Friday, 7 January 2011

For the Love of Dystopia

It recently occurred to me that I absolutely love dystopian film and fiction. I seem to be constantly drawn to writing dystopian fiction, and writing about it in my critical essays. So what is it that appeals to me?

In its simplest term, dystopias are utopias that have gone wrong. Usually a force comes into power, or a technology or advancement emerges, which seemingly aids to create the perfect society. Either the power is corruptive, or the vision of perfection is skewed.

Generally, dystopian worlds are set in the future, or occasionally on an alternative plane of reality. Because of this, they often contain elements of science-fiction, though not always. I suppose they would fit nicely into the genre of speculative fiction, as they deal with the premise of 'what if...?'. For example: The Matrix - what if machines took over the world and used humans as their power source? Or 1984 - what if the government constantly watched and monitored all human activity? Or Logan's Run - what if people were executed as soon as they reached the age of thirty, to keep the population youthful?

This website has managed to break down the dystopian genre into a further fourteen sub-genres. Most (if not all) dystopian fiction will fall into at least one of these categories, and quite possibly multiple categories. The fourteen sub-genres are: Totalitarian, bureaucratic, cyberpunk, tech noir, off-world, crime, overpopulation, leisure, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, alien, surreal, uchronian (alternative history), machine, pseudo-utopian, feminist, time-travel, and capitalistic. Visit the website for definitions and examples of each.

I love the broadness of dystopian fiction. The scope for imagination. The main purpose of dystopian fiction is to hold a mirror up to our own society, or our own perception of the human experience. They show us possible alternatives to our current state of existence, and break down the mental misconceptions we have about ourselves. And often this mirror shows a fascinatingly dark and ugly world.

Here's a list of the 'Top 50 Dystopian Movies of All Time'.

Personal recommendations:
Gattaca - set in a world where genetically enhanced people are superior.
Battle Royale - School children have become out of control, so every year a different class is sent to an island and told to fight to the death until only one is left as a bid to control youth through fear.
The Matrix - Typical 'brain in the vat' premise.
28 Days Later - More horror than dystopian, but I would argue the latter half set in the army camp has strong elements of dystopia, as well as the premise of the 'Rage' virus.

And 'The 16 Best Dystopian Books of All Time'.

Personal recommendations:
The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells - Looks at the experimentation of human and animal genetics.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess - Though it is unclear in the film, this novel is actually set in the near future, where youths are running riot. Follows the story of a boy who is psychologically conditioned, and looks at the philosophy of free will.
I am Legend by Richard Matheson - One man is left alone in a world infected with a vampiric disease. (Way, way better than the film.)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy - Incredibly dark and bleak. An unexplained apocalypse has left the world a barren wasteland. The few remaining humans wander the planes, either as solitary nomads or gangs of cannibals.

Here are a few slightly obscure dystopian films you might want to watch:

THX 1138 (1971) - The ideas in this film are interesting, but I feel many of them have been implemented into more modern fictions, so they're not quite as original as they would have been when this film was first released. This film has a dream-like quality to it that creates a horrible sense of unease. Surreal, but slow paced in places.

The City of Lost Children (1995) - Extremely surreal and sometimes a little hard to follow (unless that's just me...). Wonderful visuals, such a beautifully ugly film. The first film that made me respect Ron Perlman as an actor!

Dystopian fiction is so versatile. It's recently become quite popular in the Young Adult sector, and I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of The Hunger Games when I have the time. And dystopias don't always have to be horrific or bleak.

I by no means have exhausted dystopian recommendations in this post. I still have a lot more iconic films to see and books to read. What are your recommendations?


  1. Make Room! Make Room! / Soylent Green, and V for Vendetta.. even the film was good.

  2. Excellent post and links Sophie. Anything that mentions my favourite vivisectionist is great reading, IMO. I'm a fan of dystopian fiction too -- very happy to see a few books I didn't recognize on the top list link.

  3. I'm planning on doing an apocalyptic month on my blog later this year, and these resources will come in handy. :) (Though I will admit I already had the dystopian movies list bookmarked). I'm glad you featured Battle Royale - it's always been one of my favourites. If you liked that, you'll also like The Hunger Games.

    Since I'm working on a post-apocalyptic steampunk novel myself (dystopian for sure), I'll add 2 dystopian steampunk books to the list: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest and The Mortal Engines/Hungry City Chronicles quartet by Philip Reeve.

  4. I know I keep banging on about it, but the WALKING DEAD was literally made for you, lol.

    I'm right with you. I love these kind of films and books above all else. There are a few things I could recommend (and a few I wouldn't...), but the standout book for me in this genre is The Stand. Whatever you think about King, his good is amazing and his bad, well it sucks. This is all good though. For a 1400 page novel, I didn't want it to end.

    Oh, and Night Shades 'Wastelands' collection ain't half bad either.

  5. Thanks, Dan. I enjoyed V for Vendetta (only seen the movie, not read the graphic novel) but there was something about the overall structure I found a little irksome as a viewer. Couldn't quite put my finger on it. Knowing the structure, I enjoyed it more the second time around.

    Jessica - ooh, apocalyptic month sounds great. I want to get my hands on Mortal Engines (when I finally have time to read it!), and I have already read Boneshaker. Thought it was very enjoyable, but flawed. See my review here:

    Rich, I'm gonna HAVE to find/buy/read The Walking Dead now. Might check out The Stand one day, too.

    Robin - thanks for dropping by. Are there books similar to H. G. Wells' 'The Island...' that you'd recommend?

  6. I can definately agree with you here. Reading your list, I've seen/read every one of these and loved them all. I'm yet to see The Walking Dead as Rich suggests, but I read the graphic novel and it's excellent. Do you think my love of zombie movies could be tied into this?

    Hmmmm, when's my next psychiatrist appointment...?


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