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Utopia & Dystopia: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:01 Utopia and Dystopia Defined
  • 1:23 Characteristics
  • 1:59 Examples
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

In this lesson, we will learn about utopias and dystopias, two types of settings that often appear in speculative fiction or science fiction works. We will define each term, talk about their basic characteristics, and explore a few examples.

Utopia and Dystopia Defined

You might have heard the terms utopia and dystopia before, but maybe you don't know what they mean. Luckily, you've come to the right place! This lesson will explore the concept of both utopias and dystopias, which are two types of worlds that are popular in speculative fiction or science fiction stories. In case you haven't heard the term speculative fiction, it is just a broad term that includes all science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural, apocalyptic, alternative history, or other type of fiction that is not strictly realistic.

A utopia is a perfect world. In utopias, there are not problems like war, disease, poverty, oppression, discrimination, inequality, and so forth. The word utopia was made up from Greek roots by Sir Thomas More. In 1516, More wrote a book called Utopia. Depending on the Greek roots used, utopia can either mean no place or good place.

A dystopia, on the other hand, is a world in which nothing is perfect. The problems that plague our world are often even more extreme in dystopias. Dystopia is a play on the made-up word utopia using the prefix dys, which means bad or difficult. Words like dysfunctional or dyslexia illustrate the use of this prefix.

Characteristics

Utopias have characteristics such as:

  • Peaceful government
  • Equality for citizens
  • Access to education, healthcare, employment, and so forth
  • A safe environment

In contrast, dystopias have characteristics such as these:

  • Usually a controlling, oppressive government or no government
  • Either extreme poverty for everyone or a huge income gap between the richest characters and the poorest characters
  • Propaganda controlling people's minds
  • Free thinking and independent thought is banned

Examples

As you probably guessed, examples of dystopias are much more common. After all, if fiction writers could devise solutions to our world's biggest problems, such as world hunger, poverty, and war, then we probably would have implemented them and be currently living in a utopia! Another reason dystopias are more popular with writers is because they are, by their very nature, full of conflict, an integral part of any engaging story.

Recent examples of dystopias include The Hunger Games, written by Suzanne Collins in 2008, which is about a lottery where children are picked to fight to the death, and Divergent, a 2011 novel (adapted into a film in 2014) about a society split into five factions based on five different personality characteristics as a method to retain control over human nature. As you can no doubt tell, dystopian stories have found an increased popularity in the young adult genre of literature.

There are many classic examples of dystopian stories, including Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. However, probably the most well-known example of classic dystopian literature is 1984 by George Orwell, written in 1949. It's an example of a dystopia in which British society, over time, became warped and transformed into an extreme totalitarian state. In addition to controlling the press, the food, and relationships of the state's inhabitants, the manipulation and control of human thought itself is the goal of this regime. If you've ever heard a political pundit or other writer use the term thoughtcrime, doublethink, or Big Brother, you're hearing terms from 1984.

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