Five Fascinating Facts about Dystopian Fiction

Interesting facts about dystopian novels and the history of the genre

In a previous post, we recommended 10 of the best early dystopian novels and offered some insight into how they came about. This might be considered a follow-up post to that earlier one, offering a brief history of dystopian fiction in five interesting facts.

1. The word ‘dystopia’ is older than you might think – but then, so is the genre. The word ‘dystopia’ has been traced back to 1747, where it appears as ‘dustopia’, but is clearly being used with the same meaning as the modern ‘dystopia’. Although dystopian fiction itself is sometimes said to have begun with the 1908 Jack London novel The Iron Heel, there are several Victorian novels which qualify as dystopian fiction, at least of sorts. One of these is Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel Erewhon – the title, almost the word ‘nowhere’ backwards, explicitly signals its intention to reverse the idea of utopia (which literally means ‘no-place’) – in which Butler satirises the imaginary utopian world he depicts.

2. The annals of dystopian fiction include some surprising names. Among the famous authors who – perhaps unexpectedly – have written novels or stories which might be called dystopian, we might include Anthony Trollope (for The Fixed Period), E. M. Forster (for ‘The Machine Stops’), and, more recently, Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go). These days, of course, the dystopian genre can boast a host of famous names, among them ‘literary’ writers such as Cormac McCarthy (the chillingly brilliant The Road), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s TaleOryx And CrakeThe Year Of The Flood), and Will Self (the marvellously inventive The Book of Dave: A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future).

3. In Barcelona, the Plaça George Orwell has an ironic reminder of Orwell’s dystopian legacy. Orwell, who fought in the Spanish Civil War, is commemorated in Barcelona by having a street named after him. Placa George Orwell surveillance camerasUnfortunately, the Plaça George Orwell – as the picture on the right makes clear – only serves to remind us how prescient Orwell was, since the street sign notifies citizens that they are being watched by surveillance cameras. Big Brother Is Watching You, indeed. What would the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four have made of it all? (We should point out that there is also a widely circulated example of a similar piece of Orwell-related irony – but that other example, the photograph of a CCTV camera outside Orwell’s old house, is a hoax.)

4. Anthony Burgess wrote a sequel to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was called – perhaps you’ve guessed – 1985, and we’ve written about it in our post detailing some interesting Anthony Burgess facts. Burgess himself, of course, wrote a defining novel in the dystopian genre with his 1962 book A Clockwork Orange. We’ve written about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four here. (And we’ve discussed the curious link between Orwell and a fellow author of a classic dystopian novel in our list of Aldous Huxley facts.)

5. The central idea of The Hunger Games is a well-established idea in the genre. In our compilation of the most interesting Hunger Games facts, we mention how popular the series – helped by the successful film franchise – has been. But the idea of a nightmare world in which brutal games play a central part – a sort of return to the days of Roman gladiatorial games at the Coliseum – has long been a staple of dystopian fiction. As well as The Running Man (a 1982 novel by Richard Bachman, alias Stephen King – made into a somewhat different film with Arnold Schwarzenegger five years later), in which condemned criminals take part in televised fights to the death, there is the early 1924 work, the short story ‘The Most Dangerous Game‘ by Richard Connell, in which an American big-game hunter, Sanger Rainsford, is transformed into the hunted rather than the hunter, when he finds himself on a Caribbean island being pursued by a Cossack aristocrat. Although not a dystopian novel per se, the story prefigures later dystopian works such as William Golding’s Lord of the FliesThe Running Man, and The Hunger Games. More recently, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner has offered a new take on the modern young adult dystopian genre. And before The Hunger Games there was Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel Battle Royale, which shares many features with the novels mentioned above.

Image: Placa George Orwell in Barcelona, Spain is watched by video cameras, by fibercool; Wikimedia Commons; share-alike licence.

11 thoughts on “Five Fascinating Facts about Dystopian Fiction”

  1. This is a very timely post, having had a lengthy discussion with my 17 year old daughter about this genre which she is studying as part of her English Literature course. Thanks for providing some more talking points!

    • Another outstanding modern novel is Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor. It is what I call a slow fuse burner; I was half way through before I couold admit it was brilliant, the build up is so gradual and unrelenting.
      And 1984 owed much to the much more subtle WE by Zamyatin!

  2. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with dystopian fiction, mostly because for a while, it was impossible to find a young adult novel that wasn’t dystopian. But it’s cool to see the genre’s origins. I might add a few of these to my reading list.


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