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Friday, July 29, 2011

What is the difference between dystopia and utopia?


How do you define dystopia? What about utopia?

Many people don't know the difference between the two, because the line can be very thin. Hopefully, this article will help you discover the specifics of each. The key differences between dystopian and utopian fiction can be found in how the story is constructed and told.

Dystopia usually presents a story told out of despair. Utopia presents the "prime directive", so to speak, of a message of hope and occasionally, overwhelming so. Dystopia normally has an overwhelming message of warning.

Dystopia, more often than, makes use of "big government" and military, using tactics of intimidation and sometimes mind control; often a sole evil head of government is responsible or a representative of the oppression. Usually, there is a hierarchy that works to the advantage of government loyalists, especially those who never question it's ultimate control. Those outside of the government are seen as lower on the totem pole. Utopia usually has a sort of Council or more of a communal society, where decisions are made based on the "greater good."

Utopian societies are generally based on the so-called equality of all humankind. Meanwhile, dystopia presents societies based on segregation, inequality, and oppression. Many times the equality of the society in utopian fiction is an illusion.

While it's true that most utopia masquerades under the guise of dystopia, the difference is sometimes only in perspective. Is the story told from a perspective of despair or of hope?

If the ending presents hope as an option, then the story more than likely has more utopian qualities. If the message is without hope or full of distress and pain, then it would more likely lean toward dystopia.

The truth is that the line is very thin and both genres can have aspects of the other.

Here are some general guidelines for making the distinction:

Big government and military, evil government leader
Segregated and oppressed society
Underlying message of despair and warning

Council (or similar) whose members who work for the "greater good"
Integrated and communal society
Underlying message of hope

Using these guidelines, 1984 is a clear dystopian tale and The Giver would fit well with utopian fiction. For newer titles, The Hunger Games would lean closer to dystopian, as would a book I recently reviewed, Divergent. So far, a few of my other recently reviewed titles, Burn Bright and Incarnate, would be hovering closer to the side of utopian.

Utopia is often grouped together with dystopia and, in some cases, the terms have seemingly become interchangeable. Generally speaking, most utopic books can be considered dystopic, but dystopic books cannot all be considered utopic.

Both sub-genres have their individual merits and both carry important messages for society. Personally, I love utopia and dystopia; I really don't think I could choose one. They are both WAY TOO MUCH FUN. If you haven't given either a chance, I suggest that you give them a try!


Gaby said...

Thanks for the post! I was always confused about Utopia / Dystopia! Obviously it depends on the perspective of the character who is telling the story and also the reader.

The Readventurer said...

Both of them are a sweet dream for me:) (but you already know that)

Lyndsey Lore (Strangemore) said...

Psssht. Don't kid yourself. We both know that the only thing you dream about is me. ;-)

Lyndsey Lore (Strangemore) said...

Thanks, Gaby. I did a bit of research about it on my own and there wasn't anything that really laid out the structural differences. There's still some crossover obviously. These are probably two of the most confusing sub genres.

John said...

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Rhiannon said...

I would argue that The Giver by Lois Lowery is not a utopian work. The illusion of community and equality in Jonah's imagined world ultimately *oppresses*. The "message of hope" is ambiguous at best, because the hope comes from departing the community, not from embracing it.

Rhiannon said...

I think that we have to be more precise when discussing Utopian Literature here. The post above is ultimately confusing for people, and labels "dystopian" works of fiction as "utopian" (like The Giver, which is very much a dystopian work). And the set of "characteristics" used above shouldn't be guidelines. Utopian fiction has a very narrow set of guidelines: Utopian Fiction imagines an Ideal Society. The author of a Utopian work wholly, unironically embraces the ideals of the society. The End.

Utopian literature comes along once in a great while, and is usually written by a philosopher who imagines a better future. His writing delineates how this world would be created and how it would function. The works (Utopia by Sir Thomas More, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman) outline how much better life would be if the world were "this way" - and they do so without a touch of irony. They are sincere - which is where Lyndsey Lore most likely got the "message" of hope she mentions above.

Can you look upon the "worlds" of The Giver, Burn Bright (have not yet read), and Incarnate (have not yet read) and get the sense that the authors BELIEVE in these worlds? That they are using their literature to market their idealist visions to the masses? If not, it is most likely (but not definitely**) a Dystopian work. 

**By the way, Dystopian works function to criticize an "idealized state." If you can't figure out WHAT a dystopian work is specifically critical OF - it might not be a dystopian novel at all, and might just imagine a sh*tty future for us all.

Lyndsey Lore (Strangemore) said...

Actually, many view Thomas More's Utopia as a satire, believing that he was not sincere and did use irony with regards to his "perfect society." In fact, many would argue that his idea of a utopian society is in fact a dystopia, wherein lies the problem. I'm not saying that his book Utopia isn't utopian fiction, just that the idea of a utopia is inherently flawed. There is no perfect society.

I believe that there is a clear disconnect between books like The Giver and books like 1984 and feel that there needs to be a better classification for the differences between the two types of stories. Many people would much rather read a book with a message of hope and less severe forms of control like that which we find in The Giver, as opposed to the fear and terror of a society ruled by torture and severe totalitarianism like in 1984.

My intention wasn't to create an end-all-be-all for the definition of dystopian, but more of a suggestion on how to classify different forms of a genre. This post was really designed as a way for people to differentiate between two different methods of storytelling.

Zanz said...

While the points mentioned above do have some merit I would have to argue that the two terms are very much black and white with the only grey area being the problem of determining WHICH it is because of the perspective of the story. The society itself is still one or the other.
As a very quick example someone in the higher echelons of a dystopian society might be treated very well with perks and comforts the average person does not. If they are unaware of the other ranks of society it may appear utopian to these people.
The lower echelons of the same society would be put to work for many hours a day to sustain the higher. constant surveillance and minimal 'social' free time, with sinister undertones along the lines of 'if you don't work society collapses' interlaced in the media.
The very state of existence the lower echelons experience could be enough grounds to label it a dystopia. But IMHO, a society in this genre is very much one or the other.

Amy said...

How is it that we have not read here the derivation of these words? Both end in "topia"-- what does that mean in Latin? We know the prefix " dis" has a negative connotation just from a quick review of zsuch words as disease (dis ease) or disassociate (dis associate) or even dismal -- although admittedly the latter presents a puzzle, as " mal" usually means "bad" as in "malodorous".

Amy said...

"Utopia" : mid 16th century, from the Greek "ou" meaning "not" and "topia" meaning "place"; "dys" is from the Greek meaning "bad" . OED

Thus we can figure out that not place or utopia is a place that does not exist; it is merely an idealistic fantasy, whereas a bad place can, indeed, exist.

Amy said...

Dismal is derived from medieval french norman english and referred to the two unlucky days each month, the dies mali.

( you can't guess them all)!

ABC said...

Many people have this very wrong. The difference between a dystopia and a utopia isn't how the story is told, however, it is about outside influences. Very confusing, I know but stick with me.
If a society has outside influences (ie America) it is tehnically classified as a dystopia because of these influences. That doesn't mean America is bad and we all live in poverty except the "big bad government."
Now, other societies (ie North Korea) don't have outside influences, they don't have people travel inside the country or bring things from the outside world.This would classify them as utopia even though almost everyone there is miserable.
Just thought I would share my knowledge. Hope it helps.

descsdasd said...


Richard Jackson said...

thats kinda rude bruh

urrmom said...


Jackie said...

Is Night at the Museum 1, 2 and 3 all dystopia or utopia?

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