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Dystopian Fiction: What is it Really?

It’s Dystopia Week on and, when I saw that (a week or so after I started writing this post – yeah I’m slow!), I thought it made my rant thoughts on the subject even more timely. Dystopian fiction seems to be the latest Big Thing, especially in Young Adult fiction which is really exploding into genres beyond the couple it tentatively dipped into back when I was a teen.

But are these books actually dystopian, or are they some other sub-genre and we’re all simply repeating the same mistake, heard from each other?

This has occurred to me a few times over the last couple of years, but I think now’s a good time to look into exactly what a dystopian world actually is. See, I started reading Wither recently, a new YA release by first-time author Lauren De Stefano. I’m only a hundred pages in, and I don’t really understand the futuristic world she’s created here yet – the information doesn’t quite make sense but I’m hoping it will come clear before the end – but I noticed when I added it to my Goodreads library that over 200 people had tagged it as dystopian.

(I’m not the only person who’s noted the blurry understanding in YA fiction here – Gwenda Bond has a post up on Tor’s website about the YA dystopian fiction that, I was relieved to see, also talked about how many YA novels are more post-apocalyptic or even straight sci-fi than dystopian. It’s a great post about YA dystopian fiction in other ways too; I hope you get a chance to read it.)

Sometimes you can’t tell until the end whether a book is one sub-genre or the other; you have to finish it and get the whole picture to feel confident about tagging it. But dystopian books should be evident from the very beginning. To compare Wither with another new release in YA, Lauren Oliver’s Delirium (which I’ve yet to write my review for), the latter is clearly dystopian right from the beginning. Wither, on the other hand, has a few little elements of dystopian fiction (barely) but is really post-apocalyptic science fiction more than anything else.

What’s the difference? Let’s be clear about what a dystopia actually is.

  • It’s either a sub-genre of Science Fiction, or it’s Speculative Fiction (the kind that you’ll find amongst regular Fiction, not on genre shelves, especially if it’s Margaret Atwood or a classic).
  • It’s the opposite of a utopia, but not in the sense of a world destroyed. It’s the opposite in the sense of a society claiming it’s free, happy, perfect – and clearly (to us) it’s not.
  • It often has a totalitarian government or some other kind of totalitarian ruling power in place, keeping everyone in line, and sometimes a police or military force who are figures of intimidation and control. The common objective is to prevent people from questioning the status quo.
  • Nothing ever changes, day-to-day. It’s all about conformity and unity and knowing your place/role in society.
  • The population are convinced, through propaganda and never having experienced anything different, that they ARE happy and live in an ideal world. Thus you can have a dystopian world with no noticeable policing force, because the people do it to themselves. A great example of the ultimate mind fuck.
  • Beneath a veneer of idealism lurk dark truths, repression, even brutality – if someone goes against the fold. It’s all about sheep vs. goats.
  • The dystopian society is usually a futuristic one, and there may have been an apocalyptic event, but the necessary ingredients are harmonisation, uniformity, oppression, a pretence at perfection and happiness, conformity and a lack of individuality.
  • It’s not really about survival – the HOW – but about the WHY: why is society this way? What happened? What kind of society is this and what does it say about our own?

  • It is not any and every world set after an apocalyptic event. Consider the sub-genre “post-apocalyptic” before you think “dystopian”.
  • It is not any futuristic society that involves struggle and a fight for survival – most of these are science fiction or some other sub-genre within it.
  • There does not have to be active, physical resistance but there is usually a conflict of some kind, between an individual or group of individuals and the organised society, or status quo – it can be philosophical/psychological rather than aggressive.
  • For more on what dystopian fiction is, check out John Joseph Adam’s post on

    To return to my example of Wither, the book doesn’t meet these criteria. It is set in the future, after an apocalyptic event, the repercussions of which are still strongly felt. Society is in disarray. There is no sign yet of any cohesive ruling power in place. There is no illusion of happiness. It is a world of survival and brutality, where young girls are kidnapped and sold to have more children before they all die at age twenty, where men live only five years longer, all dying at twenty-five. While alive, they try to survive and otherwise do as they please.

    The only element of dystopia I’ve encountered so far in Wither is that what began this devastating cycle was scientific intervention: genetically engineering babies to be long-lived and free of disease, and conquering all major diseases. But this is straight-up Science Fiction rather than Dystopian. Yes, the domination of science over nature is a recurring theme in dystopian fiction, which generally features a society that is so repressed and sterilised and forced into a uniform mould, that the earthy, the organic, the natural is relegated to sin, or turned into the enemy.

    That one element in Wither, mentioned above, does not automatically make it a dystopian novel. What is it then? Post-apocalyptic, definitely. Science Fiction, absolutely. Speculative Fiction, naturally. But I would argue that it is not Dystopian, not when there’s no supposedly-utopian society in place, no party line, no governing body of any kind – to be honest, I’m more interested in how this world operates than in the heroine’s personal story, and thus increasingly frustrated because it’s not explaining how things work. But, I’m nowhere near finished yet.

    There are some fantastic dystopian books out there, both classics and new or modern releases, in different age groups. I’ve read several, and have yet more on my shelves to read. Here’s a selection to get you going:

    We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

    If there’s an epitome of a dystopian novel, it would be We. Published in 1927, it’s the book that inspired Brave New World and 1984 and was inspired in turn by the author’s experience working in the Newcastle (England) shipyards during WWI (not by Stalin, as you’d expect). In this world, people have letters and numbers, not names, and it’s the ultimate conformist society, living in a domed city of harsh lines and concrete, while beyond lurks the wilds, the natural world that must be kept out at all costs. When D-503 meets I-330, he becomes rather obsessed with her and discovers a secret world under the One City that his mind simply can’t handle.

    It’s a genius of a novel, and cleverly written.

    My review.

    Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

    More famous than its predecessor We, Brave New World was first published in 1937 and presents a distinctly dystopian society where humans are genetically engineered and hatched rather than born; a world where every person has a clearly delineated place in society, where sex is liberated but natural bodies are repressed (as in, no pregnancy, no motherhood). The population sees it as the perfect arrangement, and there’s no regime to fight here. It speaks to many themes, but at its very elemental I love how it shows the single-mindedness of a given society, how something can be understood as “normal”, “natural” and “the way things are” – a direct comment on our society where, while we do question things, there are still always these notions that some things are “natural” and “right”, when really it’s a matter of perspective, social conditioning and historical pressure. Say something enough times, and it becomes “true”.

    My review.

    Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

    This one probably doesn’t need an introduction, or a summary – even if you haven’t read it I’m sure you’re familiar with it. The dystopian world presented here is the aggressive, totalitarian kind – a guise of protectiveness, unity and harmony barely hides a deeply repressed and fearful society. It makes me think of what Germany – and other places – might have been like if Hitler had won.

    First published in 1949.

    Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

    I can’t tell you the details – even now I refuse to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read this gem of a book – but it’s an alternate history novel, set over the 70s, 80s and 90s, that presents a dystopian society – wonderful for some, but bad news for a select minority.

    This is a deeply sad and tragic novel, especially as the individuals are so apathetic about their fate, so accepting. It’s the scariest thing, and yet we are like that all the time in our own society.

    My review.

    Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

    Although I was disappointed with the ending, the premise is exceptional. Society has identified a demon in its midst: books. Books make people feel stupid, therefore, get rid of them. Outlaw them. Anything that confronts people, makes them feel uncomfortable and upset, is often the source of censorship, and that’s what lies behind this dystopian world. When a “mob” gets a single idea, it becomes a mindless force that can’t be beaten. Here, also, the people police themselves.

    My review.

    The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya

    I just got this the other day so I haven’t read it yet and I can’t give many details about it, but it’s a post-apocalyptic dystopian fantasy set two hundred years after civilisation was destroyed by the “Blast” (probably nuclear). People are divided and categorised into roles and groups – there are serfs, mutations, and those with designated jobs – a caste system. And there are Saniturions, who watch for any sign of Freethinking.

    I love this last line in the blurb: “[It’s] a vision of the past as the future in which the future is now.” It’s also been described as postmodern, which makes me nervous! First published (in English) in 2003.

    The Iron Heel by Jack London

    First published in 1907, this is another I haven’t read yet. It’s commonly considered the first modern dystopian novel, featuring an oligarchic tyranny which obliterates the middle class, creating a class of serfs to do unpaid labour. It’s a story of political resistance and tragic love. It also makes predictions (that haven’t come true) of a breakdown of the American republic, as well as international empires and oligarchies forming.

    Delirium by Lauren Oliver

    This YA novel, released just this year, is clearly Dystopian. It presents a near-future America which has turned love into a disease, a curable disease that, if left untreated, causes all the problems in the world. The cure is a kind of lobotomy that is surgically performed when people turn eighteen; afterward, they are almost emotionless but content. It’s also a society that polices itself, aggressively so. What’s interesting is how hard it is for us, the reader, to understand this belief system that is so drastically different from our own – how these people could want this. Nevertheless, there is resistance.

    My review is upcoming.

    The Giver by Lois Lowry

    First published in 1993, The Giver is similar to Delirium in its basic premise: one element of our world has been identified as the cause of human unhappiness, and obliterated. I won’t tell you what because if you haven’t read it it’ll spoil it for you, it’s so cleverly revealed.

    This is also a society where everyone has a designated role, decided upon by the community or rather a group of leaders. In fact, most things are decided for you – the fewer things an individual has to decide for themselves, the “happier” they will be.

    My review.

    Battle Royale by Koushan Takami

    One of my favourite books, this is also a sheer horror novel set in a dystopian world in which whole classes of high school students are sent on what they think is a field trip, but on the bus ride they’re gassed and wake up on an island with exploding collars on their necks. They’re each given a bag that can contain weapons of all kinds – some more lethal than others – and ordered to go forth and kill each other. There can only be one survivor – one winner.

    The motivation behind this methodical – and socially approved – method of keeping youth in line isn’t explored at any great depth, more hinted at, but that only makes it more provocative. The not understanding fully drives you mental. It’s like watching that horror movie, Cube – you never learn who’s behind it or why and that’s part of the terror.

    As soon as I read The Hunger Games I noticed the similarities between it and this older novel, but Suzanne Collins insists she’d never heard of it and I’m not one of those people who think two people – or cultures – with no contact can’t come up with the same ideas. It happens all the time. Take the written language, for instance. 😉

    My review.

    Other dystopian fiction:

    The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
    The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld
    The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
    The Running Man by Stephen King

    Got more to share? My mind’s gone blank!

    You can see a list of books commonly categorised as dystopian on Wikipedia, here.

    Just keep in mind – dystopian books are Science Fiction first, being the parent genre, and just because things are crappy it’s not necessarily “dystopian”.

    One day, when I’ve read enough of the genre, I’ll have to do a Top Ten post on my faves. 🙂

    Books often mis-identified as dystopian include:

    The Road by Cormac McCarthy – this book is post-apocalyptic speculative fiction. It’s a shitty world but that doesn’t make it dystopian.

    How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – a modern-day WWI feel to this YA novel, with the heroine shipped off to live with her cousins in rural England, does not a dystopia make.

    Blindness by Jose Saramago – I had this categorised as dystopian fiction on Goodreads and it pulled me up short. I don’t remember it being dystopian at all. It’s apocalyptic fiction, speculative fiction, but what’s dystopian about it? I removed that tag.

    A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr. – this is pure post-apocalyptic Science Fiction. It’s also rather dull – I’ve been “currently reading” it for over a year now and am only halfway through. Not sure if I’ll ever go back to it.

    Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood – again, this is Speculative Fiction and Science Fiction (as much as Atwood hates her work to be relegated to a genre, there’s no escaping it), but I wouldn’t call this Dystopian. It’s a post-apocalyptic world with flashbacks to a Science Fiction world. I’m not sure where the dystopian label comes from for this one.

    Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer – this YA apocalyptic novel has no dystopian elements to it, but as Bree (All the Books I Can Read) pointed out, it gets put on lists of dystopian novels. And why? Because of this idea that any speculative novel where people are struggling to survive is automatically dystopian. The thing about dystopian worlds is that, often the people aren’t struggling at all. It’s an almost (I hesitate to say this) socialist world, and is often considered a genre that stems from capitalist countries’ fear of socialism. A discussion for another day…

    Got more to add?

    33 comments to Dystopian Fiction: What is it Really?

    • Fantastic post Shannon!


      Shannon Reply:

      @Marg, Thanks Marg, glad you liked it!


    • I love these posts you make Shannon!

      I read Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer last year for a Dystopian challenge, picking it off a list constructed for the challenge, but the world wasn’t dystopian at all for me. Definitely post-apocalyptic but there was pretty much no mention of authority or governing body at all – it was every man for themselves and the main characters had almost zero interaction with others.

      I think with the dystopian wave rolling through (especially) YA fiction, the label is being applied to novels that don’t qualify simply to drum up interest. Or people are confusing post-apocalyptic traits with dystopian traits and labeling novels both, when really they’re usually one or the other (and sometimes, neither). There’s also a high amount of “dystopian-lite” which is where we’re told there’s so much oppression but it’s never actually very obvious, or scary. Lives seem almost normal but we keep being reminded by our protagonist that really, everything is terrible and hopeless. The world-building is really lazy in some.

      Do you consider Obernewtyn to be dystopian as well? I do in some cases, because although Obernewtyn itself is far removed from society mostly, there are clearly parts of the world that are under strict control and the Herder faction see nothing of torturing and killing those who don’t comply, or are different, like the Misfits. This is pretty evident when Domick lists the stuff he has to do while working undercover for the Council. But a lot of the action does take place out of the range (or knowledge) of the powers that be. For me the dystopian element in those novels are a tiny side-plot that sometimes hinders the real plot of preventing the Destroyer and a second apocalypse.

      I really, really need to read 1984. It’s been sitting on my shelf for probably well over a year now.


      Shannon Reply:

      @Bree, Life as We Knew It? Oh that’s a great example – not dystopian at all!! It’s apocalyptic, probably put it in sci-fi too ’cause of the moon, or just spec. fiction, but you’re right, there’s nothing dystopian about that book. The post on talked about how publishers are using the dystopia label for YA science fiction – what’s wrong with using sci-fi? I mean, why can’t they say that such-and-such a book is science fiction if it’s YA?

      I think you’re on to something – “dystopian” sounds “way cooler” than science fiction somehow. It’s such a fad though, and a real shame.

      I’m not sure about Obernewtyn. I never considered it dystopian, but I did see it on Wikipedia’s list (which isn’t definitive of course). There is the oppressive Council, though, and there are elements of resistance for sure, but I’ve always considered it post-apocalyptic fantasy. I agree Bree, the dystopian elements are there but not the focus of the story.

      I actually haven’t finished 1984 yet! I got to a critical part of the novel then had to move to Japan, and because I’d borrowed someone’s copy I didn’t take it with me, and I’ve simply never got around to finishing it. Now that about 10 years have gone by I think I can safely start from the beginning again! I do recommend it though. It’s quite chilling and thought-provoking.


      Bree Reply:

      @Shannon, I agree that the term “sci-fi” has fallen out of favour because people tend to regard it as lame, in a Star Trek sort of way! Dystopian has a much better ring to it and doesn’t bring up a lot of those (for want of a better word) geeky connotations!

      People seem to consider any type of suffering to be enough to class a novel as dystopian these days when really, the -why- of the suffering is the most important part. That seems to get forgotten.


      Shannon Reply:

      @Bree, Wonder if they did some kind of marketing survey and found teenagers hate science fiction? 😉

      That’s exactly it: the WHY of the suffering. The Road isn’t about the why, it’s about survival, and there’s nothing oppressive in a social sense. Dystopian is about society oppressing itself in some organised way. (I should go back and add all this in – see how great discussion is for clarifying your thoughts and making you think of things in new ways?! Love it!)


    • This is a GREAT post. I have been getting quite irked recently at the number of “dystopian” novels that ARE NOT dystopias. It seems as if everyone is running with it, since it is so popular at the moment!


      Shannon Reply:

      @Allie, It’s really starting to annoy me too Allie (hence the ranting post!), and the misdirection we’re getting from YA is having an effect on adult lit as well. Now it seems like any futuristic or apocalyptic speculative novel is “dystopian”!


    • Thanks for the little bits of definition. I read a few novels, mostly YA, that were classified as “dystopian”, but I felt a little weird putting that label on them, and now I know why. Sometimes, with all the rush of new genres and re-emerging genres, I forget about things like post-apocalyptic.

      Anyway, Stephen King did a couple dystopian novels, mostly under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. The Running Man is set in a grim society where the government sees the poor as something less than human. The Long Walk is another one that he did.

      Also, that cover for Brave New World is really gorgeous. Makes me want to try to trade in my copy.


      Shannon Reply:

      @Jennifer, Oh yes, I meant to add The Running Man and then forgot! Comes from writing a post over two weeks! 😉 I’ve only seen the movie of that one but I did buy a copy last year, just haven’t got around to reading it yet. I haven’t heard of The Long Walk though.

      Ha ha I get that all the time! I’m often really bummed when I see a new edition with a much nicer cover – in fact, I sometimes go out and get it and then give away my other copy! I just love books for being books as much as anything else 😉


    • Excellent post on a very relevant topic. So often (particularly in young adult fiction) publishers attempt to label books as “dystopian” when all it is science fiction. The tag “dystopian” has come to replace sci-fi due to the lack of general appeal for all things sci-fi. Many readers won’t touch a book if you describe it as sci-fi, but “dystopian” brings to mind those literary novels Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World (as well as others included in this list). It’s a mistake that stinks of consumer misconceptions and clever, manipulative marketing.

      Thanks for also including the distinction between dystopian and post-apocalyptic. Another frustratingly common mistake.


      Shannon Reply:

      @Biblibio, I totally agree, but I don’t see what’s so wrong with the sci-fi “label”! The distinction you mentioned is spot-on I think – but it’s weird to me, that “science fiction” is now considered too daggy to be “literary” – that was always the trouble Fantasy had while Sci-Fi got all the kudos.

      I love post-apocalyptic fiction, and it always bugs me when those books get mis-labeled. I’m so glad to learn (through this post) that I’m not alone in this!!


    • Very helpful! Thank you. I was planning on a dystopian fiction table soon and I’ll use your guidelines to make that table accurate. 🙂

      And I have to say that I’ve added The Slynx to my wish list. I’d never heard of it, but it looks very good!


      Shannon Reply:

      @Steph, Oh I love being helpful!! Also, very cool that you’re putting together a dystopian fiction table – when I saw the one at Chapters I was quite pleased not only that they got it right but that there were so many I wasn’t familiar with – including The Slynx. Any chance you can take a photo of yours when it’s done? I love seeing display tables by theme! Big nerd I am 😉

      And The Slynx is published by that publisher you like! I bet the distinctive cover caught your eye yeah? 😉


      Steph Reply:

      @Shannon, What caught my eye was the design: I recognized it as an NYRB. 🙂 Then I looked it up and together with your description the one on Amazon convinced me to put it on my wishlist.

      I can’t make the table for a bit yet: I’ve got a good one going right now (the YOSS table), and the other one is for Easter. But I do hope to do it either the end of this month or the beginning of May. If I remember my camera I’ll take pics.


      Shannon Reply:

      @Steph, What’s “YOSS”? It’s probably obvious but I’m drawing a blank! What books do you put up for Easter? Ooh got any good ones on the true origins of the pagan spring celebration (and others)? I studied it a bit at uni but whenever I look for books all I get in my searches are religious ones. Surely someone’s written a good book on what Easter and Christmas were before they were co-opted by Christianity?! (You’ll end up being my own personal book-shopper/librarian the way I’m going!)


      Steph Reply:

      @Shannon, YOSS= Year of the Short Story! 🙂

      I’m eating lunch right now but I’ll have a look for you regarding the pagan stuff. We do have a section for stuff like that but right now it’s rather thin… Admittedly, our table right now is all kids Easter books, board books and such, plus some eastery stuffies and bags. 🙂


      Shannon Reply:

      @Steph, I saw that kind of Easter display in Book City’s window yesterday – it would be so cheery if the weather weren’t so crap! Where’s spring?!


    • I love that you did a “what’s NOT dystopian” section to this post. I don’t really think about this because with YA it feels like everything gets labeled as a dystopia, but you’re right. Labeling post-apocalyptic as dystopia seems like the most common misuse of the term.


      Shannon Reply:

      @janicu, It’s definitely really popular right now, that’s for sure 🙂 But so wrong! I love dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction and the latter gets really short-changed. Plus it just really bothers the pedantic side of me!!


    • I’m guilty of calling books dystopian when they are really post-apocalyptic. It doesn’t bother me too much when people get it wrong (not half as much as the wrong use of the word “it’s”).

      I have We waiting for me, as well as Battle Royale. I loved Never Let Me Go. I read quite a bit of dystopian/post-apocalyptic last year – not so much this year yet. It seems that there are so many YA books in this genre and while I don’t mind them now and then, I prefer books directed to adults.


      Shannon Reply:

      @Leeswammes (Judith), I hope you like We, Judith, it’s really quite unique! It’s not always easy to read (and yet other times, very easy!) because his mind starts to disintegrate, like he’s on drugs, and the writing really captures that.

      I think most of the YA books called dystopian are really science fiction, but there are more of those and more dystopian cropping up. I find it’s harder to get a good one amongst YA than adult fiction – the writing’s not always that great, for a start. 😉


    • This is a great post. I fell hard for dystopian books after reading The Giver as a kid, but I do get frustrated when people lump all of the categories you listed together.


      Shannon Reply:

      @Melissa, I never read The Giver as a kid – I think I read it last year or the year before – but they’re such great books for children and teenagers aren’t they; I’m continually excited to see so many YA books that are exploring new territory – and then incredibly disappointed that they’ve been mislabelled! There aren’t actually all that many are there? Do you have any books to add to this list Melissa?


      Melissa Reply:

      You listed some of my absolute favorites. I’d add Jasper Fforde’s new book (which will be a series) Shades of Grey to the list. Anyone who has liked his Thursday Next series will probably love it and it’s a great dystopian book.


      Shannon Reply:

      @Melissa, Ooh I just got that last week! I’m quite excited by it so I’m glad you’re recommending it. 🙂 Am still working on my new “SAG” post…


    • […] in premise and setting – and no, I would not call this dystopian. It’s past time we stopped calling every YA Science Fiction novel “dystopian” just because it sounds better. I found the futuristic premise intriguing – a new ice age […]

    • Lindy Gomez

      Would, The Age of Miracles be considered science fiction or post apocalyptic?


      Shannon Reply:

      I haven’t read it yet, Lindy (it arrived in the mail just the other day), but I would call it Speculative Fiction, as a literary genre, and it’s apocalyptic in theme. Speculative Fiction is like the bridge between regular fiction (or “literature”) and science fiction; it’s the tag you can use with authors like Margaret Atwood who insist they don’t write sci-fi, and whose books don’t go into the sci-fi section. They use a sci-fi-like premise or concept to explore human nature and other themes that commonly go into general fiction; the sci-fi aspect is a tool but not the point. Does that help?


    • Chris

      I am surprised that I did not see “Feed” by M.T. Anderson on the list. It is a YA novel that definitely deals with the conformity of society after much of the population has been given an operation to plant a chip, known as the feed, in their heads. The feed gives the user complete access to all information possible, essentially the internet in your head. Two people who have a feed can chat each other, much like SMS messaging, at any given moment. Companies can invade people’s minds with “banners” to promote their advertisements, especially if that person is thinking of buying their product in the first place. Feed ultimately addresses the problem of the invasion of media into our lives. In the author’s notes, Anderson says that the media has taken over our lives in the sense that even if we are not using media, we still have it stuck in our head in the form of a song, movie, or television show. I think this novel would be a great addition to the list.


      Shannon Reply:

      I haven’t read it, Chris, but it sounds like a solid dystopian novel with a very relevant angle. Thanks for the contribution. 🙂


    • Geoff Camphire

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