How to recognise a Dystopia

First edition cover (taken from wikipedia)

Time to look at dystopias. Because, frankly, they are so much more fun than utopias! And certainly a lot less dull. Utopias are by definition completely static societies. Nothing changes, because then they would no longer be perfect. This is why Christopher Ferns (if I remember correctly), calls utopian novels ‘bad art’. Dystopias, on the other hand, thrive on drama, as I am certain everyone agrees.

The dystopian novel predominantly emerged after WW I, and got a second boost after WW II. This is no coincidence. All the optimism of the 19th century was shattered in what the British call ‘the Great War’, the first war that showcased modern warfare in all its horror.This first global war provided all the pessimism necessary for several juicy dystopias, including the canonical We (Zamyatin) and Brave New World (Huxley). But things were about to get worse. World War Two utterly destroyed the illusion that there was any stability in the world. With just the push of the button, a whole city could be wiped out. Under the right circumstances, people were capable of the greatest atrocities.

No one doubts the horrors of the two World Wars, but they did bring us some great dystopian novels. The1940s and 1950s produced, among others, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm (Orwell), Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury), Lord of the Flies (Golding) and Alas Babylon (Frank). The 1960s and beyond brought a further wealth of dystopian horrors but I will discuss those later, just like post-apocalyptic novels (my favourite genre).

For now, I will present a basic test to determine whether you are in dystopia:


  1. Has the world been blown to bits and is life miserable? If so, read no further: you are in a dystopia. If the world is still (more or less) intact:
  2. Is everything VERY clean?
  3. Is everything VERY dirty?
  4. Are ALL the people VERY nice to you?
  5. Are ALL the people VERY mean to you?
  6. Do ALL the people behave EXACTLY the same way?
  7. Do news presenters shout?
  8. Are people especially happy when their food/privileges/possessions/family members are taken away?
  9. Does the government tell you and everyone else exactly what to do?
  10. Is there no government?


Now, count your number of ‘yes’ answers and use the guide below:

  • 0 -10 –> You may be in a dystopia, utopia or Reality, please decide for yourself.

The quiz clearly shows that dystopias do not follow any particular rules. This makes sense, because a dystopia (like a utopia) is a reflection on the society of the writer who wrote it, and a little of the writer’s own ideas, too. Whereas utopianist Bellamy still thought an all-powerful government was a neat idea, almost all subsequent novels with such a government have been dystopias. And so some dystopias are very sterile, fully regulated societies where personal freedom no longer exists, while others are muddy, anarchical societies of chaos. It all depends on the concepts the writer is attacking, be they totalitarianism, capitalism, socialism, technological advancement, genetic enhancement or any other number of isms.

And Now

And now the Grand Asylum would like it to be know that it is NOT a dystopia. Repeat: NOT a dystopia. The Asylum likes to think it is just a nice place with a couple of small flaws.

In Conclusion

“What was going on in the warzone?”
“Eh, well, fighting mostly.”
“What for?”
“The right to fight,” Reese immediately answered, looking a bit taken aback at the speed of his own answer.
“Do you want that?
“Eh… no, not really. But it was very important to me in the warzone. Somehow.”
“Who were you fighting against?”
“The green helmets.”
“And what were you called?”
“The grey helmets.”
“What were the green helmets fighting for?”
“Eh, actually, I have no idea.”
Reese had lit a match and was enticing the flame to jump over to a piece of wood.

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