Criteria for Dystopias

Criteria for Dystopias

Diana Q Palardy


How does one determine if a work of fiction qualifies as a dystopia? If one were to come up with a litmus test, what would it look like? I have formulated my criteria for determining if a work is a dystopia or not based on an extensive review of dystopias in English and in Spanish, as well as a detailed examination of its core features described in Arthur O. Lewis’ “The Anti-Utopian Novel: Preliminary Notes and Checklist” and a variety of other canonical articles and books on the topic.[1] Also, I have taken into consideration the definitions of dystopia provided by Lyman Tower Sargent, who describes it as “a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably worse than the society in which that reader lived,”[2] and by Fernando Ángel Moreno, who defines it as a “visión negativa de una sociedad ficticia basada en la hiperbolización de los problemas culturales de nuestra sociedad” (negative vision of a fictional society based on an exaggeration of the cultural problems of our society).[3] I have generated a list of questions to help me decide if a work is a dystopia, prioritizing the ones dealing with the core definition of a dystopia first, followed by the ones related to its function and literary conventions.

The questions, which foreground important characteristics of many but not all dystopias, include:

  • Is it a hypothetical society?
  • Are the individuals in the society (or in a certain sub-sector of the society) oppressed, even though they may not realize it?
  • Does the work suggest that systemic, sociopolitical problems are to blame for the current state of affairs?
  • Are these problems an extrapolation of concerns that are not being dealt with effectively (or at all) in the author’s/director’s society?
  • Is it a deliberately planned society, in many cases intended to be ideal for at least some of its citizens (or better than what previously existed, as the society is often created after a war, an environmental disaster or some other major traumatic event)?
  • Does the work explicitly or implicitly serve an admonitory function (i.e., warn the reader/viewer to address the sociopolitical problems now while they are not so bad and have not yet reached the dystopian extremes represented in the work)?
  • Does the author/director intend for the implied reader/viewer to experience defamiliarization upon entering the world?
  • Does the author/director want the implied reader/viewer to question the moral code of the society?
  • Is the behavior of the characters monitored and/or controlled (or do they often just feel as if they were being monitored and/or controlled)?
  • Does an important character (often the protagonist) experience a process of disillusionment and then attempt to rebel against the system?

While an affirmative answer is not necessary for every single question in order for a work to be considered a dystopia, an abundance of positive responses (especially in regards to the questions dealing with the definition) increases the likelihood that it would be perceived that way.

Since dystopias reflect the zeitgeist of the period in which they were produced, they must necessarily take on a variety of guises, and allowances must be made for variation across cultures and epochs. The hybridization and evolution of genres are natural phenomena and many works are difficult to categorize. One way in which the variances within and deviations from the genre have been in addressed by scholars is to create additional categories of dystopianism. As an alternative to using expressions like pseudo-dystopia or semi-dystopia for works that have dystopian qualities but may not be dystopias per se, Miquel Codony has invented the useful word distopina for works that have “esa sustancia elusiva que condensa en sus moléculas la esencia de la distopía” (that elusive substance that condenses in its molecules the essence of dystopia), even when they may not follow the formula for a traditional dystopia or seem dystopian enough to literary critics. Antonis Balasopoulos, in his essay Anti-Utopia and Dystopia: Rethinking the Generic Field, has created an impressive, albeit somewhat dizzying array of sub-categories of anti-utopias and dystopias. His sub-categories of dystopias—which include dystopias of tragic failure, dystopias of authoritarian repression, dystopias of catastrophic contingency, nihilistic dystopias, and critical dystopias—speak to the wide variety of dystopias in existence, as well as to some of the prominent trends in dystopianism.[4] The last sub-category, critical dystopias, is borrowed from Tom Moylan and Raffaella Baccolini in reference to a society that is generally dystopian, but that contains at least one eutopian enclave.[5] Gregory Claeys, author of the recently published Dystopia: A Natural History (2017), generally views a dystopia as a utopia that has been brought to fruition, emphasizing, quite significantly, that one person’s utopia may be another person’s dystopia and vice versa.[6]

[1] Lewis, Arthur O. “The Anti-Utopian Novel: Preliminary Notes and Checklist.” Extrapolation 2, no. 2 (May 1961): 27-32.

[2] Sargent, Lyman Tower. “Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited.” Utopian Studies 5, no. 1 (1994): 1-37.

[3] Moreno, Fernando Ángel. Teoría de la literatura de ciencia ficción. Vitoria: Portal Editions, 2010. 461.

[4] Balasopoulos, Antonis. “Anti-Utopia and Dystopia: Rethinking the Generic Field.” In Utopia Project Archive, 2006-2010, edited by Vassilis Vlastaras, 59-67. Athens: School of Fine Arts Publications, 2011.

[5] Moylan, Tom and Raffaella Baccolini. “Critical Dystopia and Possibilities.” In Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, edited by Tom Moylan and Raffaella Baccolini, 233-49. New York, Routledge, 2003.

[6] Claeys, Greg. “Three Variants on the Concept of Dystopia.” In Dystopian Matters, edited by Fátima Vieira, 14-18. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.