what makes something a utopia? Well, the Wikipedia definition talks about ‘highly desirable’ qualities. In other words, it really depends on the person you ask. One man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia. One of the reasons, I think, why we don’t live in a utopia is that we don’t share the same ideas of what our utopia would be. To take it to an extreme, a misogynist will probably not share a feminist’s ideas of utopia.

Looking at it another way, a utopia is everybody’s ‘ultimate’ society. A lot of political debate is about how to structure society. As a result, most political parties have some idea of a utopia and how to achieve it. If they don’t, you can usually infer one from their ideas. If not, it’s not a very good political philosophy.

Some examples. Those keen on ecological matters will point to a utopia of green energy and humans living in harmony with nature. Libertarians see a society where those that work hard are free do to whatever they want and reap the benefits of all they have worked for, while the poor stand meekly aside and try to work harder to catch up to their hard-working peers. As I said, one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia.


The dystopia is the opposite of a utopia. An imagined community or society that possesses highly undesirable or flawed qualities. Again, this definition is as subjective as that of a utopia.

Of course, there are a lot more ways to create a dystopia than there are to create a utopia. Every ailment you can think of can be drawn to the extreme to make a dystopia. Climate change, authoritarian government, the power of multinational companies, and so on and so forth. Just about anything you can imagine that is horrible can be used to create a dystopian society out of.

As a result, there are a lot of different subgenres of writing concerning dystopias, especially in Fantasy and Science Fiction. This goes hand-in-hand with the apocalyptic genre. Note, though, that these are different genres, even if they are sometimes combined. Apocalyptic writing deal with extinction-level events, while dystopian writing deals with flawed societies. Apocalypses can cause dystopian societies to emerge, and vice versa, but they are not the same thing.

In stories

There are a number of stories on utopias and dystopias. There is of course Utopia by Sir Thomas More, Plato’s Republic, and arguably Gulliver’s Travels. On the dystopian side are of course the famous 1984 and Brave new World, which show some disturbing ways society can go wrong.

Cyberpunk is a science fiction subgenre that focuses on high-tech dystopias, where big corporations are powerful and people are not. Famous books in that genre are Neuromancer and Snow Crash.

Interestingly, a lot of books start with a society that looks like a utopia on the surface, but underneath that layer of shiny veneer is the dystopia. Taking a sidestep to scifi movies, Demolition Man follows this concept.

As I said above, just about any type of badness you can think of, there’s a matching dystopia. From exploitation by the elite (Elysium) to the fear of human contact (The Naked Sky). And let’s not forget Soylent green, although I won’t spoil the plot here.

Why utopias don’t work in stories

All in all, dystopian settings far outnumber utopian ones. The reason is simple. Stories are about conflict and utopias lack that. Without conflict there is nothing to push a story forward, and you might as well be describing how paint dries. Unless of course the utopia is secretly a dystopia and conflict is brewing under the surface.

Dystopias are a far better source of conflict. Highly undesirable qualities in a society will inevitably lead to people suffering. That suffering alone is a conflict. If there are winners and losers in the dystopian society that places people at odds with each other, creating even more conflict.


Given recent events, I think we’ll be seeing an uptick in dystopian stories the coming years. As with 1984 and Brave New World, the scary part is how close to home some of those dystopian books can hit a few years down the line.

We live in interesting times.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands